Tom Paine

Tom Paine

Tom Paine, the son of a Quaker corset maker, was born in Thetford in Norfolk on 29th January, 1737. After being educated at the local grammar school Paine became an apprentice corset maker in Kent. This was followed by work as an exciseman in Lincolnshire and a school teacher in London.

In 1768 Paine moved to Lewes where he was employed as an excise officer. Paine became involved in local politics, serving on the town council and establishing a debating club in a local inn. Paine upset his employers when he demanded a higher salary. Paine was dismissed and he responded by publishing a pamphlet The Case of the Officers of Excise. While in London Paine met Benjamin Franklin who encouraged him to emigrate to America.

Common Sense

Paine settled in Philadelphia where he became a journalist. Paine had several articles published in the Pennsylvania Magazine including one advocating the abolition of slavery. In 1776 he published Common Sense, a pamphlet that attacked the British Monarchy and argued for American independence. During the war with England Tom Paine wrote articles and pamphlets on the superiority of republican democracy over monarchical government and served with Washington's armies. Paine also travelled to France in 1781 to raise money for the American cause.

The Rights of Man

Paine played no role in American government after independence and in 1787 he returned to Britain. Paine continued to write on political issues and in 1791 published his most influential work, The Rights of Man. In the book Paine attacked hereditary government and argued for equal political rights. Paine suggested that all men over twenty-one in Britain should be given the vote and this would result in a House of Commons willing to pass laws favourable to the majority. The book also recommended progressive taxation, family allowances, old age pensions, maternity grants and the abolition of the House of Lords.

James Gillray cartoon shows Tom Paine trying to fit awoman (representing Britain) into a French corset (1793)
James Gillray cartoon shows Tom Paine trying to fit a
woman (representing Britain) into a French corset (1793)

The British government was outraged by Paine's book and it was immediately banned. Paine was charged with seditious libel but he escaped to France before he could be arrested. Paine announced that he did not wish to make a profit from The Rights of Man and anyone had the right to reprint his book. It was printed in cheap editions so that it could achieve a working class readership. Although the book was banned, during the next two years over 200,000 people in Britain managed to buy a copy. One person who read the book was the shoemaker, Thomas Hardy. In 1792 Hardy founded the London Corresponding Society. The aim of the organisation was to achieve the vote for all adult males.

French Revolution

In 1792 Tom Paine became a French citizen and was elected to the National Convention. Paine upset French revolutionaries when he opposed the execution of Louis XVI. He was arrested and kept in prison under the threat of execution from 28th December 1793 and 4th November 1794. Paine was only released after the American minister, James Monroe, put pressure on the French government.

Age of Reason

While in prison Tom Paine worked on book on the subject of religion. Age of Reason was published soon after his release and caused a tremendous impact because it questioned the truth of Christianity. Paine criticised the Old Testament for being untrue and immoral and claimed that the Gospels contained inaccuracies and contradictions.

In 1802 Paine moved back to America but the Age of Reason had upset a large number of people and he discovered that he had lost the popularity he had enjoyed during the War of Independence. Unable to return to Britain, Paine remained in America until his death in New York on 8th June 1809. By the time he had died, over 1,500,000 copies of The Rights of Man had been sold in Europe.

Primary Sources

(1) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)

(1) What is government more than the management of the affairs of a Nation? It is not, and from its nature cannot be, the property of any particular man or family, but the whole community. The romantic and barbarous distinction of men into Kings and subjects, though it may suit the condition of courtiers, cannot that of citizens.

(2) We have heard The Rights of Man called a levelling system; but the only system to which the word levelling is truly applicable is the hereditary monarchical system. It is a system of mental levelling. It indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority. Vice and virtue, ignorance and wisdom, in short, every quality, good or bad, is put on the same level. Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals. In reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of nonage over wisdom and experience. In short we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession.

(3) It is inhuman to talk of a million sterling a year, paid out of the public taxes of any country, for the support of any individual, while thousands who are forced to contribute thereto, are pining with want, and struggling with misery. What is called the splendour of a throne is no other than the corruption of the state. It is made up of a band of parasites, living in luxurious indolence, out of the public taxes.

(4) The county of Yorkshire, which contains near a million souls, sends two county members; and so does the county of Rutland which contains not a hundredth part of that number. The town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?

(2) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)

Every history of the creation, and every traditional account, whether from the lettered or unlettered world, however they may vary in their opinion or belief of certain particulars, all agree in establishing one point, the unity of man; by which I mean, that all men are of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right, in the same manner as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation, the latter being only the mode by which the former is carried forward; and consequently, every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind.

It is one of the greatest of all truths, and of the highest advantage to cultivate. By considering man in this light, and by instructing him to consider himself in this light, it places him in a close connection with all his duties, whether to his Creator, or to the creation, of which he is a part; and it is only when he forgets his origin, or, to use a more fashionable phrase, his birth and family, that he becomes dissolute. It is not among the least of the evils of the present existing governments in all parts of Europe, that man, considered as man, is thrown back to a vast distance from his Maker, and the artificial chasm filled up by a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which he has to pass. I will quote Mr Burke's catalogue of barriers that he has set up between man and his Maker. Putting himself in the character of a herald, he says - 'We fear God - we look with awe to kings - with affection to parliaments - with duty to magistrates - with reverence to priests, and with respect to nobility.' Mr Burke has forgotten to put in 'chivalry'. He has also forgotten to put in Peter.

The duty of man is not a wilderness of turnpike gates, through which he is to pass by tickets from one to the other. It is plain and simple, and consists but of two points. His duty to God, which every man must feel; and with respect to his neighbour, to do as he would be done by. If those to whom power is delegated do well, they will be respected; if not, they will be despised.

(3) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)

The whole system of representation is now, in this country, only a convenient handle for despotism, they need not complain, for they are as well represented as a numerous class of hard-working mechanics, who pay for the support of royalty when they can scarcely stop their children's mouths with bread. How are they represented whose very sweat supports the splendid stud of an heir-apparent, or varnishes the chariot of some female favourite who looks down on shame? Taxes on the very necessaries of life, enable an endless tribe of idle princes and princesses to pass with stupid pomp before a gaping crowd, who almost worship the very parade which costs them so dear. This is mere gothic grandeur, something like the barbarous useless parade of having sentinels on horse-back at Whitehall, which I could never view without a mixture of contempt and indignation .

(4) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)

Whatever is the cause of taxes to a Nation becomes also the means of revenue to a Government. Every war terminates with an addition of taxes, and consequently with an addition of revenue; and in any event of war, in the manner they are now commenced and concluded, the power and interest of Governments are increased. War, therefore, from its productiveness, as it easily furnishes the pretence of necessity for taxes and appointments to places and offices, becomes a principal part of the system of old Governments; and to establish any mode to abolish war, however advantageous it might be to Nations, would be to take from such Government the most lucrative of its branches. The frivolous matters upon which war is made show the disposition and avidity of Governments to uphold the system of war, and betray the motives upon which they act.

(5) Tom Paine, quotations (1776-1809)

One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.

My mind is my own church.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

The strength and power of despotism consists wholly in the fear of resistance.

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.

Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.

He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.

My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.

The strength and power of despotism consists wholly in the fear of resistance.

When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.

War involves in its progress such a train of unforeseen circumstances that no human wisdom can calculate the end; it has but one thing certain, and that is to increase taxes.

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.

When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.