Thomas Paine: America’s Most Controversial Founding Father (For Different Reasons than Usual)
America’s “Founding Fathers” have been in the zeitgeist as of late, and for good reason. A lot of those dudes owned slaves, and we aren’t exactly sure what to do about that. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, JOHN HANCOCK, and even Benjamin Franklin, all owned people as property. For a more comprehensive list of prominent slave-holding “Founding Fathers” check Encyclopedia Britanica.
On the much shorter list of non-slaveholding “Founders”, there is a name that many of you may know, Thomas Paine. Not to be presumptive, but you probably only associate Paine with the pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which is fair because it was in fact very important to the morale of the nascent American Revolution. As per usual there is more to the story.
Thomas Paine was born January 29th, 1737 in Thetford, England. He wasn’t a particularly good student considering he failed out twice. After a tumultuous early adulthood where he didn’t take to the family trade of corset-making, he became an excise officer (or as The Beatles would sing, a tax man). One of his duties as an excise officer was to investigate and apprehend smugglers. If you are thinking that this seems like a dangerous job to do in mid-eighteenth century Britain (think seasons 1-3 of Outlander, but don’t think about it too hard lest you become too revved up to continue reading this), you are correct. If you then ask the follow-up question: “Did these government employees get paid well for this job?” They did not. It’s because of these poor working conditions that he wrote his first revolutionary treatise, The Case of the Officers of Excise (1772). Why would I classify an open letter to the British government arguing for higher pay for tax officials as “revolutionary”? I contend that it planted the seed of the organized labor movement nearly 100 years later. Don’t believe me? Well, TOO BAD, because it’s not just me who thinks this, but early labor movement leaders, as well. Sadly for Paine, there were no collective bargaining powers to be leveraged and no worker protection laws on the books to shield him from retribution, so what did they do to him? If you answered, “They fired his ass”, give yourselves points now.
Not to worry, Paine had a chance encounter in London with someone I mentioned a few paragraphs back, “Monsieur Lightnin’ Key” himself, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin saw something in Paine and encouraged him to emigrate to Philadelphia, where within two months he became the editor of Pennsylvania Magazine (this might sound impressive, but as an editor for this here publication, it’s just meh for me). It is during this time that he honed his writing skills and social critique. It is during this time that he called out the hypocrisy of the colonists complaining about being “enslaved” to the crown while owning hundreds of thousands of slaves themselves. It is during this time that he writes Common Sense.
Paine’s Common Sense galvanized the budding nation into supporting independence from Britain. Over 100,000 copies were printed and distributed across all thirteen original colonies. To those who could not read it for themselves, it was read aloud. To those who spoke and read in German, it was translated and printed for them. It was written plainly so that all could understand it, probably because it’s author was aware that higher education isn’t for everyone, himself included. It was, as the youth of today would call it, a bop.
So why do a lot of our history books end it there, or, at least, shortly thereafter with his letters of encouragement to the continental army, The American Crisis (1776-1783)? Well, it’s because this is where his radical political philosophy really gets rolling. When you are a founding favorite of libertarians and labor activists, it can be hard to pin down. Not to mention the fact that his influence was greatly downplayed after the revolution ended, partially for his writings in The Age of Reason (1794-1807), a philosophical treatise on deism, that bucked against the Christendom norms of the time (later on in US history, another interesting character, Teddy Roosevelt, will call Thomas Paine a “filthy little atheist”, which, you have to admit, is quite funny).
Paine’s writings from his time in Europe after the war, were wide ranging (and sometimes weren’t even fully formed arguments, but that’s okay). In titles such as Rights of Man (1792) and Agrarian Justice (1795-96), he whips from arguments that government is a necessity, to every generation is unbeholden to the ones preceding and succeeding, and is a sovereign entity of their own, to proposing a welfare system with the excess taxes Britain has in its coffers after the American and French revolutions had ended. He argued that landowners owed their neighbors a payment for benefiting off of the land, that if no ideas of ownership existed, that they are beneficiaries of (“no person ought to be in a worse condition when born under what is called a state of civilization, than he would have been had he been born in a state of nature…”). That’s some revolutionary talk for a dude born in 1737.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Why did Paine move back to London after America won its independence? It could have been that his efforts at abolition in Pennsylvania only led to a policy of gradual emancipation and that disheartened him, or, and this is my theory, he was addicted to being a thorn in the side of powerful people. Most of his writings are in direct response to someone or something happening. He was a political “reply guy” of the greatest magnitude. Rights of Man was as much a repudiation of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France as it was a defense of the French Revolution itself. Unsurprisingly, his opinions on the French Revolution made him into an unwelcome presence in London, so on to Paris it was!
In the early days of the French Revolution, Paine was a hero to the newly formed republic and was even granted a seat at the National Assembly (Paine couldn’t even speak french y’all!). He continued to write his brand of populist enlightenment ideology at this time, but his distaste for capital punishment soon put him at odds with the Jacobin wing of the revolution, i.e. he wasn’t too keen on the guillotine, even for ol’ King Louie. This reticence to state violence landed him in a French prison for over a year. He wrote some of The Age of Reason while he was in lock up, so it wasn’t a total loss. After being released, he returned to America at the request of then President, fellow founder, and aforementioned slaver, Thomas Jefferson (the lamer of the two Thomases in my opinion).
Despite being a major catalyst and morale booster for the American Revolution, he wasn’t exactly welcomed back with open arms. The Federalists despised him for his radical democracy. The religious community, falsely, labeled him as an atheist. He died in New York in 1809 at the age of 72. Six people attended his funeral.
So what’s the deal with Thomas Paine? Was he a radical revolutionary philosopher? Was he a proto-libertarian or a proto-socialist? Was he the “American Dream” realized, of a common man raised to greatness by the skill of his pen?
I think the answer is both more complex and more straight forward, just as Paine would like it. Paine didn’t develop much philosophy on his own, but he had a way of digesting and disseminating it to the masses in a way they could understand. He was in some ways so unburdened by academic definitions of the politics of the time that he would hold two seemingly differing opinions on the size of the federal government and the necessity of a welfare state. He just latched on to ideas he felt passionately convicted about.
Philp, Mark, “Thomas Paine”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/paine/>.
Monahan, Sean, “Reading Paine From the Left”, Jacobin Magazine (2015) <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/thomas-paine-american-revolution-common-sense/>
Hart, Al, “Tom Paine and the 4th of July: The Worker Who Helped Make a Revolution”, UE News (2012) <https://www.ueunion.org/ue-news-feature/2012/tom-paine-and-the-4th-of-july-the-worker-who-helped-make-a-revolution>
Iaccarino, Anthony, “The Founding Fathers and Slavery”, Encyclopædia Britannica (2016) <https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Founding-Fathers-and-Slavery-1269536>