Sample Chapter: Thomas Paine
Just before daybreak on or about September the 25th in the year 1819, a sixty-six-year-old Englishman by the name of William Cobbett found himself stumbling through the rural darkness of Westchester, New York, followed by his son, and a hired hand. There are few details that can be confirmed regarding this moment in history, but it is known that Cobbett and his associates, burdened by a large box and an assortment of picks and shovels, slowly made their way through the dark overgrowth of long-deserted fields outside the hamlet of New Rochelle, hindered by using as few torches as possible in order to travel unnoticed. Even so, someone had spotted this peculiar group of outsiders and had informed the local magistrates. Now the trio could hear a posse in the distance, approaching. They hurried along as well as could be managed, helped by Cobbett knowing exactly where his quarry lay, having traced the route numerous times before in daylight hours. Finally, he and his men arrived at the spot, and hurriedly began to dig.
Even taking into account that era’s Renaissance style of gentlemanly pursuits — best remembered today in the varied interests of Benjamin Franklin — William Cobbett had pursued an remarkable number of trades over the course of his life, from Long Island farmer (who championed the rutabaga and loathed the potato) to serving member of the British army in Canada. A decade hence, he would be elected to Parliament (even though he’d spent two years in George III’s most notorious prison, Margate, on charges of sedition), while a decade before, he’d fled America to escape a phenomenal $5,000 fine after losing a libel suit. On that September 25, 1819, however, William Cobbett was famous throughout the English-speaking world as a London and Philadelphia magazine publisher working under the byline of “Peter Porcupine.” In the closing years of the 18th C., his cantankerous and rabidly pro-British Porcupine’s Gazette (the O’Reilly Factor of its era) had become North America’s most widely-read periodical.
Over the years, Cobbett’s political stance had changed course about as often as his efforts to make a living, and he had recently undergone such a profound revolution in thinking that he was about to trigger a scandal that would last over two hundred years. Like many of his era, and more than a few in our own, the Porcupine had become religiously convinced that the true father of the United States was not a general, but a writer (before the sword, there is always the word), and not just any writer, but the most popular author of the entire 18th century. During the last years of Thomas Paine’s life, the Porcupine had been one of his most brutal and public foes, using the Gazette to attack him in issue after issue. Watching the course of world history in the decade since Paine’s death, however, Cobbett had undergone a conversion as profound as any monastic novitiate.
Now, he was certain that his one-time nemesis had been right about everything all along, and that this founding father’s treatment in memoriam by the American public was an abomination. The Porcupine had even insinuated what he was about to attempt in his latest magazine, Cobbett’s Political Register: “Paine lies in a little hole under the grass and weeds of an obscure farm in America. There, however, he shall not lie, unnoticed, much longer. He belongs to England. His fame is the property of England; and, if no other people will show that they value that fame, the people of England will.” Cobbett had concluded he must exhume the corpse of Thomas Paine, sail with it to London, and there create the grand memorial that he now fervently believed this “citizen of the world” truly deserved.
The digging, in the blackness, was difficult. Finally the deteriorating cadaver was fully unearthed, and transferred to a box less unwieldy than its mahogany casket. As the police drew closer, the three men ran, struggling in the dark with their cargo, barely outraced the authorities to the town’s docks. Cobbett and son then returned to the family farm on Long Island to make final preparations; the following week, they sailed, with the corpse, to England.
In The Thomas Paine Reader, editors Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick assert that Paine was swept overboard on that journey, and lost at sea. In fact, Cobbett would open his various bits of luggage for customs officials in Liverpool and, revealing the body, announce: “There, gentlemen, are the mortal remains of the immortal Thomas Paine.” By the time he arrived in London and explained to the world his memorial vision, however, the reaction was not at all what he’d hoped. English political sentiment in that era changed course as abruptly as Peter Porcupine himself, and Paine was now loathed all over again for his egalitarian stands. The crown refused permission for Cobbett to go forward with his plans, and Lord Byron himself would comment:
In digging up your bones, Tom Paine,
Will Cobbett has done well;
You visit him on earth again,
He’ll visit you in hell.
The incident would become so well known in its day, in fact, that it was used as a nursery rhyme — Poor Tom Paine! there he lies; Nobody laughs and nobody cries; Where he has gone or how he fares; Nobody knows and nobody cares — a ditty that would predict the next two centuries of public thinking. Though “Poor Tom” was a founder of both the USA and the French Republic, the creator of the phrase “United States of America” and the author of the three biggest bestsellers of the 18th C., he is known today by the educated public almost solely through biographies for children. At the same time, since he wholeheartedly followed a motto that life should be “a daring adventure, or nothing,” his personal drama and historic achievements have inspired a never-ending chain of advocates, apostles and cultists.
Over the ensuing centuries, Paine would become the most controversial figure of the American Revolutionary era, a black sheep founding father who inspired worship, shunning and vituperation in remarkably equal measure. Thomas Edison believed that Paine “was the equal of Washington in making American liberty possible; where Washington performed, Paine devised and wrote,” while Teddy Roosevelt pronounced him nothing but “a dirty little atheist.” John Adams at first said that “history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine,” but later would call him “a disastrous meteor.” During the last years of Paine’s life, a contemporary would explain: “The name is enough. Every person has ideas of him. Some respect his genius and dread the man. Some reverence his political, while they hate his religious, opinions. Some love the man, but not his private manners. Indeed he has done nothing which has not extremes in it. He never appears but we love and hate him. He is as great a paradox as ever appeared in human nature.”
Thomas Paine lived by a sword of controversy, and in the end his reputation would be blighted with it. As events transpired in the centuries since his death, however, William Cobbett’s night of grave-robbing would not be the last attempt at creating a final resting place for this notorious forefather, and it would not be the end of the story of his bones. That saga would continue on to our present day.
The undisputable facts we now know about this great paradox began when Pain (as he then spelled it) first arrived on the shores of the New World at the age of thirty-seven. Besides being infected with the lice-borne typhus fever that had rendered the entire ship bedridden, he shared a great deal in common with the horde of indentured servants who were his shipmates aboard the London Packet, his life to that point having been one of almost relentless failure — as artisan, tax collector, grocer, schoolteacher, and even husband. Though he’d been trained in his father’s staymaking business (hand-tailoring the intricate whalebone-threaded wool and linen undergarment that, in concert with petticoat and hoop, created the heaving-bosomed, wasp-waisted shape of every desirable 18th C. woman), and had been accepted by the Office of Excise for the position of tax collector, his distinct lack of success in both fields had driven him to the difficult shores of the Western Hemisphere. His first-class Packet ticket, in fact, had been the windfall of a separation agreement between Pain and his second wife, Elizabeth Ollive; it represented almost wholly their life’s sinecure. With absolutely no other options available in Britain, Tom had come, just like those indentured half-slaves in steerage, to “the land where failures got a second chance.”
Unlike the great majority of American founders, such as George Washington (married to the richest widow in all Virginia), John Adams (Boston’s most prosperous lawyer), and Thomas Jefferson (whose first childhood memory was in being carried, on a pillow, to his grandfather’s plantation by a slave), Pain had been born into exceptionally modest circumstances; a thatched cottage under the shadow of the Norfolk county executioner’s gallows in Thetford, England. Theft was that era’s most common capital offense, and death sentences were handed out even when the accused was starving, and even for remarkably petty gains: a bag of wheat; a box of tea; a dozen shillings. Every spring, scores of hooded peasants would be led to the chalk ridge overlooking the Pain cottage, their bodies left to swing for an hour as the townspeople watched and laid wager as to the time of their passing.
A port at the intersection of the rivers Thet and Little Ouse, Thetford exported malted grain and the products of its smiths, braziers and foundries, though the majority of its residents were rural paupers who could expect to live to the age of thirty-seven. The century’s closing years would find them driven, like much of bucolic Europe, into rioting and looting for food at the risk of starvation. Of Thetford’s population — two thousand farmers, unskilled laborers, indentured servants, apprentices, journeymen, master craftsmen, merchants, clergymen, professionals and lords — thirty-one owned enough property to be allowed to vote.
Like so many of that era’s independent artisans, the Pain family’s staymaking concern existed at a permanent edge of falter. To afford the quills, ink and books of her son’s education at Thetford Grammar School, mother Frances would have to ask for money from her unmarried sister. The boy’s future must’ve looked especially grim for, perhaps inspired by the recently-published adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver, in the summer of 1756, at the age of twenty, Tom Pain ran away from home.
