The words of Thomas Paine changed the course of history, and are still relevant as Ukrainians fight for the rights he articulated.
Editor’s Note: Harlow Giles Unger was the author of twenty-eight books, more than a dozen of them biographies of America’s founding fathers that include the highly acclaimed Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence.
Thomas Paine’s words leap off the page, embracing men, women—indeed, whole peoples—inspiring them to change their lives, their governments, their kings, even their gods. In an age when spoken and written words were the only forms of communication, Paine roused men and women to action as few other writers had. His prose exposed as myth the notion that birth predetermines one’s rights and privileges. And they implanted a revolutionary new concept for humanity: that all are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property.
The concept was not new, but it had only been aired in weighty scholarly texts for a small literate minority—clergymen, noblemen and the like—who understood and balked at its implications. English philosopher/physician John Locke, for example, shocked crown and clergy in 1689 with Two Treatises of Government that questioned divine right of kings. He argued that before development of communal life on earth, primitive humans were born all but identical in a “state of nature,” governed only by God, not kings. No king “owned” the body of a prehistoric human (i.e., its life), or its labor (liberty), or the products of its labor—its food or the hovel it built as shelter (his property). Paine translated Locke’s concepts into everyday language that anyone could understand—literate or not.
Born in 1737 in the murk of Liverpool, England’s dockside slums, Paine taught himself to read and write. He read unceasingly and developed a skill for translating complex ideas into everyday language that he demonstrated in articles for local newspapers. His writing caught the eye of Benjamin Franklin, then in London as agent in Parliament for several American colonies. Franklin mentored Paine, then sponsored his journey to America and a job as a Philadelphia magazine writer/editor.
After British troops fired on protesting farmers in Lexington, Massachusetts, in April 1775, Paine began writing an essay of protest that grew into a small book he published in January 1776. Called Common Sense, it all but exploded off the press, quickly becoming the world’s best-selling book after the Bible. The words in Common Sense resounded in palaces, ordinary homes, and hovels, along urban streets and country roads, wherever humanity struggled against oppression.
Together with subsequent works such as his American Crisis essays and books such as The Rights of Man, Paine’s words have to this day empowered peasants, provoked revolutions, toppled tyrants. They changed the course of history, the human condition, and the social fabric of the western world.
Some British and European philosophes in the Age of Enlightenment—Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hobbes, Hume—had aroused intellectuals and literate political leaders, but Thomas Paine addressed Everyman: literate or not—poor, rich, noble, ignoble. . . . “Why,” Paine demanded to know, “should someone rule over us simply because he is someone else’s child?” He answered his own question, calling the notion absurd—that it defied Common Sense.
“I have heard it asserted by some,” he wrote, “that as America hath flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, that the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat…. The commerce by which she hath enriched herself includes the necessaries of life and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.”
Paine scoffed at arguments citing America’s filial ties to Britain: “It happens not to be true. The phrase parent or mother country hath been… adopted by the British king and his parasites to lure the gullible masses into unnatural fealty. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America,” he insisted.
In 1776, Paine’s words were heresy for those who believed God had granted kings absolute right to rule. Rulers believed it; churches and clergymen believed it; and ironically, most of the governed believed it. Thomas Paine did not! He wrote as much and more in Common Sense, and untold thousands of ordinary people who read or heard his simple truths agreed. In America, commoners picked up muskets and did the unthinkable by rebelling against despotic royal rule. The French followed suit a decade later, and millions more would continue to do so elsewhere to this day.
“Why should someone rule over us simply because he is someone else’s child?” asked Paine.
“I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or its affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine,” America’s John Adams asserted. “Call it then the Age of Paine.”
George Washington agreed. His army of farmers lay shivering on the west bank of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania after British troops had chased them from New York and across New Jersey. As his men prepared a risky counter-attack, Washington ordered his officers to read aloud to their troops selections from a Paine pamphlet called The American Crisis:
Paine’s explosive words pierced the blinding snow like lightning, boring into every mind and soul, until Washington’s troops rose as one. They boarded rafts to cross the ice-choked Delaware River in the dead of Christmas night, 1776. At dawn, with Paine firing his rhetorical musket in concert with theirs, they stormed ashore into Trenton, New Jersey, and overwhelmed a larger, better-armed force of German mercenaries. After months of humiliating defeats, the victory at Trenton lifted the morale of an entire people and convinced the American army it could win the war of independence.
