Thomas Paine: The Man Who Inspired
the United States War of Liberation
[A presentation to The Humanists of Utah. Hans Peterson wrote and
acted in a dramatic portrayal of Thomas Paine, produced by the PBS
television station in Utah, 1994]
Thomas Paine was one of the most admired and respected men in
America in 1776. Twenty years later, he was one of the most hated
and vilified men in the country.
What happened? He spoke his mind. Without hesitation, without spin,
without polls, without compromise.
All of you know two things that Tom Paine wrote. The first I will
share with you in just a moment. They are eight words that you hear
once a year but probably don't focus on the man who said it.
The man who gave our country its official name died alone, shunned
and despised, in a seedy hotel in New York City.
During the Revolutionary War, almost every American soldier carried
a copy of a pamphlet by Paine in his pocket. At George Washington's
orders, his officers would read these words by Thomas Paine to the
soldiers before a battle:
"Oh, the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot,
will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this
consolation with us: The harder the conflict the more glorious the
Twenty years later, George Washington was silent as Paine awaited
the executioner in a Paris dungeon.
During America's struggle for freedom, John Adams said of Thomas
Paine, "History will ascribe the revolution to him," so
powerful were Paine's words in motivating the troops to fight on.
In this century, Teddy Roosevelt said, "He was a filthy,
rotten, little atheist!" He was none of these. Who was he?
Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737. His mother was an
Anglican. His father was a Quaker. His mother was years older than
his father and considered her marriage to Tom's father a few steps
down the social ladder.
Tom's father was a corset-maker and Tom was his apprentice. Now if
you were 16, and your father was preparing you for a life of making
women's girdles, what would you do?
Tom ran away from home. He tried to join the crew of a ship known
as The Terrible, commanded by, and this is true, Captain Death. That
was the man's name. Concerning the name of the ship, remember that
250 years ago the word Terrible implied strength and bravery, as in,
"He fought a terribly good fight."
Concerning the name of the Captain, God knows what a man was doing
with the name Death. I can't imagine that it was too inspiring to
Young Tom never found out. His father found him before the ship
sailed and marched him home to three more years of corset making.
And in probably one of the least surprising bits of self-fulfilling
prophecies, the ship on which Tom had tried to sail, very soon
thereafter, sank, drowning the entire crew and their optimistically
named Captain. One of the men who influenced the young Tom Paine was
John Wilkes, a printer and a publisher, who dared to tell the truth
about the King and his sycophants.
John Wilkes once debated a frog of a man, known as Lord Sandwich.
In this debate, Lord Sandwich said, "John Wilkes, you will
either die on the scaffold or of venereal disease." To which
John Wilkes replied, "That, sir, depends, on whether I embrace
your principles, or your mistress." In 1759, when he was 22,
Tom Paine married Mary Lambert. He was devoted to her, and they
talked often of their plans for the future, a family, a home, a
career in which Tom would somehow use his gift for words and ideas.
But in less than a year, God took her from him. He was shattered
and spent several years wandering from town to town, from job to
job, until finally he became an excise officer, a tax collector.
The tax collectors were poorly paid, overworked, and hated by the
citizens who looked upon them as representatives of the monarchy and
the upper classes. In the coastal area where Paine was assigned,
smuggling was routinely practiced by the shopkeepers of the area who
fought against the high tariffs imposed by the crown. Many of Tom's
fellow tax collectors took bribes from the businessmen of the
village. Paine would not. In the first of many battles Tom Paine
would do with the Crown, he wrote a pamphlet calling for better
working conditions and more salary for the tax collectors.
At his own expense, he had printed thousands of copies of the
pamphlet, took them to London, and handed them out to members of
Parliament. The few who bothered to read his petition dismissed it
and sent him away. It was the beginning of a lifelong campaign on
which Paine embarked to better the conditions of several countries
who were treated not much better than the animals owned by the
Listen to Paine:
"No natural or religious reason can be assigned
to this great distinction of men into Kings and subjects. Good and
bad are the distinctions of heaven. Male and female the
distinctions of nature. But how can a race of men come into the
world so exalted above the rest and distinguished like some new
species? In England a King has little more to do than to make war
and give away land, which in plain terms, is to impoverish the
nation. A pretty business indeed for a man to be given 809
thousand sterling a year to do this, and to be worshipped into the
bargain! Of more worth to society is one honest man than all the
crowned clowns who ever lived!"