Arriving in London, he first tried and failed to get various jobs as a journeyman; then, a notice in the Daily Advertiser caught his eye: “To cruise against the French, the Terrible Privateer, Captain William Death. All Gentlemen Sailors, and able-bodied Landmen, who are inclinable to try their Fortune, as well as serve their King and Country, are desired to repair on board the said Ship.” Pain made his way to the docks, and was waiting in line to sign on for a life of seafaring adventure, when he heard someone calling his name. It was his father, Joseph, who’d tracked him down through tips from his fellow master craftsmen. Joseph was able to convince his son to reconsider a career on the high seas, a caution which likely saved his life. Immediately after entering the Channel, the Terrible would fall under assault from a French privateer; barely seventeen crewmen survived as over 150 died, including Captain Death himself. The younger Pain refused to return home with his father, however, and on January 17, 1757, with nowhere else to turn, he made his way back to the docks to become a crewman for the King of Prussia. Instead of suffering the dreadful fate of the Terrible, Prussia would conquer eight foreign vessels in as many months, with Pain returning to London on August 20th a very successful buccaneer, having in his pockets £30 in wages … a fortune.
Tom could now afford to trade in his homespun for the clothing of a proper urban gentleman: linen shirt; damask coat lined with silk; knee breeches; garters; silk stockings; leather shoes with silver buckles; and a felt hat. Though his nose was strikingly bulbous (and eventually suffused with an undetermined skin condition, perhaps rosacea), Pain was convinced that one look into his soulful eyes would make any woman fall hopelessly in love. With a little more luck, it’s certain that this vain optimist would’ve commissioned a full-length portrait to last for all eternity, posing in the style of the day with one leg fully twisted, the heel facing the viewer and showing to the fullest extent possible that era’s symbol of bulging male power: the calf.
Instead, Tom ran out of money all over again in just six months and decided to attempt a staymaking trade in the town of Sandwich. There, on Sept 27, 1759, he wed Mary Lambert, and almost immediately, his business collapsed, Mary got pregnant, they moved to Margate for her health and his business, and she went into an early labor. Mary and their child did not survive. Pain, twenty-three, wrote that “there is neither manhood nor policy in grief.”
He moved back home with his parents and spent the next fourteen months studying to enter the ranks of the Excise. By December 1762, he’d passed the exams and was hired as a tax collector, lasting three years before being let go. He went to London to petition for a reinstatement, and would spend two years in that city, taking odd jobs on the side as a private tutor, while waiting for a final decision over his employment. Those two years would make of him a central figure in the creation of the modern world.
For centuries, historians were baffled as to how this lower-class rarely-do-well became the most popular author of the 18th C., and famed citizen of the world. He did it, we now know, with a signature American trait — a rigorous course of self-improvement — triggered by the most remarkable transformation of thought in European history, a transformation that began in 1687 with a book that explained how the force that pulls an apple from the tree also holds the moon to the earth, governs the motion of the tides, times the arrival of the seasons, and shapes the elliptical orbit of heavenly bodies. Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy further described his discoveries in the laws of attraction (gravity), the spectral composition of white light, and the method of fluxons (calculus); it caused such a sensation as to directly instigate the births of the museum, the encyclopedia, and modern science.
After Principia and the ensuing exhortations of Immanuel Kant (“Dare to know!”) and London’s Royal Society (“Nullius in Verba,” i.e., “take no one’s word for it; see for yourself”), Europeans came to believe that the forces of the universe were no longer divine mysteries forever withheld from mortals, but phenomena which, using scientific experiments, could be elucidated by anyone. Across the continent and its various territorial possessions, any man who considered himself a gentleman bought or hand-tooled his own set of scientific instruments and conducted experiments, to see for himself … experiments that could be repeated and verified by others.
Though the Enlightenment would sweep through every social niche, its most ardent disciples would be workingmen, or artisans — self-employed master craftsmen and wage-earning journeymen who made, in that pre-Industrial era, pretty much everything money could buy, a group we remember today from such surnames as Waterman, Webster, Thatcher, Sawyer, Sherman, Mason, Miller, Draper, Chandler, Cooper and Cutler. In the 18th C., they called themselves “mechanics,” and their great hero was the world’s most celebrated self-made mechanic, Benjamin Franklin, who in Poor Richard’s Almanack delineated their shared ideology: hard work, fortitude, thrift, patience, prudence, economy, moderation, sobriety and self-improvement. Economically, these mechanics would one day become the West’s middle class, while politically, their hobby would lead to widespread demand for republican democracy, the right of privacy, and the freedoms of speech and religion.
In London, the unemployed Pain, raised and trained as a mechanic (though perhaps remiss in Poor Richard’s virtues) joined these Newtonians with gusto, buying a pair of globes, reading the newest scientific publications, and regularly attending evening lectures on the properties of air, the behavior of comets, the ingredients of light, and the engineering of pendulums. Drinking, smoking and arguing at the Club of Honest Whigs into all hours of the night, he met such fellow Enlighteneds as Benjamin Martin — spectacle-maker, mathematician, fossil collector, globe maker, and editor of The General Magazine of Arts and Sciences — and James Ferguson — Scottish astronomer, mechanical engineer, portrait painter, and author of the enormously popular Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles, and made easy to those who have not studied Mathematics. One of Ferguson’s neighbors, with whom he was collaborating on the design of a new clock, was the revered Franklin himself.
The Newtonians, however, did not limit their studies to mere physicks and opticks — the Enlightenment inspired them to question, debate and ponder all received ideas. If the very movement of the heavenly spheres was determined by a simple act of gravity and not the manipulations of an unseen, benevolent Almighty, after all, weren’t there other laws to be uncovered by gentlemen … laws of biology, sociology, even, perhaps, government? Their constant lectures and debates would over time evolve far from Newton’s arithmetic, into a consideration of the most astonishing questions of the century, one of which would make Thomas Paine famous in every city across the globe: Why should there be kings?
Despite his various professional failings and relentless poverty, Pain’s intelligence and charm had taken him to the august perihelion of his era’s most sophisticated culture. When the Office of Excise then refused to hire him back, however, and the grocery business he’d inherited from his second father-in-law collapsed entirely, he saw nowhere to turn but the American colonies. In 1774, barely able to walk from typhus, he disembarked onto the streets of Philadelphia with but two assets. One was his history with the Enlighteneds; half the population of Philadelphia, with 30-40% of its wealth, would turn out to be fellow mechanics. The other asset was a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to his son-in-law, Richard Bache: “The bearer Mr Thomas Pain is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man. He goes to Pennsylvania with a view of settling there. If you can put him in a way of obtaining employment as a clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor, of all of which I think him very capable, so that he may procure a subsistence at least, till he can make acquaintance and obtain a knowledge of the country, you will do well, and much oblige your affectionate father.”
Adrift in British America, Pain would discover a society about as wholly opposite to his accustomed ways in urban London as could be imagined, a land awfully distant from the bucolic Eden foretold by Rousseau. American, after all, was at that time a wholly pejorative term, referring to a provincial, backwards and inferior person or thing. In Philadelphia, Boston and New York, the Western Hemisphere’s three largest ports, packs of hogs foraged through the streets, garbage piled up into repulsive hillocks, and clouds of stinging mosquitoes and biting flies chased sailors all the way from the docks to the brothels. Even the food was primitive, the colonial breakfast and supper being cereal mashes, while the dinner, served between noon and three, was a boiled-for-hours stew that might include wild turkey, raccoon, deer, lobster or goose. The Massachusetts colony was at the time offering £100 for Indian scalps taken from males over the age of twelve, while female scalps brought £50. Nowhere in the continent could be found a bank, or currency of any kind; only promissory notes, credit and barter were used in America.
Pain would do his best in this far-flung wilderness to continue on with a London style of educated refinement. After meeting with Bache, he spent his days waiting for opportunity by browsing through the Philadelphia Library Company and the bookshop next door to his rented room at the corner of Front and Market. On January 10, 1775, that store’s owner, Robert Aitken, struck up a conversation with his almost-daily new customer, and eventually the topic turned to Aitken’s ownership of a printing press. Their friendship grew, enough so that, a few days later, Aitken offered Pain a job as executive editor of his brand-new Pennsylvania Magazine; or, American Monthly Museum.
