Thomas Paine Life Work and Accomplishments

Thomas Paine portrait painting
Portrait of Thomas Paine, 1791. National Portrait Gallery, London.
“I have always considered monarchy to be a silly, contemptible thing. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity, but, when by accident, the curtain happens to open and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.”

This indictment of the British crown, this disrobing of imperial rule (reminiscent of one of the last scenes in the Wizard of Oz) were the words of one Thomas Paine. Himself a subject of England and of very modest means, this rabble-rouser extraordinaire would in time prove a pivotal figure in the formation of “a more perfect union.”

Political Activism

As an English-born American brought to the colonies at the behest of then governor of Massachusetts Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine began to ramp up his political activism against the much derided rulers who wielded their power on the continent from an ocean away. There was a burning within him, and many of the free-thinkers that heeded his words, that the so-called divine rights that allowed kings to do as their whims commanded were fraudulent. He felt that all human beings, regardless of class or station, should be given basic rights that should remain unalienable. Sound familiar? He believed that so long as one was educated, property owner or not, the course of human events could be altered for the good of all. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he was quoted as saying.

Drawing of Thomas Paine with Common Sense Book
Thomas Paine. Library of Congress.

His Revolutionary Spirit

Though there was discontent sewn amongst the colonists in government against the heavy handed power plays of their English masters, some saw Paine as dangerous to their long term goals. As a prolific pamphleteer, the blogger of his day, he penned many critical and incendiary words that some of the Founding Fathers found to be excessive and belligerent. The lawyer, and eventual co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, would attack Paine’s character by calling him “democratic,” a word that was used as a pejorative against those that advocated for chaos and mob rule. Paine’s ideas were viewed as extreme, including his stance against slavery. Shortly before his death, he helped negotiate the sale of Louisiana in what became the Louisiana Purchase. Afterward, he proposed to Thomas Jefferson that upon acquiring the new parcel of land, that no new slaves would be added to any new colonial territories. Jefferson, eager to get his profitable sugar plantations started, refused to agree to those terms.

Thomas Paine and his revolutionary spirit was a little too much to handle for some. He was described as a rather prickly personality, especially in his writings, but was an otherwise moral, honest and fair man. The events of December 16, 1773, though, would bring him to the American colonies and help spark the coming War of Independence.

Common Sense

For eight straight years dating back to 1765, the British parliament was, by all intents and purposes, attempting to bilk the American colonies with a litany of oppressive tax measures in order to get out of massive debt and in order to enrich the crown. Unrest in the colonies was threatening to boil over, due to the fact that they were being taxed and yet were not afforded the power of the vote in parliament as a concession. Taxation without representation. Many of the articles that were passed in England upon the colonies were summarily repealed as the threat of a full-blown insurrection loomed largely. However, in 1773, the passing of the Tea Act, a law that demanded a 3 penny tax per pound on America’s drink of choice, was the match that ultimately lit the fuse. The amount wasn’t necessarily prohibitive, but the colonists viewed it as an arrogant display of England’s sovereign power. To make matters even worse, shipments of tea from the East India Company could not be levied an import tax and it was financially depleting the mom and pop shops in Boston and bankrupting them. The avarice and greed of the British government could not and would not be tolerated.

Title page from Thomas Paine's Common Sense.
Common sense; addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects

A secret society formed to protect the rights of the colonists known as the Sons of Liberty, gathered hatchets, feathers and rubbed coal dust over their skin in a haphazard attempt to disguise themselves as Mohawk Indians. They along with 5000 others made their way to Boston Harbor where British merchant ships loaded with tea were waiting. The faux natives boarded one and began to throw each and every crate overboard into the harbor. There were no British soldiers there to stop them. 342 crates worth 10,000 English pounds were jettisoned. When word got back to England of this disobedient and destructive act, the two sides began their slow crawl towards war. Inspired by the Sons of Liberty and the battle that erupted between patriot militia and British regulars when the king’s army attempted to capture and destroy Colonial military supplies at Lexington and Concord, Thomas Paine wrote what many would consider his most important work, Common Sense. In 1776, this was the most widely read pamphlet of the American Revolution. It was a call for unity against the corrupt British court, calling out King George III by name, to realize America’s providential role in providing an asylum for liberty and it was the strongest case yet to dissolve the relationship with Great Britain. This widespread sentiment, thanks in no small part to the ideas Thomas Paine espoused, ultimately led to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent birth of a nation.