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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was a renowned pro-American writer and author of some of the most persuasive texts of the American Revolution. In these texts, he used “plain” language in an attempt to engage people of all classes in the struggle for American independence and for a rejection of government based on hereditary monarchy.

Born in 1737 in the English village of Thetford, Paine attended grammar school and apprenticed to his father’s trade, becoming a master staymaker. He was unsatisfied with the life of a tradesman, however, and briefly went to sea but soon returned to England. In 1759 he opened his own staymaking business and married Mary Lambert, a household servant. Mary died less than a year later. In 1762 Paine became a collector of excise taxes, was fired in 1765 for falsifying a report, but was eventually reinstated as a tax collector. In Lewes, Sussex, Paine lodged with the prominent Samuel Ollive family. When Ollive died in 1771, Paine married his daughter and took over Ollive’s tobacco shop; but soon thereafter he again lost his position as collector, the tobacco shop failed, and in 1774 he separated from his wife. Paine resolved to start again, but this time in the colonies. During the years that Paine had resided in London and Lewes, he had attended several meetings of radical underground political movements. He had also attended scientific lectures in London, where he had become acquainted with the mathematician George Lewis Scott, who introduced him to Benjamin Franklin.

When Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, he came with letters of introduction from Franklin. He resided in America for only thirteen years, returning to England in 1787, but his impact on the developing nation’s political philosophy was immeasurable. As the son of a Quaker, Paine rejected hierarchies in church and state; and as a student of Newtonian science, he viewed the universe as governed by harmony, order, and natural laws. Paine brought these social and political philosophies to bear upon his experiences in America, where old local aristocracies (like those in Philadelphia) were being challenged by the rising artisan class. Paine used his extraordinary rhetorical powers to argue for American independence and to suggest the creation of a harmonious social order, with reason as its guiding influence.

At Franklin’s recommendation, Paine became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. He would become best-known, however, for his major works on the rights of independence and studies of the era in which he lived; these included Common Sense (1776), the Crisis papers (beginning in December 1776 and ending in April 1783), The Rights of Man (1791–1792), and The Age of Reason (1794–1796). The increasing tensions between England and America—rooted in England’s proclaiming the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion, and emerging in the battles at Lexington and Bunker Hill—led in May 1775 to the convening of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

On January 9, 1776, Paine published Common Sense, which argued for American independence from Great Britain and for a republican form of government as superior to hereditary monarchy. Its impact was extraordinary; an unprecedented twenty-five editions appeared in 1776 alone, and the text was circulated hand-to-hand and read to many others who could not read. Later in his life, Paine claimed that it had sold at least 150,000 copies. The text also represents an important rhetorical shift in political commentaries from an ideology rooted in religion to one centered in secular arguments. Common Sense was instrumental in spreading a national spirit that led, six months later, to the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps the greatest impact of Common Sense was its call for a halt to attempts at reconciliation and for an immediate separation from England, but Paine himself always asserted that his main purpose was to “bring forward and establish the representative system of government.”

Paine enlisted and served as an aide-de-camp during several battles. It seems that his writings far exceeded any military contribution he might have made. In December 1776, after Washington had been defeated in New York and was retreating from New Jersey into Pennsylvania, Paine began publishing the Crisis papers. Fifteen more installments would appear over a seven-year period, but the rousing spirit of the opening lines of the first paper—“These are the times that try men’s souls”—would remain a hallmark of revolutionary writings. Paine’s literary accomplishments earned him a controversial salaried position from Congress that enabled him to continue writing propaganda to serve the colonial forces.

The last Crisis paper appeared in 1783, at the conclusion of the Revolution, and it marked a major transition in Paine’s personal life. He was a man of sweeping ideas of political reform and of rhetorical powers, but he seems not to have been patient enough for the establishment of a new government of disparate peoples. In 1787 he returned to England with the intention of raising money to build an iron bridge. When this plan failed, he wrote his second extraordinarily successful work, The Rights of Man (1791–1792), intended as a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Paine’s argument in The Rights of Man against a hereditary monarchy resulted in a charge of sedition, forcing him to flee to France to avoid trial. In France, his second adopted country, his arguments garnered him not only citizenship and a seat in the National Assembly but renown as an advocate of revolution. His status was not long-lived, however. A protest against the execution of Louis XVI, which Paine deemed an act of barbarism rather than of the enlightenment that should result from revolution, led to his imprisonment for ten months as a sympathizer with royalty. The American ambassador James Madison eventually arranged for Paine’s release on the grounds of his earlier citizenship in America.

Under Madison’s aegis, Paine returned to New York City. He did not, however, regain the status he had acquired during the American Revolution, in large part because of his last major work, The Age of Reason. Part I of The Age of Reason was published in France; the manuscript was surreptitiously brought to the United States by Joel Barlow. The Age of Reason was intended as an exploration of the irrationality of religion and as an advocacy of deism. But in the years since Paine’s departure from the colonies, the citizens of the new republic had become far more conservative. The Age of Reason was viewed by many Americans as an attack on Christianity and an assertion of atheism. In America and in England, from the pulpit and in newspapers, Thomas Paine was ridiculed and depicted as a threat to Christianity and to democracy.

Paine lived his last years in obscurity in New Rochelle, New York; he died in 1809. His contributions to American literature endure, however. Noted most for his “plain style,” Paine insisted on the need to reach all classes of citizens, even those “who can scarcely read.” As one of America’s foremost pamphleteers, his writings were passionate in their demands for political reform based on republican values.

Sharon M. Harris
Texas Christian University

In the Heath Anthology
Common Sense
      "Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs" (1776)
The Age of Reason
      "Chapter I: The Author's Profession of Faith" (1794)
from "Chapter II: Of Missions and Revelations" (1794)
      from "Chapter III: Concerning the Character of Jesus Christ, and His History" (1794)
      from "Chapter VI: Of the True Theology" (1794)
The American Crisis
      "Number 1" (1776)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image/Text fileImage/Text fileFaith, Reason, and the American Revolution

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"The Age of Paine"
An article about Paine's political use of the media compared to similar uses of the Internet (written by Jon Katz).

A Biography of Thomas Paine
Site by the Thomas Paine Historical Association consisting of a hypertext biographical essay with links to texts including Common Sense, Declaration of Independence, American Crisis, and Rights of Man, as well as information on names and events.

Archive of Thomas Paine Works
An extensive archive containing all of Paine's major works.

The Thomas Paine Library
Links to the electronic texts of Common Sense, The Age of Reason, and The American Crisis.

Thomas Paine National Historical Association
Site about the activities and services of the Association, including educational programs, biographies, and archives.

Secondary Sources