Like nearly every periodical of its day, Pennsylvania was devoted to a smotheringly pleasant style of writing accompanied by illustrations of maidens, flowers, glades and scampering woodland creatures in a style reminiscent of Hummel figurines; its motto was “Happy it is to live in the woods.” A typical issue would include such other up-to-the-minute concerns as an explication of the constitution of beavers, a biography of Voltaire, a land-surveying mathematical puzzle, an essay on suicide, the announcement of a new machine for generating electricity, current Philadelphia commodity prices and, in full, the text of the Continental Congress’s writ to George III. Under Pain, the magazine would explore Enlightened beliefs in self-improvement and inexorable progress, and its circulation would jump from 600 to over 1500, making it the most popular magazine in North America.
At least a fifth of each issue would be contributed by such Pain pseudonyms as Atlanticus, Humanus, Aesop and Vox Populi, whose tone grew more pointed with every issue. When a March 1775 essay by Justice and Humanity argued that, as the colonists were essentially turning into slaves of the British, they should develop enough empathy to renounce their own treatment of Africans, its radical departure from the standard Pennsylvania fare immediately caught the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush. A pioneer in numerous areas of social reform as well as one of colonial America’s foremost physicians, a Philadelphia scion, and a fellow customer of the Aitken bookshop, Rush was, like Pain, strong-willed, vehemently anti-slavery, and always happy to say exactly what was on his mind. They differed, however, in that the doctor was an early-to-bed, early-to-rise disciple of Franklinian discipline, and no friend to liquor.
When Pennsylvania became a clear and consistent moneymaker, Pain thought he deserved a raise beyond the meager £50 a year he’d accepted as starter pay. Aitken, however, considered the £50 perfectly commensurate, and while the two spent the next six months arguing about money, Pain would contribute less and less to the magazine. Instead, in the summer of 1775, he began drafting an extended essay to be published elsewhere. By the end of September, he was able to bring a rough version to Rush’s house to read aloud for a select audience of like-minded thinkers and, after incorporating their critiques, in December he passed out copies to such fellow Enlighteneds as astronomer David Rittenhouse, Boston rebel Samuel Adams, and benefactor Benjamin Franklin. Rush then presented the revised typescript to every Philadelphia printer; all save Robert Bell refused the job outright, with Bell insisting on a ludicrous 50% of all profits for his printing and distribution services. On January 9, 1776, the 96-page booklet was published at the outrageous price of two shillings (or ten dollars); its words were so incendiary that Bell’s was the only name on it, the sole author credit being “written by an Englishman.”
Common Sense would use such avant-garde and enlightened concepts as the inherent equality of human beings and the inanity of inherited power to detonate colonial fealty for King George III and his Parliament. The writing was part inspirational — why shouldn’t a new nation become a New World model of new ideas, a beacon of freedom and human progress? — and part bilious attack. Its position was so cleverly, so logically made, however, that North American readers could find no fault with its argument.
Every monarch is an accidental despot, Pain illustrated, with George’s authority solely due to an ancestry from William the Conqueror, a “French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives.” After demonstrating the absurdity of royal position (an idea perhaps obvious in our time, but blasphemous and seditious in his), Pain’s cumulative effect was to inspire in his local reader an entirely new identity: why remain with an old and corrupted Europe when you could join a vibrant new world and new nation? Though Franklin, both Adamses and a very few others had argued the merits of independent statehood in private, Common Sense was the first to do so in public, John Adams even having to admit that it was “a tolerable summary of the arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months.”
The book was such a success that within days, Bell, Pain and Pennsylvania Packet publisher W & T Bradford (issuers of an instant pirate edition) were publicly warring over distribution across the copyright-free frontier of Philadelphia. Bell would go on to issue numerous editions on his own, while Paine (as he would now spell it in the credited versions) would pay for his own printings to be distributed by the Bradfords, as the Bradfords were simultaneously selling their own copies. Other publishers shipped versions throughout New York, Salem, Hartford, Lancaster, Albany, Providence, Lancaster and Norwich; by the end of the month, a German translation had appeared; and by the end of April, French editions were available in Quebec. Adams noted it was “received in France and in all of Europe with Rapture,” eventually to include Warsaw, Edinburgh, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Dubrovnik and Moscow. In time, Thomas Paine’s first book would sell at least 500,000 copies domestically at a time when the nation’s population (including slaves) was a bare three million — the equivalent of thirty-five million copies today. Over half the citizens of the turbulent North American colonies either read it, or had it read to them, and Paine’s share of the proceeds (which he donated to the American government, as he would do with all his copyrights), were used to buy the nascent Continental Army its mittens.
Though the manufacture of pamphlets like Common Sense had been dramatically escalating across Europe and its colonies as a means to spur public debate, Paine’s breakthrough popularity would mean something else altogether. Here was not only the moment that signaled the birth of today’s mass media, but an argument that would change the course of history. Virginia’s Edmund Randolph reported that “the public sentiment which a few weeks before shuddered at the tremendous obstacles, with which independence was environed, overleaped every barrier,” while in Connecticut, a reviewer noted, “We were blind, but on reading these enlightening words the scales have fallen from our eyes,” and an observer in Massachusetts said, “I believe no pages was ever more eagerly read, nor more generally approved. People speak of it in rapturous praise.” George Washington pronounced Common Sense “sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning . . . working a wonderful change in the minds of many men,” and in a letter to a friend in London, one Bostonian summed up: “Independence a year ago could not have been publickly mentioned with impunity … Nothing else is now talked of, and I know not what can be done by Great Britain to prevent it.”
The book aroused such depths of passion that when a group of New Yorkers learned that printer Samuel London was going to issue a critical rejoinder, forty of them forced their way into his home, demanding to know the name of the author. London refused; the mob broke into his printing office, took the 1500 copies already manufactured, assembled at the nearest common, and put them to the torch. Regardless its rabid defenders, however, Common Sense would trigger a spate of critical response, most notably John Adams’s Thoughts on Government, which called for two legislative bodies, an independent judiciary, and a veto-wielding chief selected by the legislatures. After reading Thoughts, Paine appeared at Adams’s room in Mrs. Yard’s boardinghouse to complain. Adams held firm to the belief that his multi-part system would prevent the concentration of power in any one person or branch of government; Paine feared that a public attack by such a respected patriot as Adams could only help reinforce the Tory faith in King George. They fought terribly, and eventually, their friendship would be ruined … a fate that would strike the bonds of almost every American founder in the years following independence.
The dispute between Britain and her New World colonies which inspired Common Sense had been escalating for over a decade and focused on two issues: money and class. England may have triumphed over France in the Great War for the Empire, but those seven years of battle had been absurdly expensive, with annual government expenses rising from £6,500,000 to £14,500,000, driving taxes to an all-time high. Since Britain now had to defend the colonies from Spain and the 500 nations of Native America, these costs would continue inexorably, and many in Parliament couldn’t help but believe that it would be more than fair for the North Americans to be held responsible for this burden.
The Crown’s first attempt at extracting additional revenue from her New World territories would be the Stamp Act of 1765, a duty on just about anything printed on paper: legal writs, newspaper ads, and even merchant bills of lading. Besides having as its primary victims the most articulate and influential colonials (such as publishers like Ben Franklin and smugglers like John Hancock), the Stamp Act was the first internal tax levied by Parliament, redirecting to London monies that by English tradition had always been dispensed locally — a move that, to the colonists, was a striking diminution of their status and authority. In reply, mobs in Boston and other towns rioted, forcing stamp distributors to renounce their posts and bringing legal business to a halt.
The Act was repealed but on the same day, the Declaratory Act was passed, granting Parliament the power to legislate the territories “in all cases whatsoever,” with new duties imposed on the great majority of New World imports: lead, glass, paint, paper, and even tea. More than a few on the receiving end saw this as another step into subservience, not helped by the fact that the English commonly referred to Parliament and the Crown as parents, with colonists being their children. The Americans wanted to be viewed as fellow Britons, not as Raj Hindu heathens, and for the first time, the thirteen colonies acted jointly, in an organized boycott of English goods.
In reply, on September 30, 1768, a fleet of His Majesty’s warships appeared in Boston harbor; the next day, 1,000 armed redcoats, followed by their officers in full armor, paraded up Kings Street and assembled at the cow pasture known as Boston Common. In mid-November, two more regiments arrived, and a cannon was aimed directly at the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s House of Representatives. In the days that followed, soldiers walked through the streets swinging cutlasses, tearing rips into the locals’ trousers and shoulders, and randomly jabbed townspeople with the butts of their bayonets. Coming upon some slaves one night after a bout of drinking, a British captain screamed, “Go home and cut your masters’ throats!” In an atmosphere where fighting regularly broke out between the troops and the colonials, rumor circulated that a Crown-approved massacre was forthcoming at any moment, during which renegade Boston would be fully destroyed.