In his thirties, Tom had married a second time. To supplement his
meager earnings as a tax collector, he and his wife ran a small
shop. Neither the business or the marriage were successful. His wife
left him. The shop went into bankruptcy. And the government fired
He was accused of taking bribes, drinking too much, and being away
from his job, handing out pamphlets in London. He was on the run
from debtors. To fully appreciate his accomplishments in life, his
contributions to the very origins of our country, it is necessary to
consider his plight at this point in his life. How many of us could
have made it through?
The life behind him cursed him. He wondered if he should have
sailed with Captain Death and taken his chances. Why go on, to do
what, drink himself into the gutter while the dandies drove by in
their golden carriages? Had it been winter, he could have hung his
coat in the tavern and walked into the woods and said, Nice Try,
Tom, and closed his eyes in the snow. But it was Spring, and the
trees and the flowers were coming back! If there ever were a man
whose middle name should have been resiliency, it was Thomas Paine.
When all seemed hopeless, when many a lesser man would have given
up, Paine would not. He was introduced, in London, to a rather
amazing man by the name of Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin had read Paines' pamphlet and told him there was a place
for him in America. Franklin gave Tom the money for the crossing and
a letter of introduction.
Tom Paine almost died on the trip across the Atlantic, spending
most of the trip in sickbed, racked with fever and dysentery. Once,
when the Captain came to check on him, Tom asked, "Am I going
to die?" To which the Captain replied, "Eventually."
Arriving in America, Paine found this new continent exhilarating
and adventurous. Commerce on the move, people speaking their minds,
the rumors of revolution resounding from Boston to Charleston.
Thanks to Benjamin Franklin, Paine quickly found work as a magazine
editor and writer in Philadelphia. Eager to join in the chorus of
anti-royalty dissidents, Paine fired his fighting words back across
the Atlantic with both barrels.
Tom's growing notoriety was not only in the content of his
messages. It was also his style. A self educated man, he refused to
write in the flowery, classical prose used by most men of letters at
that time. Paine preferred to slam the words down on the paper like
a mug on the bar. Listen:
"A government of our own is our natural right! Ye
that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us
the time that is past? As well as the lover can forgive the
ravisher of his mistress, can this continent forgive the murders
of Britain? The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth! Now
is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. In the
following pages, I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain
arguments and common sense."
That was it. That was the name of the most famous, most important
pamphlet ever written in the history of the world: Common Sense.
While the educated few debated the finer points of government and
rebellion, the masses listened to the works of Thomas Paine and were
inspired to pick up their muskets and demand their independence. Not
all of the citizens of this distant colony were in favor of
separation from Mother England. No, many of the richest and most
powerful men in Boston, New York and Philadelphia took Paine,
Jefferson and Adams for radicals.
But when the King closed the land west of the Alleghenies to
immigration, the reply of the radicals was quick and loud! "We
will live where the seasons find us and we'll not be paying taxes
imposed in England on trade in America without representation."
The war was on!
Paine enlisted in the army as a private in the militia. It was
agreed, however, that he was much more valuable with a pen than with
a rifle. And thus it happened that he was with Washington at Valley
Forge when the British had the rebels on the run.
General Howe's 8,000 troops seemed certain to over-run this rag-tag
army. Hundreds of volunteers in the American forces slipped away at
night. Their uniforms were in tatters. Their pay was useless paper
money. The food was meager and dwindling. Their wives were at home
with their children, frightened, starving.
And then came the winter. The cold was numbing. The winter nights
came early and lingered into windy, freezing dawns. It was on a
black, frigid evening of unanimous discontent that Paine took up his
pen: "These are the times that try men's souls."
These eight simple words became the battle cry in the hearts and
souls of the brave men and women who stood their ground, who refused
to give up, who fought to the death, so that this greatest of all
countries, dedicated to freedom, could be born.
It was of great satisfaction to Thomas Paine to have his words used
as a rallying cry. It brought him great praise and elevated stature.