As affected as Washington by the effects of his words, Paine went on to write twelve more Crisis essays—thirteen in all—one for each state of the new nation. He wrote some to inspire the troops, some to inspire civilians, some to provoke defiance and even laughter. And he wrote some that mocked and chastised the English military, the English people, and Britain’s noble and royal overlords.
“We have learned to reverence ourselves and scorn the insulting ruffian that employs you,” Paine taunted Admiral Lord Richard Howe with a rude reference to British King George in Crisis II. “Your avowed purpose here is to kill, conquer, plunder, pardon, and enslave, and the ravages of your army…have been marked with barbarism…not even the appearance of humanity has been preserved.” Paine’s letter might well have been sent to Russia’s military commanders in 2022.
Paine called Britain the “greatest offender against God on the face of the whole earth. Blessed with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished…with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no use of both.” He accused Britain of ripping out “the bowels” of every country it had conquered—India, Africa, the West Indies—and intending to do the same in America.
“By what means do you expect to conquer America?” Paine mocked Howe. “If you could not effect it in summer when our army was less than yours nor in winter when we had none, how are you to do it? In point of generalship, you have been outwitted and in point of fortitude outdone. Like a game of draughts [checkers], we can move out of one square to let you come in, in order that we may afterwards take two or three [pieces] for one; and as we can always keep a double corner for ourselves, we can always prevent a total defeat.”
Paine teased Lord Howe, pointing out that Washington’s triumphs at Trenton and afterwards at Princeton had reduced British authority in New Jersey to a “small circle of territory…. I laugh at your notion of conquering America. The dead only are conquerors because none will dispute the ground with them."
Months later, as the American capital of Philadelphia came under fire, Paine tried lifting American morale by hurling defiant words at Lord Howe’s brother, the commanding general of British land forces: “It is not a few acres of ground but a cause we are defending. And whether we defeat the enemy in one battle or by degrees, the result will be the same. Look back at the events....what they (British troops) have gained in ground they paid so dearly for in numbers that their victories in the end have amounted to defeats.”
In a second letter to the general, he accused Howe of having “made your exit from the moral world” with “conduct so mean… [that] every nation on earth, whether friends or enemies, have united in despising you…. The laws of any civilized country would condemn you to the gibbet…Bent upon the ruin of a young and unoffending country, Britain has drawn the sword that has wounded herself…. You are fighting for what you can never obtain, and we are defending what we never mean to part with…. Let England mind her own business and we will mind ours….Go home, Sir, and endeavor to save the remains of your ruined country.”
Paine turned his attention to the English people in Crisis VI, asking—while mocking—them: “Why have you not conquered us? You have had every opportunity…your fleets and armies have arrived in America without accident. It has been the crime and folly of England to suppose herself invincible!”
On April 18, 1783, George Washington announced the end of the Revolutionary War. On the following day, eight years to the day after the war’s first shots shattered the rural peace of Lexington, Massachusetts, Paine published his last Crisis—Crisis XIII:
“The times that tried men’s souls are over,” he wrote, “and the greatest completest revolution the world ever knew, gloriously and happily accomplished.” Paine then pleaded for national unity, asking each of the newly independent states to subsume its sovereignty to a supreme national government. “On this our great character depends,” he declared. “It is this which must give us importance abroad and security at home. It is through this only that we are, or can be, nationally known in the world…. The division of the empire into states is for our own convenience, but abroad this distinction ceases…. In short, we have no other national sovereignty than as United States.”
In addition to national unity, he said, independence carried with it the responsibility “to enlighten the world and diffuse a spirit of freedom and liberality among mankind…. The remembrance of what is past…must inspire her.”
Paine said the Declaration of Independence and the ensuing American struggle had motivated him to become a full-time writer. With war’s end, he said he would “always feel an honest pride in the part I have taken and acted and a gratitude to nature and providence for putting it in my power to be of some use to mankind.”
“Without the pen of Paine,” John Adams mused, “the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” Washington agreed, pointing out that Paine’s words had left few Americans “at a loss to decide upon the propriety of a separation from Britain.”
A decade later, Paine’s words had the same effect in France, and, still later, in Britain. As he told Jefferson, he, like John Locke, held certain truths to be self-evident, among them that “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God” had created all human beings equal and entitled them to certain unalienable rights.
Envisioning a worldwide confederation of free men, he defined those rights in a major work he called Rights of Man, which he dedicated in part to Washington, the hero of the American Revolution, and in part to Lafayette, a hero of the French Revolution.