On March 5th, differences between soldiers and citizenry turned into something else as a mob grew and assaulted the redcoats with icicles, sticks, snowballs and rocks. The townspeople taunted the soldiers to fire on them and eventually, they did. Five were killed, and patriots spread the news across the colonies of this Boston Massacre, which funeral parade would comprise 10,000-12,000 marchers.
In 1773, the Crown came to the aid of the failing East India Company by allowing the Company to use its own agents instead of independent merchants and thereby undersell the more popular smuggled leaves. If this cavalier attitude and method of business were applied on a regular basis, the Americans realized, their society would never develop financially and their trader and merchant class would be decimated by English caprice. On Nov 2nd, Bostonians voted to refuse import of East India product, and on December 16th, around fifty men blackened their faces with burnt cork to look something like the local Mohawks and assaulted four East India ships, axing 342 chests (worth £10,000) and throwing the casks into the water. The next morning, floating islands of tea had to be pushed by sailors out of the harbor to keep the traffic lanes clear, and mounds of sodden leaves landed on the Massachusetts beaches all the way to Dorchester. In reply, Parliament unanimously passed the Port Act, moving Boston’s customs office to Plymouth and its provincial government to Salem. On June 4th, General Thomas Gage ordered the harbor closed, his army, camping on Boston Common, now numbering 4,000 in a town of 17,000. King George exulted: “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit, or triumph.”
The North Americans answered with Common Sense. In June 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a five-man committee headed by Thomas Jefferson to follow in Paine’s footsteps and publish an independence manifesto that would include “the miseries we have endured, and the peaceful methods which we have ineffectually used for redress.” On July 1st, nine of the thirteen colonies endorsed Jefferson’s manifesto. After Congress learned that the British were preparing to attack New York City, the next day’s vote for the Declaration was unanimous.
An independence-minded Paine joined up with the Pennsylvania Associators on a July 7th march to Perth Amboy, New Jersey to repel a British invasion. This turned out to be a false alarm and Paine, alone, continued on to Fort Lee, getting hired as General Nathanael Greene’s aide-de-camp and additionally working as war correspondent for the Philadelphia papers. On August 27th, the Americans in Brooklyn looked on helplessly as a mass of German mercenaries and redcoats launched a massive surprise attack on the outlying rebel forts and troops, decimating them. Under the cover of a dark fog the next day, Washington and his army used every boat available to make a full retreat into Manhattan.
On September 15th at 4 AM, 32,000 British troops began their assault. Americans on the first line of defense fled at the mere sound of the enemy’s gunships, while others held up their hands in surrender to attacking Hessians, only to be shot in the face. Within twelve hours, the British were marching down Broadway, cheered on by Tory locals who painted a red ‘R’ for rebel on the door of every patriot home. In their retreat to Harlem Heights, Washington’s volunteers deserted en masse, until only 10,000 remained.
In mid-October, the lobsterbacks drove the continentals all the way to White Plains. On Nov 16th, an attack on the Hudson River’s Fort Washington yielded 2,858 American POWs and on the 30th, 2,000 New Jersey and Maryland militiamen, their contracts up, deserted. December 3rd: the British took Newport, Rhode Island and five days later, Trenton, New Jersey. December 13th: Washington and a mere 5,000-man American Army arrived on the west side of the Delaware River, directly across from Trenton, where the general was forced to send Congress a message that the nation’s capital was imperiled, and that they should plan immediately to evacuate.
When forces including Paine arrived at Washington’s camp, senior officers told the writer that the country needed him publishing, not fighting. Agreeing with this logic, Paine walked thirty-five miles to Philadelphia, expecting to be captured at any moment, and arrived home to find the city in chaos. News of defeat after defeat had triggered the vast majority of Philadelphia residents to flee, with Congress withdrawing to the backwater hamlet of Baltimore, and Tory loyalists preparing a grand welcome for the imminent and victorious arrival of the British army.
Paine frantically began writing the first of what he envisioned as a series of thirteen essays, one in honor of each colony. The Pennsylvania Journal published it the week before Christmas; printers Melchior Steiner and Carl Cist rushed 18,000 copies into the streets; other publishers immediately sent their own pirate editions across the continent. One version made its way back to the very source of Paine’s inspiration — the banks of the Delaware River.
At dusk on Christmas Day, 1776, Washington ordered his officers to gather their men into small squads, and read aloud The American Crisis. In twenty-one months of fighting, the rebels had not achieved one notable victory. Out of 5,000 remaining troops, the general knew that in six days, 1,500 contracts would expire.
The night brought hailstorms, which quieted into a driving and relentless sleet. Even though their crossing was a mere 300 yards, between the darkness and the ice floes blocking the river, it took the 4,000 troops nine hours to make it to the other side, the last of them arriving on the Jersey shore at 3 AM on Dec 26th. Trenton was an additional five-mile hike through a blizzard, and would not be reached before daylight ruined the surprise of their assault. More than a few of the Americans who marched their way to face a great and determined foe were either barefoot, or had naked feet tied up in rags. Across the icy road, they left smeared tracks of blood.
Waiting for them in Trenton were not British redcoats but Hessian mercenaries known for ponytails which hung to their waists, and moustaches dyed with boot-black. The British told their German employees a great deal about these New World enemies, particularly that, if caught, the Hessians could expect to be spit-roasted over an open fire like suckling pigs, their flesh eaten and their skin used for drumheads. What the English had failed to mention, however, was any caution against the grand German Christmas tradition of drinking until stupefied.
7:45 AM: The first of the Americans reached Trenton, only to discover every German sound asleep. Firing cannon and attacking with bayonet, the invigorated colonials screamed out the opening of Paine’s American Crisis: “These are the times that try men’s souls!” The fighting lasted ninety minutes. All three Hessian regiments surrendered, a total of nearly 1,000 prisoners. The full American casualties: four wounded.
Though Cornwallis would recover the town in a mere week, almost trapping Washington’s entire army, the Americans not only escaped, but went on to win another decisive battle at Princeton. These victories saved the American War for Independence and renewed the country’s spirit but, perhaps more importantly, between Tom Paine’s call to nationhood, a $10 bonus, and outright begging from General Washington, almost 1400 soldier-farmers agreed to extend their service contracts.
In March of 1783, as victorious American delegates hammered out a treaty with England, Paine celebrated the triumph of peace and independence by vacationing with George Washington. The two spent much of their time together conducting scientific experiments to determine the source of a mysterious, ignitable gas emanating from a brook on the general’s property, and then traveled to New York City in the wake of the final British evacuation. There, after Washington bid farewell to his soldiers, he included Paine in a triumphant parade down Broadway.
Though Tom had foresworn almost every profit from his writings — either in donations to the government, or to enable the work to be sold as cheaply as possible — he never needed to want for much, being always able to count on well-to-do friends for outright grants or at least hospitable offers of unending room and board. Even so, he was fully knowledgeable of England’s history of government support for its authors, and fervently believed the new nation should institute a similar policy. He petitioned Congress on the matter; after much prodding by Washington, that body granted him $3,000, and the state of Pennsylvania gave him an additional £500, but the biggest gift of all came from the New York Senate: a 300-acre farm in New Rochelle abandoned by its Tory owner. Paine, no farmer in talent or inclination, wanted to immediately sell this property, but couldn’t without looking churlish. Instead, he rented it out to a tenant, used the proceeds to pay off his debts, and built a stable for his good horse, Button. Since this gift meant he now owned more than £50 of property, Thomas Paine, for the first time in his life, was allowed to vote.
Though Common Sense and The American Crisis had made him an author of worldwide fame and popularity, Paine’s childhood training as a mechanic and salad years with the London Newtonians kept carrying him back to the life of the artisan/scientist. Franklin called him my “adopted political son” and one day, as the two were conducting experiments on the extinguishability of candles, Paine outlined the idea he believed would bring him fame and fortune in the artisan world. So many of our North American rivers are clogged with ice in the winter, he told Franklin; surely a bridge with only one arch could be crafted from iron, perhaps even cheaply prefabricated at the smelter’s? The world’s most famous artisan thought this was a capital idea, and on April 26, 1787, the fifty-year-old Paine left for Paris, again clutching letters of introduction from an indulgent Franklin.