It could have also brought him the rope!
Back in England, Lord North put Paine's name of the top of a list
of traitors to be hung after the American insurrection was put down.
Former shopkeeper Thomas Paine, who went bankrupt in England, was
among a delegation sent to Paris to request a loan from the French
to help the American war effort.
Reunited with his old friend Benjamin Franklin, Tom called on King
Louis the 16th at Versailles. They pointed out to his Majesty how
powerful England would be, were America to lose the war. They got
their loan. It is an odd scene to imagine: Thomas Paine, the writer
who railed against the monarchy, the man whose words helped defeat
the army of George of England, in polite petition to the King of
France. A King whose life, eventually, he would attempt to save.
Back in America, Paine became involved in a minor scandal. He was
boarding in the home of Mrs. Martha Daley, a beautiful widow in her
early 30's. Many of the former Tories who had been vexed verbally by
Paine, and some of the powerful Quakers in Philadelphia, took this
arrangement as proof of Tom's immorality. John Adams even stated
that Paine should have married Mrs. Daley and ended the whispers.
After the war was won, Tom grew weary of the arguments, the petty
squabblers, the interminable propositions. He began to look again
toward Europe. First, because he had received word that his parents
were in dire straits. Second, because things were beginning to get
interesting in France. The American Revolution had set in motion a
world-wide awareness of citizens' rights and the possibility of
representative democracy. Some of Paine's detractors, and there were
many, claimed that Tom was impatient with peace and prosperity and
thrived on conflict and controversy. They enjoyed spreading the
impression that Paine felt compelled to abandon America, enjoyed
getting involved in the politics of other countries, and causing
additional problems for the relationships between America and her
How did Tom react to such criticisms? The same way a lion reacts
when thrown a piece of meat. He fed on it. He loved it. He lived for
it. Returning to England he was too late to bid farewell to his
father who had died. But became very close to his 91-year old
mother. He did not seek out, or even see again, his second wife. But
he felt, and wrote about, his solitary life.
"Although I may seem a wanderer, I am a sincere
friend of the married state. It is the harbor of human life. It is
home. And that one word, Home, can express so much more than any
other word can convey. Oh, for a while, we may glide along the
tide of youthful, single life and be wonderfully delighted, but it
is a tide that flows but once. And what is worse, it ebbs faster
that it flows, leaving many a hapless voyager aground. For I am
one who has experienced the fate I am describing. I have missed my
tide. It passed me by while every beat of my heart was on the
salvation of my dear America."
Paine was just as much a man of science as he was a man of words.
If he had not fallen into such ignominious disfavor, more of you
would know that he invented the first iron bridge. Yes! It was
hailed in the scientific academies of England and France.
Like most inventors he also had some duds. Paine thought that if
gunpowder could be used as a weapon, it could be used to drive a
motor. Nice idea, except that his motor exploded, nearly killing
He also thought he had invented a smokeless candle until his mother
pointed out the smoke coming up from his--smokeless--candle. While
in England, Paine wrote a book titled "The Rights of Man."
It was intended as a rebuttal to the writings of Edmund Burke on the
Among the other things he said was this: "Men and women have
the right to any government they choose. If they want a king, let
them say so and let them have a king. But if he becomes obnoxious,
and he will, then let them throw him out.
"For a true government must be of the people, by the people
and for the people." Has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it?
Consider the chutzpa of this man. Here he was in England, having
just participated in, and been one of the loudest voices of, the
American Revolution. The crown's colony, a source of considerable
income for England, had broken free and gone its own way.
And now, within the shadow of The Tower, he was telling the people
of Britain they should be allowed to toss the king out if they saw
fit. It was as though Saddam Hussein had bought a condo in Miami
Beach and become a commentator on the NBC Evening News.
Naturally, the King and his supporters were incensed. Their first
campaign against the traitor pamphleteer was to have several false
biographies of him written and published throughout England. Many of
the lies about Paine, invented for these books, took hold and have
His detractors in America also made sure the books became available
in the new country. These books later became very useful to the
anti-Paine movement in America.
