Thomas Paine: Master Propagandist. The Bill of Rights Institute Milwaukee, WI August 23, 2010 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University [email protected] Early Years.
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Paine was born in Thetford, England in 1737. He failed out of school by age 12 and apprenticed for his father, a corset maker.
He also served as a tax collector in England before meeting Benjamin Franklin who encouraged him to move to America. He arrived in 1774 and at age 37 became a citizen of Pennsylvania.
Paine became an editor in Philadelphia just as the revolutionary movement gained national focus. He wrote newspaper articles on abolition, women's rights, dueling, titles, and the freedom of British India before he turned his focus squarely on the American Revolution.
Benjamin Rush suggested to Paine that he write a pamphlet broaching the subject of independence and suggested the title “Common Sense.” Franklin, Sam Adams, and others read drafts and suggested minor changes.
The book was published anonymously as “Written by and Englishman” in Jan. 1776 just after the revolution began.
Yet it helped transform the terms of political debate – particularly among the masses. Paine wrote with urgency, excitement, and bold simplicity. His arguments were straightforward and uncomplicated so that everyone from artisans to farmers could relate to his prose.
Hen then turned to a discussion of independence, an issue that had been mentioned sporadically in the press in 1775, but one which most colonists still refused to confront.
Independence, he said, was inevitable. The only question was how independence would come "by the legal voice of the people in Congress; by a military power; or by a mob.“
He called for the creation of a continental legislature and new unicameral state assemblies based on a broad suffrage, popular representation through frequent elections, and a written constitution guaranteeing the rights of persons and property and establishing freedom of religion.
Common Sense was immediately successful and its impact was nothing short of astonishing.
It sold at least 100,000 copies in its first three months, was passed around, and read at taverns. It went through 25 editions and reached literally hundreds of thousands of readers in the single year 1776.
As a percentage of the population, more people read it than watch the Super Bowl each year.
Paine took no money for his effort. All of the proceeds went to the revolutionary cause.
The Crisis is a collection of articles written during the American Revolutionary War.
They constitute Paine's ongoing support for an independent and self-governing America through the many severe crises of the Revolutionary War.
General Washington found the first essay so inspiring, he ordered that it be read to the troops at Valley Forge.
Number 1 of this series is of particular historical interest, for it was written during Washington's retreat across the Delaware and by his order was read to his dispirited and suffering soldiers. The opening sentence was adopted as the watchword of the movement to Trenton: "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 his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated."
Paine returned to England and wrote The Rights of Man in response to criticism of the French Revolution.
He argued that all men had an equal claim to political rights and that government depends on the rule of the people. He suggested that democratic republics were the remedy for the weaknesses of monarchy. Even more radically, he called for social programs to help the poor.
He was labeled an outlaw in England for his anti-monarchist views and would have been arrested, but he fled for France as he had taken in interest in the events of the French Revolution.
He was granted honorary French citizenship, was elected to the Revolutionary National Convention, and voted for a French Republic. But he did not endorse the execution of Louis XVI and was soon imprisoned.
During his imprisonment, he wrote what was as to become his most famous work at the time, The Age of Reason (1794-96).
He strongly condemned all organized religion, and in particular Christianity, as series of “fabulous inventions.” Though he acknowledged all are free to believe as they wish, he wrote, “The only true religion is Deism, by which I mean, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues.”
He was freed in 1794 (narrowly escaping execution) thanks to the efforts of James Monroe, then U.S. Minister to France.
Paine was upset that the American government had not secured his release sooner and in 1796 he wrote an open letter insulting President George Washington. Paine accused him of private betrayal of their friendship and public hypocrisy as General and President, and concluded the letter by saying "the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any."
Paine remained in France until 1802 when he returned to America on an invitation from President Thomas Jefferson. But he found that his contributions to the American Revolution had been all but eradicated due to his religious views and his attack on Washington.
Died on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72 in New York City.