The Gain from Paine: Thomas Paine, Who Died 200 Years Ago, Inspired and Witnessed the Revolutions That Gave Birth to the United States and Destroyed the French Monarchy. A Genuinely Global Figure, He Anticipated Modern Ideas on Human Rights, Atheism and Rationalism. David Nash Looks at His Enduring Impact

By Nash, David | History Today, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Gain from Paine: Thomas Paine, Who Died 200 Years Ago, Inspired and Witnessed the Revolutions That Gave Birth to the United States and Destroyed the French Monarchy. A Genuinely Global Figure, He Anticipated Modern Ideas on Human Rights, Atheism and Rationalism. David Nash Looks at His Enduring Impact


Nash, David, History Today


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At the end of President Obama's inaugural address in January 2009, he alluded to a small passage that appeared in Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense. Faced with an American economy wracked by nervousness and self-doubt Obama noted Paine's rallying cry that galvanised and gave hope to the despairing:

   Let it be told to the future world ...
   that in the depth of winter, when
   nothing but hope and virtue could
   survive ... that the city and the
   country, alarmed at one common
   danger, came forth to meet [this
   danger].

Unique among radicals, the 200th anniversary of the death of Thomas Paine will be marked in England, in France and across the Atlantic. This is a measure of the impact of Paine's ideas both in his own country and in parts of the world that became the centre of revolutionary political change at the end of the 18th century. Paine was perhaps fortunate to live in such invigorating times and to be able to think about them so constructively. Yet what is remarkable is that his message has been capable of speaking with immediacy to each successive generation, providing radical inspiration and comfort in troubled times. This is because Paine was a persuasive author with a gift for penetrating, lucid and memorable language. However, he was also actively participating in the revolutions he wished to inspire. Both through word and deed he could justly claim 'the world is my country and my religion to do good.'

Thomas Paine's origins were anything but promising. He was born in Thetford in Norfolk in 1737 and was apprenticed to his father as a corset- and stay-maker, a trade that he followed intermittently. Some commentators would not let him forget this and later a number of cartoons portrayed his radicalism as an attempt forcibly to lace the English constitution in the shape of Britannia into an uncomfortable corset. After a spell in the capital, Paine embarked on a similarly lacklustre career as an excise officer. In 1768 he moved to Lewes, but debt and disillusion with this career led to his emigration to America in 1774.

Arriving in Philadelphia with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, Paine immediately began to mix with radical journalists and to make his mark. His first venture into radical journalism, as the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, was a success. The magazine focused on American colonial opposition to high-handed British policies and it flourished. From this success, Paine distilled his arguments for American independence into one of his most important pamphlets, Common Sense:

   ... many strong and striking reasons
   may be given, to shew, that nothing
   can settle our affairs so expeditiously
   as an open and determined
   declaration of independence.

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The pamphlet appeared in the first month of 1776 and by the end of the year had sold 150,000 copies in 56 separate editions. So impassioned was Paine that he enlisted himself in the colonists' fight for freedom, serving as aide-de-camp to an American general. He became a trusted adviser to Washington, coming to the practical and ideological defence of the colonists with a series of pamphlets under the umbrella title of The Crisis. These galvanised resistance and were responsible for stabilising the army's morale when it was on the point of collapse. Paine received the gratitude of the American nation and a number of states granted him pensions or gave him gifts in kind.

In the 1780s, after the defeat of the British forces and the gaining of American independence, Paine returned to England where he briefly switched his attention to scientific and engineering projects, in particular the construction of a single-span iron bridge. The movement between political science and pure science was not uncommon among Enlightenment thinkers. Just as mechanics and magnetism were mysteries of the natural world, the study of which would yield their significance, so too could similar analysis be applied to man's political instincts and relationships.

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The Gain from Paine: Thomas Paine, Who Died 200 Years Ago, Inspired and Witnessed the Revolutions That Gave Birth to the United States and Destroyed the French Monarchy. A Genuinely Global Figure, He Anticipated Modern Ideas on Human Rights, Atheism and Rationalism. David Nash Looks at His Enduring Impact
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