In an effort to end his uncomfortable opposition to the throne, the
government of England indicted Tom Paine for sedition.
In his usual bulldog manner, Tom wrote a letter to the government
telling them that he was not guilty and that he looked forward to
the trial. They were not amused.
One day, Tom was having lunch with William Blake, a famous
intellectual and mystic of the day. Blake had received word from
powerful friends that Paine was in great danger. He warned Paine: "Tom,
do not go home or you are a dead man." So Tom left that
afternoon on the stage for Dover. As he prepared to board the boat
for France, the Customs Inspector called Paine over to his desk. He
slowly inspected the contents of Paine's luggage. He discovered a
letter to Tom from George Washington. Regardless of the problems
Washington had caused for England, the Inspector was impressed by
the letter from such a famous man, convincing him that Paine must be
an important person, and so waved him through. The irony here is
that Washington should, however indirectly, save Paine's life, when
Washington's inaction would latter contribute to Paine's lifelong
hatred of the first President of the United States.
Minutes after the boat pulled away from the dock, two horsemen
arrived with a court order, instructing the Customs Inspector to
take and hold a Mister Thomas Paine.
In France, Tom was received as a hero. His writings during the
American Revolution were the blueprints for many of the leaders of
the French Revolution.
In Calais, Paine was greeted by marching bands, cheering crowds,
and the news that he had been elected a representative to the new
What seemed at the time to be a great and glorious tribute was, in
fact, a title that would prove to be the most dangerous honor Tom
Paine could have accepted.
In Paris, Paine participated daily in the new French government. He
was considered a Father of freedom and was highly respected. Even
Napoleon sought his advice.
The tide turned against him, however, when the French decided to
execute King Louis the 16th. Tom was against capital punishment and
pleaded with his fellow representatives:
"As France has become the first nation in Europe
to abolish the practice of royalty, let her now become the first
nation to abolish the penalty of death. Let us carry our thoughts
into the future when the dangers are ended and the irritations
forgotten, what today appears to be an act of justice, may then
appear to be an act of vengeance. Citizens, give not the tyrant of
England the satisfaction of seeing your King perish on the
scaffold. Your King, who helped my dear brothers in America break
Alas, they did not listen. Louis went to the guillotine like the
thousands who were to follow in The Terror.
Because he had spoken for the life of the King, Paine was
considered by many as an enemy. He awoke one day to find the power
had shifted to a group that considered him bothersome at least, and
dangerous at most. And on Christmas Day, 1892, the French government
"du jour" tried him for treason, found him guilty and
sentenced him to death.
On the evening that he awaited with dread, Thomas Paine received
the word that he was scheduled to be executed.
As the guards approached his door, Tom braced himself for the end.
The guards came slowly.
But kept going. Past his cell.
The next morning he was staring at a miracle. Or an accident. Call
it what you may. The mark on his cell door, indicating that he was
to be taken, had been put on the door while it was swung open, flat
against the wall in the outside corridor.
When the door was closed, the mark faced him on the inside of the
cell. When the executioner came, he saw no mark and passed him by.
For ten months, Paine waited for America to come to his rescue. In
vain. It would have taken only a brief note from George Washington,
who was a hero to the French, to secure Paine's freedom. But it was
Historians explain that Washington received inaccurate and biased
reports from his Minister to France, a man who hated and envied Tome
Paine and was glad to see him in prison.
This was of little comfort to Paine, who nearly died from a
When James Monroe became minister to France, he was shocked to
learn of Paine's incarceration. He wrote this letter to the French
government: "Thomas Paine is one of America's most
distinguished patriots. The services he rendered his country in its
struggle for freedom have implanted in the hearts of his fellow
countrymen an eternal sense of gratitude. If there are no charges
against him, please restore his liberty."
Two days later, he was free.
At this point, had he gone home and lived the quiet life of a
senior statesman and completed his goal of writing the history of
the American revolution, perhaps there would be pictures of him in
schoolrooms today and your children would have to memorize his
But, no. In addition to a lifelong bitterness toward George
Washington, Paine also brought with him from prison a book titled "The
Age of Reason", his reflections on religion--and God.
