Winston Churchill famously defined a fanatic as a man who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. That was Thomas Paine, American revolutionary and probably my favorite character from American history. Why do I love Paine? Because he was, not to put too fine a point on it, a wacko. He was the archetypal disheveled, smelly revolutionary who would have been perfectly at home in any modern coffee shop, debating politics with guys in tie dies and rasta beanies. Also he was a master of compact prose. No one could put complex ideas into plain language like Tom Paine.
Like most American revolutionaries, Paine was born an Englishman. He was a failure in just about everything: as an apprentice in his father’s corset-making business, as a government employee, as a tobacco shop owner and as a husband. His one stroke of good luck was meeting Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774. Franklin suggested he quit England for the colonies. Paine was broke, divorced, out of favor politically and in danger of being thrown into debtor’s prison. Good time for an exit.
It turned out to be a fortuitous move for all concerned. Paine arrived in Philadelphia later that year and took work as a magazine editor. He showed a prodigious talent for writing things, political propaganda in particular.
As a committed anti-monarchist Paine was involved in the American Revolution from the moment he set foot on the continent. When the Revolution formally broke out in 1776 he set to work writing Common Sense, a pamphlet so impassioned, so incendiary, the Revolution might never have succeeded without it. What distinguished Common Sense from other political writing of the time was not the ideas it contained. Paine didn’t write anything down that any of the other American founders hadn’t been thinking for years. The magic was in the way he wrote: simply, compellingly and persuasively. Common Sense became an overnight sensation, read aloud in homes, taverns and churches all over the colonies. It lit a fire of patriotism in almost everyone who heard it and stirred complacent souls to action. John Adams would later say “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been useless.” The man was good!
Paine soon became a full-time revolutionary. He gave all his money to the Continental Army and then served in it (legend has it he wrote his next major pamphlet American Crisis on a drum head while encamped with Washington). Later he traveled abroad to try to secure loans to fund the war effort. When all was said and done Paine, though broke, mostly uneducated, ragged and rank, would be considered one of the most important figures of the American Revolution.
You’d think a fellow would be satisfied with that, but Thomas Paine wasn’t. After the war he tried settling down as an entrepreneur and bridge designer (huh?), but the revolution bug had bitten him hard. Attracted by the revolts of 1789, Paine went to France in 1790 and wrote the The Rights of Man, a long form revolutionary pamphlet that tore into everyone and everything that Paine believed enslaved mankind: the King, the Pope, the Church and religion and social institutions generally. He was that sort of wipe-the-slate-clean, free-humans-once-and-for-all-from-the-tyranny-of-the-past kind of thinker.
His ideas went down very well in France where revolutionaries were already planning to rename the months of the year (as they found terms like “January” and “February” oppressive). Paine and those guys were, how do you say, simpatico. The Rights of Man sold a million copies. By 1792, though Paine spoke scarcely a word of French, he’d been granted honorary citizenship and elected to the National Assembly, the single-body French parliament that was in place at the time. Quite some feat, non?
Sadly Paine’s time in the sun was not to last. Radical as he was by American standards, he abhorred political killings — mass killings especially. Which meant he wasn’t nearly radical enough for the Jacobins. Accused by Robespierre of being a Girondist and enemy of the Revolution, Paine was thrown into prison in 1793 and scheduled for execution.
That was nearly where Paine’s story ended. One evening in 1794 a guard came to his cell and put the mark of death on his door, he would be guillotined the next morning. By a strange quirk of fate, however, the mark was placed accidentally out of sight of the executioners. Paine was passed over and Robespierre fell just a few days later. He was released unharmed.
Most sane men would have had their fill of revolution by then. Not “Tom the Bodice-Maker” Paine. He returned to French politics and stayed active for the next half dozen years. Ever the monarchy hater, he once took a meeting with Napoleon (who claimed to sleep with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow). During that meeting Paine helped Napoleon plot invasion and overthrow…of England. What a nut.
Of course Napoleon would eventually let down revolutionaries everywhere by crowning himself emperor. But Paine was back in the States by then, living out his final years in obscurity. By 1805 he’d managed to tick off just about everybody who’d ever held him in esteem. He wrote diatribes against George Washington. His anti-religious scribblings didn’t help. When he died in 1809 a total of six people went to his funeral.
It’s a sad end for so consequential a fellow, but then Paine never much cared what people thought of him. He died the way he lived: broke, slovenly, tipsy from brandy and howling for revolution. Agree with his politics or not, and indeed Thomas Paine’s views are fairly well to the left of my own, you’ve got to admire his commitment to principle. Paine went all-in on everything he did. In two world-historical revolutions — which together defined the right and the left of politics as we now know them — Thomas Paine was the indispensable lunatic member of the team.
I find that amazing, which is why I’m writing about him today even though he has little to do with the thread of the week’s discussion. I can’t think of revolution — American, French or otherwise — without thinking of him. I thought he was someone you might like to know a bit better.