Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jan. 29th: Firebrand of the Revolution

Do you know who this is?
-Published the best selling work of the 18th century America.
-Invented a smokeless candle.
-Was imprisoned in Luxembourg Prison during the Reign of Terror

Originally he was a Pain, changing his name to Paine when he immigrated to America in 1774.

Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737, in the small market town of Thetford, Norfolk, England. His parents were Joseph and Frances Pain. Joseph earned his living as a master corset maker who took on his son as an apprentice when Thomas was thirteen. After a brief stint as a privateer, Thomas would return to the corset making industry, becoming a master corset maker, would marry, and then lose his wife during childbirth.

Thomas held several different occupations following the collapse of his business in 1761: Excise officer; stay maker, servant, applied to become an ordained minister of the Anglican Church; schoolteacher; and manager of a tobacco shop. In 1771, at the age of thirty-four, he married Elizabeth Ollive, the daughter of his landlord.

Thomas became interested in politics when he joined The Society of Twelve, which was a local intellectual group that met regularly to discuss politics. This would be a springboard for Thomas, making him aware of a diverse group of thoughts on politics and reasoning.

In 1772 Thomas would join the Excise Officers in petitioning Parliament for improvements in wages and working conditions. He penned his first political work in support of this effort, a twenty one page article titled: The Case of the Officers of Excise. In 1774 he was fired from his post as Excise Officer; his tobacco store failed; he sold his possessions to pay his debts; he separated from his wife; he moved to London; and – most significantly for Americans – he met Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged him to emigrate to the colonies. Thomas arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774, sick with fever incurred on the voyage.

Thomas would make his home in Philadelphia and would take up journalism, contributing articles to the Pennsylvania Magazine. As tensions grew – then armed conflict began – between the colonials and the British troops stationed in America, Thomas sided with the cause of American independence. He opposed any reconciliation with the British, and attacked the British monarch (George III). Thomas began advocating an immediate declaration of independence and the establishment of a republican constitution, as well as an abolition of slavery.

In January 1776, a pro-independence pamphlet was anonymously published by Thomas. Common Sense would sell 100,000 copies in three months in colonies where there were only 2 million free citizens. It became the best selling work in America of the 18th century. The popularity of this work was in the fact it took complex ideas and presented them in the language of the common man, so everyone could understand them. Thomas’ original title was Plain Truth, but Benjamin Rush encouraged a change to Common Sense. No matter what the title, the pamphlet truly began people throughout all of the colonies thinking and talking about British abuses. While many were shocked at it’s approach – it even labeled King George III as “the Royal Brute of Great Britain”, they did read, discuss, and begin to see a need for full independence.

Thomas would put a musket where his ideals were, serving with General Nathaniael Greene at Fort Lee, NJ; then went back to writing, releasing the first of sixteen Crisis papers in December 1776. The first Crisis paper contains the immortal words:
“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine
patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he
that stands it now, deserves the thanks of man and woman”.
In 1777 Thomas continued writing the Crisis installments, and was appointed by the Continental Congress as its Secretary to Committee on Foreign Affairs. He also was appointed to help commissioners for an Indian treaty. He also wrote in Crisis IV:
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the
fatigues of supporting it. And near the close, it states, We fight not to
enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest
men to live in.”
Thomas continued to write and to support the war effort as the Revolutionary War ground its way steadily south. In appreciation for his efforts, New York presented Thomas wit a farm at New Rochelle in 1784 for his services in the cause of independence. As the war drew to a close, Thomas began to write on domestic issues, including the need for a Bank of North America and called for Virginia to cede it’s claim to the western lands to the new government. He also worked on two inventions: a single arch iron bridge and a smokeless candle.

No longer at the center of affairs in American politics, Thomas went to Europe in 1787 to try to raise funding for his prototype bridge, and would soon be immersed in the French Revolution because of his work as a revolutionary propagandist. While in England he wrote the Rights of Man, Parts I and II, urging political rights for all men and proposing social legislation to deal with the poor. As a result he was forced to leave Britain and fled to France in 1792, condemned in his absence, and declared an outlaw. He was a made a French citizen and elected to the National Convention, where he alienated many extremists by opposing the execution of Louis IV. Eventually he was imprisoned for a year during the Reign of Terror, but released through the intervention of the US minister to France – James Monroe.

Eventually Thomas would wear out his welcome in Paris. He had become anti-Christian, denying the Bible, and making bitter attacks on the Church. He returned to the United States in October 1802 where he was well-received by President Thomas Jefferson.

But, his era of influence was over. His last years were marked by poverty, poor health, and alcoholism. He died in New York on June 8, 1809.

Thomas Paine, failed businessman and husband, poor in finances. But, his marvelous ability with a pen arrived on the shores of America at the right time to provide the grounds for discussing, then implementing, the risky step of independence.

Michael Burgan; Thomas Paine: Great Writer of the Revolution
Craig Nelson; Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations
Harvey J. Kaye; Thomas Paine and the Promise of America Harvey J. Kaye; Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution (juvenile)

History Guide Lecture
US History Biography

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