In spite of the words of Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Paine was not an
atheist. He was a deist, a person who believes in God, but who does
not believe in organized religions and, most dramatically, does not
believe that Jesus Christ was God.
In another cruel irony of Paine's slide into the shadows of
American history, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and many
other early leaders of our country were also Deists. However, they
chose not to discuss it publicly in books and "letters to the
In Paine's words, "I believe in God and I hope for happiness
in a life beyond this one. I believe in the equality of man. I
believe that religious duty consists of loving mercy, doing justice,
and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. But--."
These words turned a nation against him:
"But--the bible is a fable, written by man in his
language, which is always changing, always subject to mistakes,
whether by translators or printers or copyists. The bible is
filled with obscene stories, voluptuous debaucheries and
unrelenting vindictiveness. It is cruel and I detest everything
that is cruel. Ay, what say ye now of Thomas Paine, ye who would
have fought with him at Valley Forge when he scribbled in frozen
ink? Ye who would have rescued him from the Paris prison where he
slept with the rats? What think ye now of Thomas Paine?"
He was vilified from hundreds of pulpits throughout the Christian
world. Former friends would cross the street whenever he approached.
"Sure, Tom, speak your mind, but go do it somewhere else!"
He received word from America that he was now hated. That he had
lost his good name.
If there was any chance of any sympathy for him in America, it was
diminished even further by the open letters he wrote to newspapers
in Philadelphia and Boston, denouncing the new country's President,
One of these letters said: "It is my duty to report to the
American people on the mismanagement and corruption of the new
President's administration. The man is unprincipled and selfish. He
has no real friends for he can desert you with cold aloofness. The
world will have to decide if he has abandoned all his principles, or
did he ever have any?"
Well. This caused quite a stink. When Paine returned to America--he
waited until Thomas Jefferson was President--he was a VERY unpopular
person. He called on Jefferson at the White House and was received
as the man who was the light in the darkest days of the Revolution.
There were many powerful people who criticized the new President
for receiving Paine, but that mattered not to Jefferson, who did not
forget the weight of the words Tom had written when all seemed
hopeless. When Paine returned to his home in Bordentown, New Jersey,
he was denounced by all of the ministers in the region as an
anti-Christ in league with the devil.
He continued to write letters to newspapers whenever the misdeeds
of some government officials required his awakening the sleeping
citizenry. Many of his proposals were centuries ahead of his time.
He denounced slavery as man's wickedest invention. Because it was "common
sense," he fought early for equal rights for women.
Thomas Paine, in 1802, argued that elderly citizens should be given
money on which to live when they could no longer work. He called it
a Senior Security.
He believed it should be a crime to be cruel to animals.
And in an opinion that we would have done well to start working on,
way back then, he suggested that divorce should be a rational
procedure, with no prejudice to husband or wife.
He spent his final days alone, shunned, hated by most Americans for
daring to dislike the Father of Their Country, and for having a
different religious philosophy than their own. Thomas Paine
dedicated his life to the birth of a nation where men were free to
speak their minds, only to be dismissed by that nation when he
expressed his beliefs in areas in which the young nation disagreed.
In the last years of his life, Tom existed in very humble
surroundings. An unfair fate, when you realize that his pamphlets, "Common
Sense" and "The American Crisis", sold more copies
than any other writings in America. He was not cheated from the
considerable revenue from his writings. He simply gave all of his
profits to the American Revolutionary Army.
His detractors were very thorough. For decades after his time,
school boys in England and America would sing: "Poor Tom Paine,
here he lies, nobody laughs and nobody cries. Where he's gone, how
he fares, nobody knows and nobody cares."
Not only cruel, but very true. Today, nobody knows where his bones
are. Several months after he died, his bones were dug up and taken
back to England--and put on display--in a circus. When it turned out
that people were not interested, Tom Paine's bones--were thrown
His earthly remains may have been discarded, but his words, his
books, his ideals will exist forever. Allow me to conclude with some
of his words: Here then is the origin and rise of government, a
thing rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern
"For no matter how our eyes may be dazzled by
show, or our ears deceived by sound--no matter how prejudice may
warp our wills, or vested interest darken our understanding, the
simple voices of nature and reason will say--do what is right."