France greeted his arrival with the dazzling attention and respect of his dreams, the high society of Paris considering him both a great philosophe and a representative hero-son of the American experiment. On August 29th his bridge was endorsed by the French Academy of Sciences, and he sailed to London to show the design to Newton’s Royal Society, stopping along the way to visit his ninety-one-year-old mother in Thetford (father Joseph having died the previous November), and arranging for her to receive a pension of nine shillings a week. His bridge received an English patent (in the application, he credited a spider’s web for providing the design’s inspiration), and he was able to convince a smelter to craft a model. It opened to the public on September 28th, and flopped miserably.
During Paine’s continued efforts to have the bridge taken up by other foundries, English politician Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, an attack illuminating how the new politics across the channel had led to an outrageous and preposterous “insolent irreligion in opinions,” such as “a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman.” English nobles responded with an outpouring of warmth for Burke’s defense of their divine rights; George III repeatedly announced that “every gentleman should read it.” Reflections was a public sensation; within two months, seventeen articles supporting its ideas were published.
Not every writer would end up concurring with Burke, however. Inspired into high dudgeon, Paine finished the first 40,000 words of his reply in three months. This was, after all, one of the key topics that he and his fellow Newtonians had spent the last two decades debating: Why should there be kings? They had concluded that only an unenlightened mind would imagine a God creating royals and aristocrats to reign over other men, which point Tom would now argue with historic vigor.
In trying to portray the forthcoming terrors of democracy, Burke had prophesied that the mobs of the French revolution weren’t just replacing their government; they were indeed a force that could destroy all civilization. Paine replied that the only source of state power was a nation’s citizens (in France’s case, that very mob), and that the current English monarchial system was unjust, humiliating, and patently nonsensical: “The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; as absurd as an hereditary poet laureate.” In reply to Burke’s use of tradition and history to justify a monarchist political belief, Paine noted: “Only the living can exercise the rights of man.”
The work was dedicated to Washington and scheduled to be printed on his birthday, February 22nd. However, Crown agents “inspected” the offices of Paine’s London printer so repeatedly that he withdrew at the last minute, and the author had to scramble to find a new distributor. The Rights of Man appeared on March 3, 1791, and immediately became the fastest selling book in the history of publishing. At a time when Great Britain was a country of ten million (with a 40% literacy rate) and most English novels sold 1250 copies (while nonfiction averaged 750), in its first three months of sale, Rights sold 50,000 copies in its official edition, not to mention the pirated, serialized and excerpted versions.
Paine’s most diligent readers would, however, turn out to be state employees hoping to find cause to charge him with sedition. When crown barristers eventually decided that the arguments in Rights were too cleanly made to prevail in court, the government hired Scots lawyer and onetime resident of Maryland George Chalmers to write (under the name Francis Oldys) a remarkably scurrilous attack veiled as The Life of Thomas Pain, Author of ‘The Rights of Man,” with a Defence of his Writings. As the documents of Paine’s first thirty-seven years would vanish over the ensuing centuries, all that we know today of his buccaneering, staymaking, shopkeeping, tax collecting and married lives have been derived or confirmed through the Chalmers/Oldys state-supported libel, a tabloid masquerade. Paine’s enemies on both continents would uses its words against him until the day he died.
Rights of Man, Part II was published February 16, 1792; over 100,000 copies of the two-part edition would be sold in America, triggering an outburst of controversy in the press, with Thomas Jefferson writing in support and John Quincy Adams on the attack. In Europe, Part II would even outsell its predecessor, becoming all over again the biggest bestseller in British history with 200,000 copies in print by the end of the year. The book’s success was so alarming that the English Secretary at War sent his Deputy Adjutant-General across the country to measure the severity of revolutionary feeling and the loyalty of the troops, in case a civil war was in the offing. He reported to the Crown that “the seditious doctrines of Paine and the factious people who are endeavoring to disturb the peace of the country had extended to a degree very much beyond my conception.” At the same time, government barristers found in Part II’s pages just the answer to His Majesty’s prayers.
On May 14th, Paine’s London publisher, J.S. Jordan, was ordered to appear at the Court of King’s Bench. Paine offered to pay for his defense, but Jordan pled guilty. On May 21, the Pitt government issued a writ against the author’s “wicked and seditious writings.” When asked to explain this in Parliament, the P.M. replied that “principles had been laid down by Mr. Paine which struck at hereditary nobility, and which went to the destruction of monarchy and religion, and the total subversion of the established form of government.” Booksellers were harassed by the police; many would be arrested, fined or sent to prison. Government spies monitored Paine sympathizers; debating clubs were shut down; tavern-keepers were encouraged to keep out Rights enthusiasts. A fake letter from Paine’s mother was circulated, complaining of his debts, the terrible treatment of his wife and his ‘undutiful behavior to the tenderest of parents.’ Across the country in Leeds, Cambridge, Lenewade Bridge, Heckmondwike, and Ripponden, effigies of Paine were hanged and then incinerated to the shouts of “God Save the King!” while local drinking songs concluded: “Up with the cause of old England; And down with the tricks of Tom Paine.” The London Times editorialized that “it is earnestly recommended to Mad Tom that he should embark for France and there be naturalized into the regular confusion of democracy.”
Documents would later reveal that the Pitt government concurred with the Times, hoping that a relentless harassment would convince Paine to emigrate. The writer, certain that this moment was Common Sense all over again and that English republican revolt was nigh, at first refused to take the bait, but the pressure was raised until he capitulated. On September 15th, surrounded by a hostile mob of chanting Dovermen, Thomas Paine left the country of his birth for the last time.
The now fifty-five-year-old had spent years under attack through the machinations of the British aristocracy. He would arrive in France to a hero’s embrace. The Paris Commune had voted on August 26, 1790 to grant honorary citizenship to seventeen foreigners, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Thomas Paine, “who, by their writings and by their courage, have served the cause of liberty and prepared the freedom of the people.” When he arrived in Calais in exile, the officer of the guard, with every soldier on duty standing at attention, presented him with the national cockade (a hat ribbon and symbol of French democracy), while artillery fired a salute. As he rode to an inn, crowds lined the road in drenching rains, screaming, “Vive Thomas Paine! Vive la nation!” At the town’s central square, he was greeted before an assembled crowd by the mayor, who announced he had been elected to the National Convention from Pas-de-Calais, even though he could not speak or read French. When Tom arrived in the city of Paris to take his seat at the National Convention, he was greeted all over again by the cheers of adoring fellow delegates: “Vive Thomas Paine!”
If France’s newest legislator was expecting to relive the remarkably benign experience of the American revolution (accompanied by the sophisticated delights of Paris), however, those pleasant hopes would be violently curtailed. On June 21, 1791, the Marquis de Lafayette, a close friend from his prior years in the city, came to Tom’s room just after dawn with remarkable news: “The birds are flown!” Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their family had abandoned the palace, and as the news spread across the capital, larger and larger mobs, chaotic and menacing, grew in the streets.
Paine left his apartment in such a rush to witness this moment of history that he forgot his hat and its tricolor ribbon worn by every republican. A mob, seeing his naked head, assumed he must be an enemy of the Revolution; they ripped his clothes to shreds and kicked and beat him to the ground. One by one, they took up the most dreadful cry: “Aristocrat! A la lanterné!” The results of “a la lanterné” could be seen everywhere at that moment in Paris –– hundreds of bodies, hanging from public street lamps. After these “aristocrats” had died, their lynch mob would severe the heads with a butcher’s knife, disembowel the torsos, and then thrust the heart, entrails and head onto pikes for a parade through the neighborhoods the dead man had frequented while alive. Just as Paine was about to be lanternéd, a pair of acquaintances arrived, and screamed out that this aristocrat was merely an ignorant American who’d forgotten his hat. Reluctantly, the mob listened and Paine was released.
The royal family’s flight in terror from the capital would turn out to be a fatal political error. Where previously the majority of French citizens had been inclined towards some form of constitutional monarchy, public sentiments now reversed overnight in favor of a pure republic, with no monarch required. The mood of the nation even inspired Paine to found La Société des Republicains, writing a manifesto (which his four fellow Republicains plastered on walls all over the city) explaining that the King’s flight meant both abdication and a golden opportunity for the nation. Within two years, every member of this Société except Paine would be dead, either from the guillotine or by his own hand.