The most widely read political writer of his generation, Paine was more than a century ahead of his time, conceiving and demanding unheard-of social reforms that would became integral elements of modern republican societies, among them government subsidies and public housing for the poor, free universal public education, pre- and post-natal care for mothers, unemployment insurance, universal social security, with government payments to everyone fifty years or older. He outraged the rich with a call for an inheritance tax, property taxes on lands of aristocrats, and a progressive income tax to reduce inequality between rich and poor. He outraged millions more with a loud and clear call for abolition of slavery, monarchy, and social classes.
“It requires some talents to be a common mechanic,” Paine scoffed, “but to be a king requires only the animal figure of a man.”
Although much of the western world would enact Paine’s reforms in the two centuries after his death, some countries simply replaced absolute monarchy with equally cruel despotic regimes led variously by an emperor, kaiser, fuhrer, or comrade chairman with no genetic ties to previous rulers.
Thomas Paine won like-minded allies in the highest ranks of British, American, and French society. A warm, jovial man and sometime poet, he formed close friendships with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and helped inspire elements of the Declaration of Independence. His friendship with James Madison influenced the writing of the Bill of Rights. In 1778, the Continental Congress recognized the reach of his international influence and appointed him Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Pennsylvania made him a citizen; and New York State gave him a 277-acre farm north of New York City, where, during a temporary retirement from public affairs, he helped Robert Fulton develop one of the first steam engines for boats.
An habitual tinkerer and sketcher of imaginary inventions, Paine pioneered and produced plans for advanced forms of modern iron bridges. He believed single arch, shore-to-shore iron bridges would eliminate flat wooden bridges that prevented free flow of large cargo-laden barges along many rivers. He discovered that by shaping it as a perfect half-circle, a single-arched iron bridge, elevated on piers, could span a river of any width by simply elongating its diameter. He went on to design advanced forms of such bridges to span rivers in America, France, and Britain.
With America free and independent, Paine went to France to join Lafayette and other political liberals in stripping the monarch of absolute powers and establishing a French republic. In writing the first-ever French constitution, Lafayette used language from Paine’s Rights of Man as its preamble.
Hailed for Common Sense in France as much as he had been in America, Paine won appointment to the French National Assembly, where he opposed capital punishment and argued against executing the French king. Outraged radicals, however, thirsted for blood, executing the king and sending Paine to prison as a royalist to await the guillotine. Facing death, he began writing what he would consider his magnum opus: The Age of Reason. In it, he extended the principles of individual liberty in Common Sense and Rights of Man to religion, which he described as a human invention designed, like monarchy, to terrify and enslave its subjects and enrich its leaders.
Although American minister to France James Monroe was able to win Paine’s release from prison, Paine’s scathing attack on religion in The Age of Reason turned much of the Western world against him. Former friends and admirers shunned him; devout Christians despised and rejected him and his writings; and many historians struck his name from their descriptions of the American Revolution. An assassin’s bullet barely missed its mark.
Stung by rejections of former friends, he retreated to near solitude on his New Rochelle, New York, farm, fearing for the future of the nation that had once embraced his every word. In 1809, the man Americans had once hailed as Father of all Founding Fathers fell sick and died. He was seventy-two. Few noticed; fewer cared. As a further insult to his legacy, a still-mysterious, unidentified Englishman dug Paine’s bones from the ground near his farmhouse and supposedly shipped them to England, where they were lost. A series of unexplained fires at storage facilities in America subsequently consumed most of his papers, leaving little trace of Thomas Paine—except a stark warning he bequeathed to the American people against the dangers that autocracy—both internal and external—posed to their republican form of government:
"When we contemplate the fall of empire and the extinction of the nations of the ancient world, we see but little to excite our regret than the moldering ruins of pompous palaces, magnificent monuments, lofty pyramids and walls and towers of the most costly workmanship. But when the Empire of America shall fall, the subject for contemplative sorrow will be infinitely greater than crumbling brass and marble can inspire. It will not be said, here stood a temple of vast antiquity, here rose a Babel of invisible height, or there a palace of sumptuous extravagance; but here, ah painful thought! The noblest work of human wisdom, the grandest scene of human glory, the fair cause of freedom, rose and fell!"
Our times continue to try men’s souls, but Thomas Paine’s words still inspire the oppressed to resist barbaric despots whenever and wherever they attempt to crush the liberties and lives of harmless, helpless, defenseless people yearning to be free.