With the 4th of July rolling around, here is my tribute to one of our lesser-known Founding Fathers: Thomas Paine. Like a good father, he suggested names for the new baby he was creating. In Common Sense, he used phrases like “United Colonies,” “American states,” and “Free and Independent States of America.” Finally, of course, everyone agreed on “The United States of America.”
In the mid-1770s, Paine was a fireball of energy and a brilliant writer of revolutionary call-to-action books and pamphlets. That was his main contribution to the cause of American Independence. He was a powerful individualist who believed in the power of people rallying together. His first major work Common Sense was published several months before the Declaration of Independence. It persuaded those still in doubt to align with the Revolutionary cause. It shifted the momentum from debates to action.
During the American Revolution, Paine went on to write Crisis (“These are the times that try men’s souls”) and other pieces that informed and inspired the American armies in hard times, and kept them going.
After the war ended, and the United States was settled, Paine’s enthusiasm for freedom propelled him into the French Revolution next. He wrote Rights of Man for that cause, and other essays, to rally the French people.
Unfortunately, the French outcome was not quite so cut and dried as the American. After the chaotic shifting power struggles of the French Revolution, Paine found himself in a Bastille where he expected to be executed. While imprisoned he wrote Age of Reason which addresses excessive religious influence in government. It is a more caustic work, as he never expected to see the light of day again. It had the effect of cooling his reputation in America as well, at least for some. Americans were divided on how to take Age of Reason: Did it go too far against belief, or was it a dying man’s final effort to argue the separation of church and state?
Much to Paine’s surprise, he was not executed. In 1794 Paine was unexpectedly released from his French prison by the démarches of future US President James Monroe, then American Minister to France.
Because of his tarnished reputation back in the states, Paine was not sure if he could or should return. But to remove any doubt, an old friend came to his rescue. As soon as Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he wrote an affectionate letter to Thomas Paine inviting him to return to the US as the honored guest of the nation he helped to create.
Paine was still persona non grata in much of the US—he was both embraced and vilified when he returned. This shouldn’t be surprising. It sounds like the beginning of a long tradition of conflicting public opinion and clashing values in this country.
Ultimately, Paine’s courage and strong character won him the respect of friends and enemies alike. Two states came to his aid. Pennsylvania gave him $500 grant, a huge sum in 1801. New York state granted Paine a farm and land to retire on, with the comment, “his literary works, and those especially under the signature of Common Sense and the Crisis, inspired the citizens of this state with unanimity, confirmed their confidence in the rectitude of their cause, and have ultimately contributed to the freedom, sovereignty, and independence of the United States” (ThomasPaine.org). Paine had set the tone for the “Controversial Hero,” a model that many have followed over the past 250 years.
In politics, religion, and social life, Thomas Paine was a leader and fighter for the freedoms we consider automatic in daily life. Paine’s life was not spent in vain; he believed such rights should be automatic—just not taken for granted.