In London, King George III and P.M. William Pitt wanted to ensure Paine could never again be a worry to His Majesty’s government. Beginning December 17, 1792, with a jury hand-picked by the Crown, the author of Rights of Man, Part II was tried in absentia at Guildhall, the defense led by Thomas Erskine, Attorney General to the Prince of Wales, and the country’s most successful criminal lawyer. The Prince had sworn he’d dismiss Erskine from the royal sinecure if he took on Paine as a client, and that promise was kept.
Erskine’s opening defense speech lasted four hours. When the prosecution stood to reply, the jury foreman announced no more time need be wasted since they had arrived at an immediate verdict of guilty. If Paine ever returned to Britain, he could be summarily imprisoned, and most likely hanged. That day of judgment would symbolize the country’s enormous political divide, for as one publisher was taken off to prison in chains, Erskine was carried through the streets by a cheering mob of republican champions.
In Paris, Paine attended every session at the National Convention, though it’s unlikely, considering his lack of knowledge of either French language or history, that he grasped the auditorium’s political geography. To the left of the podium in the very highest benches sat the followers of Robespierre; from their altitude, they were nicknamed the Mountaineers (and later known as Jacobins). Around and within their orbit were arrayed such allied groups as the Dantonistes, the Enrages and the Herbertistes, while directly on the other side of the hall gathered the group who would become their foes and victims, a group whose most famous orators were from the department Gironde and who would be known as Girondists.
In the first committee to draft a new French constitution (with Paine attending to offer his American expertise), the Girondists held a clear majority. Their work was regarded by the Convention as an out-and-out failure, however, and immediately the Jacobins began a rival committee to draft their own version. Even the less-than-astute Paine felt this new wind, and immediately started avoiding his Girondist colleagues to spend more time in dialogue with Jacobin ally Georges-Jacques Danton.
After the royal family had been captured and brought back to the capital, the Convention unanimously voted that “royalty be abolished in France,” and spent two months deciding whether or not the King should be put on trial, and what that procedure might be. Louis-Antoine-Léon de Saint-Just announced that since being royal was now a crime, Louis XVI should just be executed forthwith. Paine argued that state bloodshed was anathema to the civil society which any democratic republic needs in order to function — if the French were going to kill their King, he reasoned, why not also send to the guillotine his ministers, their aides, the entire French nobility . . . where would it end? The address concluded: “Louis XVI, considered as an individual, is an object beneath the notice of the Republic.” Robespierre stood to reply: “Louis declared war on the Revolution, he has been defeated, and now it is the duty of the Convention to see that revolutionary justice is done. It must be done! Royalty must be abolished!” The argument split the Convention in half, and in Jacobin eyes, Paine was not on their side.
On December 11th, citizen Capet was brought to the Convention for a three-hour interrogation. Paine again tried to talk the delegates out of regicide, implying that a Jacobin rush to execution was exactly the behavior of a corrupt despot, and pointed out that even Robespierre had in the past publicly denounced capital punishment. He suggested that the Capets be exiled to the United States, where they would in time vanish from history, as had happened to the English Stuarts a century before.
The Convention voted on the King’s fate that same day and almost unanimously found him guilty. In the ensuing debates over punishment, Paine begged once again for clemency. A disgusted Jean-Paul Marat moved to have the American’s vote nullified, claiming he was a Quaker and thus “his religious views run counter to capital punishment.” Responding with a similar level of threat, Paine declared that France’s only ally in the world was the United States, whose people would not look kindly on an execution. On January 19th, the final vote was called: 380 to 310, in death’s favor. Two days later, Louis was guillotined.
Before coming to France, Paine had promised a friend that, “if the French kill their King, it will be a signal for my departure, for I will not abide among such sanguinary men.” Now, however, he was caught. He could not return to England, and a passage to America would be perilous. The Atlantic shipping lanes were guarded by a British navy that stood ready to board French or American vessels, and would return a criminal such as Paine directly to London’s prisons. Even if he could make it to the safety of North America, his house and barn in New Rochelle had burned to the ground from a lightning storm, and he would have to scramble to find a source of income. Finally, besides the chaos and the bloodshed, Paine lived at the very center of Parisian social life, to which the backwoods of Philadelphia held little allure.
On June 2nd, the Jacobins convinced the Parisian mob that the actions of the Girondins proved they have become enemies of the people. That day, representative Paine tried to enter the Convention building, but was refused. Waiting to see what might happen, he met up with Danton, who warned Paine to watch his step as he could so easily be included on the list of Jacobin enemies. The American commented that one writer was surely correct in comparing the French Republic to Saturn, who ate his children; the Frenchman replied: “Revolutions cannot be made with rosewater.”
To the mob’s shouts of “Purge the Convention! Let it bleed!” the Jacobins threw thirty-one of their fellow deputies into prison, Robespierre justifying it as a “moral insurrection,” with Saint-Just saying, “those who make revolutions by halves dig their own grave.” On October 3rd, Paine was publicly called a traitor for being a foreigner and a supporter of Louis Capet; on October 15th, the Tribunal criminel-révolutionnaire began. Its actions would become known as the Reign of Terror.
Robespierre wrote himself a note: “Demand that a decree of accusation be passed against Thomas Paine, for the interests of America and France as well.” At that time, Paine recalled, “I saw my life in continual danger. My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off, and as I every day expected the same fate, I resolved to begin my work. I appeared to myself to be on my death-bed, for death was on every side of me, and I had no time to lose.”
At 4 AM on Christmas Day, 1793, Paine was awakened by five policemen and two Committee of General Security agents pounding at his hotel door. The CSG had called for the arrest of all foreign deputies; they ransacked his rooms looking for suspicious documents, and finally discovered the pages of a new manuscript. Reading it over, one CSG agent said to the author, “It is an interesting work; it will do much good.” As Paine was led away to Luxembourg prison, he arranged to get the manuscript into the hands of printer Joel Barlow.
Confined to a ten-by-eight ground-floor cell with a boarded-over window, he was fully shocked by the Luxembourg’s barbaric conditions: “The state of things in the prisons was a continued scene of horror. No man could count upon life for 24 hours.” On January 20th, eighteen Americans presented a petition to the Convention for Paine’s release. The tactic had worked twice before with other U.S. citizens; it didn’t work now. Paine then wrote to Gouverneur Morris, a long-time nemesis and America’s commercial representative in France, saying that the Jacobins “have nothing against me, except that they do not choose I should be in a state of freedom to write my mind freely upon things I have seen.” He’d hit the mark; the French worried about Paine informing Americans of the blood pouring through the streets of Paris, with Robespierre noting that, “America has not clearly pronounced her opinion concerning the French Revolution.” For six months, no French prisoner was allowed contact in any way with the outside world, and Morris would do nothing to help the author of Common Sense.
By June, 80,000 French citizens had been incarcerated. “To such a pitch of rage and suspicion were Robespierre and his committee arrived, that it seemed as if they feared to leave a man living,” Paine remembered. “Scarcely a night passed in which ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more were taken out of the prison, carried before a pretended tribunal in the morning, and guillotined before night.” At the end of March 1794, Georges-Jacques Danton and his followers were arrested and sent to the Luxembourg; when Paine saw his fellow deputy, Danton admitted, “That which you did for the happiness and liberty of your country, I tried in vain to do for mine . . . I have been less fortunate but not less innocent. They will send me to the scaffold; very well, my friends, I shall go gaily.” On April 5th, he did.
Danton’s death was not a bright omen for his one-time American ally. Paine hurriedly revised the book he’d handed over on his arrest, trying to satisfy two masters. As the guillotine loomed, he hoped to create the work for which he’d be remembered by history, and simultaneously, he attempted to write something that might win Robespierre’s favor and clemency. Friends arranged for the revisions to be smuggled out of prison and, even with Paine convicted of sedition, London publishers released his last book in the second month of 1794.
The Age of Reason was a striking departure from everything else Paine had written, and would have a major effect on his place in history; it would cauterize his reputation for the next two hundred years. Beginning as an attempt to analyze spirituality from an Enlightened point of view, Age segued into an out-and-out attack on organized religion, most notably Christianity (though Judaism and Islam were not left unscathed). Paine saw history as proving that, instead of helping ordinary people, religion always ended up promoting inequalities of wealth and power, and argued that all established faiths, in order to attract and keep adherents, pretended to be infallible, with intolerance and persecution the inevitable result. He called the Bible “the world’s worst-read best-seller … a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind,” but remarked that Jesus Christ “was a virtuous and amiable man.”
All over again, The Age of Reason became the biggest bestseller of the 18th C. In the United States, seventeen editions were printed (one selling over 100,000 copies in 1797 alone). Even with His Majesty’s government persecuting any bookseller caught distributing it, Age became an immense underground sensation in England.
Understanding that popularity is remarkably difficult today. In terms of its ideas (if not its uniquely Paineist vitriol), much of Age was in fact fairly mainstream with the Enlighteneds, and its critique of religion would’ve been considered mildly controversial at most. John Adams, for example, said the Bible was filled with “whole cartloads of trumpery,” while the speller used by children first learning to read in colonial Massachusetts, The New England Primer, had a frontispiece of the Pope being struck with darts. As the centuries passed, however, The Age of Reason’s controversy would intensify, with a startling impact on its author’s reputation. Though he stated repeatedly in its pages that “I believe in one God, and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life,” and discussed his own Deist beliefs (a popular ideology of the Enlighteneds, shared by Jefferson, Franklin and Voltaire), many readers over the years would interpret the book’s message as a promotion of atheism. This misreading would ultimately overshadow all of Paine’s other historic achievements.
On June 10, 1794, France’s National Assembly passed the Law of the 22nd Prairial, granting the Tribunal criminel-révolutionnaire absolute power and allowing its judges two verdicts: acquittal or death. For the next forty-seven days, nearly thirty Frenchmen would be guillotined every twenty-four hours, with 161 executed in one night of frenzy.
That same month, Paine became deathly ill with typhus. His temperature spiked, and he could not retain consciousness for more than a few minutes at a time. His Belgian cellmates (also foreigners caught up in France’s civil disorder) tried to do what they could to keep him comfortable.
On July 24th, Public Prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville presented to the governing committees the lists of the accused, the executed, and those who would be executed on the next day. Paine’s name appeared on this final list.
That morning a prison employee walked through the halls of the Luxembourg, chalking a mark on each door of the condemned. On Paine’s, he scrawled a ‘4’ to indicate that all four cellmates were to be guillotined. The Belgians, however, had gotten permission to leave the door open to let in some breeze to relieve Paine’s suffering. The trusty dutifully marked the inside frame of the door.
That night, the Belgians explained to a guard that Paine had recovered, and permission was granted to close the door. At 11 PM, the death squad cart rolled by, already filled with chained prisoners. The ‘4,’ however, was now hidden, and the four lives were temporarily spared.
A few days later, Robespierre fell — his own trial, attempted suicide, and execution on July 28, 1794 ended the Reign of Terror. In five weeks, 1,376 citizens had perished in its wake. Simultaneously, Paine’s long-time nemesis, Gouverneur Morris, was replaced as American minister in France by James Monroe. Paine wrote to Monroe four times about his imprisonment, with no response. On September 4th, a Luxembourg visitor explained that Monroe was unable to intervene since the American Congress considered Paine a French citizen, subject to French laws. Paine, enraged, spent the next ten days composing a forty-three page treatise on the meaning of citizenship for Monroe’s edification. On November 2nd, Monroe wrote to the Committee of General Security, asking that either Paine be brought to trial and his guilt proven, or he be immediately released. On November 6, 1794, after ten months and nine days in chains, Paine was freed.
Even after he was readmitted to the National Convention, given 1800 livres in back pay, and taken in by Monroe and his family, Tom could not forget the injustice he had suffered. His bitterness, however, wasn’t directed against the French intoxicated by revolutionary zeal, but against his American colleagues, who had not lifted a finger to help. The more Tom ruminated, the angrier he became, and on September 20, 1795, he wrote a j’accuse of endless grievance to George Washington which concluded, “I shall continue to think you treacherous, till you give me cause to think otherwise.” Washington declined to reply, igniting Paine’s anger to even greater heights; he told Monroe that Washington “has acted towards me the part of a cold blooded traitor,” and on July 30, 1796, wrote an exposé for Benjamin Franklin Bache, Franklin’s grandson, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, and longtime Washington foe. In Letter to Washington, Paine said that the general deserved no credit for winning the war, and called him “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life . . . it has some time been known by those who know him, that he has no friendships; that he is incapable of forming any; he can serve or desert a man, or a cause, with constitutional indifference; and it is this cold, hermaphrodite faculty that imposed itself upon the world . . . .”
Despite the intensity of these animosities, however, Paine dreamed of coming home to America for his final years. His English troubles still meant that a crossing was perilous. When James Monroe was recalled to Washington, in fact, his boat home was stopped by a British warship, and a boarding party searched it for signs of the criminal Thomas Paine.
French publisher Nicolas de Bonneville offered to replace Monroe as Paine’s host for a brief stay; Paine would live with the de Bonnevilles for the next five years. The famous author and legislator’s social whirl, however, may have compensated for his lifelong disinterest in paying rent. One visitor at this time was inventor Robert Fulton, who looked over Paine’s bridge sketches and made many admiring comments. Paine in turn declared Fulton’s paddle-wheel steamboat design a waste, reasoning that “the weight of the apparatus necessary to produce steam is greater than the power of the steam to remove that weight.” Another guest was Napoleon Bonaparte, who said he slept every night with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow and that “a statue of gold should be erected to you in every city in the universe.” As Bonaparte became more and more dictatorial, however, Paine turned against him, telling a friend that he was “the completest charlatan that ever existed.” This talk did not go unnoticed — at a dinner celebrating the First Consul’s return from Egypt, he stared Paine in the face while saying in a voice loud enough to be heard by many, “The English are all alike; in every country they are rascals.” When Paine’s landlord published an article comparing Bonaparte to Cromwell, he was arrested and imprisoned.
When on March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the president of the United States, replacing Paine foe John Adams, the stage was set for a glorious homecoming. Two weeks later, the President wrote Paine that he had arranged for the U.S. warship Maryland to bring him back safely if he wished, and concluded: “that you may long live to continue your useful labors and to reap the reward in the thankfulness of nations is my sincere prayer.” Paine dithered, and Maryland sailed without him, but within a year, France and England signed a new treaty which included terms allowing Paine to cross the Atlantic without fear of impressment. On October 30, 1802, at the invitation of the President of the United States, he, Mme. de Bonneville, and her children arrived at the Baltimore docks to journey to the new capital of Washington, D.C.
It would turn out to be a long way from Paris. Built over a swamp, one observer described the would-be city, population 291, as “where monuments had been planned brush piles moldered and rubbish heaps accumulated. Where majestic avenues were to sweep, swaths of tree stumps stood, rough quarried stone marking the intersections. Cows grazed on future plazas and bullfrogs chorused on the mall. Wildlife overran the premises.”
There would be more shocks to come, especially if Paine even slightly imagined (as he undoubtedly did) that the nation would shower him with honors, welcoming him home as a hero of independence. At that moment, the United States was surging through a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, and anyone even mildly devout felt no kindness for the author of The Age of Reason. Others loathed Paine for writing the uniquely vitriolic Letter to Washington (well remembered even though it had been published six years before) and, during a period of remarkably vicious political bickering, Federalist partisans hated him for Common Sense’s ideas of government, for his ties to the French revolution, and for his friendship with Jefferson. The Federalist press went after him with a mouth-foaming fury, its General Advertiser calling Paine “that living opprobrium of humanity . . . the infamous scavenger of all the filth which could be raked from the dirty paths which have been hitherto trodden by all the revilers of Christianity;” the Baltimore Republican referred to him as “this loathsome reptile,” the Philadelphia Port Folio said he was “a drunken atheist, and the scavenger of faction,” while Boston’s Mercury and New-England Palladium called him a “lying, drunken brutal infidel, who rejoiced in the opportunity of basking and wallowing in the confusion, devastation, bloodshed, rapine, and murder, in which his soul delights.” Paine’s homecoming even inspired William Cobbett to immediately reprint the Crown-commissioned Francis Oldys attack “biography.” So notorious was his reputation, in fact, that Tom needed help from a presidential aide and had to register under a pseudonym just to find a hotel room. When his whereabouts were uncovered, one Federalist wrote: “He dines at the public table, and, as a show, is as profitable to Lovell [the Washington boardinghouse owner] as an Ourang Outang, for many strangers who come to the city feel a curiosity to see the creature.”
The hostilities would not abate. Benjamin Rush was so disgusted by The Age of Reason that when Paine visited Philadelphia in February 1803, he refused to see him. When the author then tried to get a seat on the express coach to New York, two drivers turned him down, and by the time he was smuggled aboard a third, a mob had heard the news and began pelting the carriage with rocks. Paine loudly announced to the crowd that “such conduct had no tendency to hurt his feelings or injure his fame,” and they finally let him go. Once, a sympathetic seed merchant learned his whereabouts and arranged to meet the author of The Rights of Man. For shaking Paine’s hand, his Presbyterian church suspended him from singing for three months. Supporters, however, threw Paine dinner after dinner and party after party and, anytime he was in Washington, Jefferson regularly invited him, regardless of the political consequences, to dine at the Presidential mansion.
That relationship would bring Paine one last moment in the sun, and to the very center of an international crisis. In 1795, Spain had signed a treaty permitting American access to the port of New Orleans; six years later, Bonaparte acquired Louisiana, and on October 16, 1802, the territory’s acting intendant cancelled the agreement, closing the Mississippi to American traffic. This was a catastrophe for the area’s settlers, and the response was frenzied: Alexander Hamilton wrote that the only answer would be to immediately seize New Orleans and the Floridas by force, and then negotiate a new arrangement with France . . . or declare war against her forthwith. Paine, knowing something of France’s eternal financial woes, suggested there was another answer; Jefferson had entered negotiations to purchase New Orleans when Paine recommended the United States instead acquire the entire territory, at a bargain rate. On May 2, 1803, the United States bought Louisiana for $15 million, more than doubling the country’s size.
The last years of Thomas Paine’s life were not kind. A longtime New Rochelle tenant ran off without paying a great deal of back rent; Paine sued, and lost. When the next renter also stopped payment and had to be forcibly evicted by the Westchester magistrate, the man returned with a musket to kill his landlord, but he was too drunk to aim properly, and missed. Winter weather forced the now frail writer to New York City where he tried setting up a subscription business for his collected works — partly to have a little money, but mostly so that the radical ideas of the founding of America would be remembered — but poor health prevented him from seeing it through. The controversy continued; one friend complained that “you, who were once the companion of Washington, Jay, and Hamilton, are now deserted by every good man.” Paine replied: “I care not a straw for the opinions of the world.” On Oct 29, 1805, a bitter, 71-year-old John Adams would write to a friend in a state of pure froth: “I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.” Thirteen years later, Adams would comment in a letter to Jefferson that Common Sense was “a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass.”
In the summer of 1808, Tom found one last host, Cornelius Ryder, and lived with his family on Herring (now Bleecker) Street in the village of Greenwich, a mile and a half north of New York City. He asked to be buried in a Quaker cemetery, with a headstone having “my name and age engraved upon it, author of ‘Common Sense.’” The local Society of Friends refused. Mme. de Bonneville offered to arrange a burial on his farm, and Paine prophesied: “I have no objection to that. The farm will be sold, and they will dig my bones up before they be half rotten.”
He died on the morning of June 8, 1809, at around nine o’clock. De Bonneville, her two sons, some New Rochelle neighbors and a hired hand were the only attendants at his funeral. She had bought him a mahogany coffin, and had him dressed in muslin, with his neck and wrists tied with black ribbons. She then laid a rose atop his chest, and had him lowered into a barely-marked grave on the Westchester property.
Paine would keep his promise and give what little he had to the de Bonnevilles. One of the children, Benjamin, would gain fame through the writings of Washington Irving; he’d inherit all of Paine’s manuscripts and letters, and would store the lot in a St. Louis barn. The barn caught fire and was completely destroyed, with everything inside lost. In the early 1970s, workers were clearing out a shed in York, Pennsylvania when they came upon letters from an English woman addressed to Paine. They burned them.
Over time, his reputation would ebb and flow, burnished by Common Sense, The American Crisis and The Rights of Man; tarnished by The Age of Reason. Twenty years after his death saw a Paine revival; in England, he would become a hero to the workingman, his writings forming the backbone of the Labour Party, while in the U.S. of the 1830s, there were Paine birthday celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Albany. In 1834, 700 attended a birthday ball in New York City, and Americans such as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman publicly announced their great admiration. By 1925, however, American memory had so dwindled over Paine’s role in history that Thomas Edison would say, “although the present generation knows little of Paine’s writings, and although he has almost no influence upon contemporary thought, Americans of the future will justly appraise his work. I am certain of it.” In Thetford in 1964, a statue of Paine would be erected and in 1968, the Rights of Man pub opened; that same year, the United States gave him a postage stamp. This should be the end of this story — Edison’s comment, after all, still holds true to this day — but there remains the matter of the bones.
William Cobbett would spend the last fourteen years of his own life trying to get support for his grand Thomas Paine memorial, but all those efforts would come to naught. He died a bankrupt, and his creditors put his earthly possessions up for bid to pay off his debts. The London Times at the time claimed that the auctioneer refused to include a parcel “found to contain human bones, wrapped up in separate papers;” others say the parcel was indeed offered, yet drew no bids. Afterwards, Cobbett’s son either stored Paine in his attic or, it was said, buried the remains in the family plot.
The exact chain of events has perhaps been entirely lost, but however it happened, the bones began to scatter their way across the face of the earth. In the 1830s, a Unitarian minister announced he was the owner of Paine’s skull and right hand, but wouldn’t let anyone see them; in the 1930s, a Brighton woman clamed to have the jaw. There are those who say they have buttons made of Paine; a Frenchman seems to have a rib.
Today, in New South Wales, Australia, lives a man by the name of John Burgess, whose family is convinced that they are descendants of an illegitimate child born to Thomas Paine and Mme. de Bonneville. The Burgesses continue to believe in this ancestry even though, when such a rumor was printed during her lifetime, Mme. de Bonneville sued for defamation, and won. In 1988, a Sydney antiques dealer announced he had Paine’s skull for sale; John Burgess and his wife Hazel immediately went to see it. When they inspected the copperplate inscription THos PAINE, along with other markings which might be interpreted as the scratchings of Cobbett’s son, they came to believe in the skull’s authenticity, and bought it straight away. Hazel Burgess, a doctoral candidate in the School of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, is a longtime student of Paine; she has decided to try to raise $60,000 for DNA testing to see if the skull and a verified Paine source can be analyzed for a match. Dr. Tom Loy, a DNA fingerprint expert best known for his work on the “Ice Man” cadaver recently discovered in the Swiss-Italian Alps, has already extracted the needed biological materials from the skull.
On March 31, 2001, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association in association with the city of New Rochelle, New York announced a global mission: to bring back and reinter the founding father’s bones. While the Huguenots marching band of New Rochelle High School played Earth, Wind and Fire and Louis Prima at the ceremony, Cablevision pledged to contribute $1,000 in the search for the historic remains. “His picture should be up there with the founding fathers,” said Brian McCartin, TPNHA executive director. “Why isn’t it? Because he’s dangerous. But the bones, because of their unique and borderline bizarre nature … hopefully, that will get people interested in Paine first, and then make them realize that he was a true visionary.”
In an effort officially known as the Citizen Paine Restoration Initiative, the city and its historical society are calling on historians, dealers and collectors around the world to help track down as many bones as possible. “We’ve been able to get a couple of pieces of the original body back, but most of them remain lost,” said TPNHA president Gary Berton. “I don’t think we’ll ever find all of them. There are different rumors. We know of a couple of rumors that people have bones, we know that certain of the bones have inscriptions made on the bones in a certain way, from Cobbett’s notes, so we would be able to identify them, and of course we have DNA testing as well. The issue right now is to try and find as many pieces as we can and where they are, and the burden of reobtaining them.”
The New Rochelle historic team do not believe the Australian Burgesses are Paine descendants, but they do have high hopes for the skull. “The number of markings and exact locations on the skull seem to match what we know of the markings,” said Berton — himself such a Paine enthusiast that he lived on Paine’s one-time property in Bordentown before coming to the New Rochelle museum. DNA testing is possible, as the Westchester museum owns locks of hair as well as Paine’s mummified brain stem, which is kept buried in a secret location on the property. The Museum also has both Paine’s death mask and a ‘grave mask’ which Cobbett made from the thirteen-year-old corpse in 1822.
“In a way, it’s poetic, the fact that his body is scattered to the four corners of the earth,” Berton continued. “This is the man who said, ‘The world is my country.’” After writing in Wired magazine about Paine as the spiritual father of American journalism, Jon Katz received so many emails from Europe claiming bone ownership that he concluded “by the end of the year, Thomas Paine might actually be reassembled.” New Rochelle and the Paine historic society have a more realistic goal, hoping to bring home this great paradox of a founding father by the year 2009 to mark the 100th anniversary of Paine’s death. “We’re going to do it eventually,” Berton vows. “If not in this generation, then in the next.”