Thomas Paine: More Harm than Good?

Thomas Paine is one of the least respected figures of the American Revolution and early American history. Many of Paine’s compatriots believed that his anti-religious ideas found in The Age of Reason were so dangerous that they would undermine the moral character of America (Keane 475). Paine further caught the ire of the American public with his open letter to President George Washington in which Paine called Washington “a cold blooded traitor” (Keane 429-33). Upon Paine’s death, The New York Citizen had eulogized: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.” Criticism for Paine and his works continued long after his death. Theodore Roosevelt once referred to Thomas Paine as a “filthy little atheist” (Stade 382). There has never been a shortage of criticism of Paine or his work whether in his own time or since. Certainly, some of the criticism is warranted, but the notion that Paine “did some good and much harm” is hardly fair for a man who sacrificed his wealth, risked his life, and inspired countless others in the cause of America’s independence from England.

When Thomas Paine arrived for the first time in America on November 30, 1774, no one could have predicted the enormous influence he and his writings would have on citizens of every class. Paine was not well known at this time, but Benjamin Franklin’s letter of introduction to Philadelphia’s movers and shakers would soon change that. As Paine became comfortable with his new surroundings, he spent many hours in book stores and conversing with others about his literary interests. One day, Paine was in one of his favorite stores visiting with the store’s owner, Robert Aitken. Aitken was so impressed with Paine that he offered Paine a job as the editor of the upstart periodical Pennsylvania Magazine (Kaye 49-50).

Rather than writing directly about controversial issues, Paine used allegory and the increasingly popular medium of the fable to express his ideas. The fables opened up the world of politics to the general public; something which was not done in literature prior to Paine’s writing and editorship of Pennsylvania Magazine. Paine’s impact on the magazine was immediate. Circulation of the fledgling magazine more than doubled in the first month of Aitken’s hiring of Paine as contributing editor. The magazine would sell more copies than any other magazine up to that time (Larkin 261).

Thomas Paine used topics such as “military character of ants,” troubled marriages, and protecting the chastity of a young woman from a would-be rapist. Each of these fables hinted at the need to sever ties with England. Paine’s entomology lesson was much more than a study of ants. The brown ants in his yard represented the American colonists defending their homes while the red ants represented the British soldiers attempting to deprive the colonists of their liberties.

Paine’s warning to readers of the perils of entering into marriage for the wrong reasons such as status, convenience, or money was much more than marital advice. Just as a married couple should mutually love each other and provide each other mutual happiness, the same was true of America’s relationship with England. The relationship between the colonies and the British monarchy was one beyond repair with divorce as the only option.

Paine’s article, “Thoughts on Defensive War” was aimed primarily at the peace-loving Quakers. Though Quakers by the nature of their beliefs were universally opposed to war, they were also good Samaritans. Paine described America as a young woman in danger of losing her chastity to a predator: England. Paine reasoned that once America’s chastity was violated her innocence could never be regained. It was up to America’s defenders to keep her pure (Larkin 267-71).

Toward the end of 1775, Thomas Paine decided to leave Pennsylvania Magazine and begin working on Common Sense. Paine was now free to write on his own terms without fear of offending advertisers or subscribers. By January of 1776, Paine’s masterwork was complete. Selling roughly a half million copies, Common Sense was arguably the most revolutionary and inspirational writing of its time (“Paine, Thomas”). Prior to this revolutionary writing, many colonists were displeased with the way the mother country was treating them but were not yet convinced of the necessity of separating her. George Washington was among these undecided colonists who were finally persuaded with the words penned by Thomas Paine. Of course Washington’s role would not be to merely participate in the revolution but to lead it. In June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson appointed delegates to attend a meeting to draft the Declaration of Independence. Although Paine was not a member of the delegation, everyone involved in drafting the famous declaration had read Common Sense (Kaye 61).

Though Common Sense was the most widely read pamphlet of its time, not everyone agreed with its message. Understandably, those who were loyal to the British crown thought very little of it. Criticism was not limited only to those who were opposed to war with England, however. Perhaps the most notable critic of Common Sense was John Adams. Though he agreed wholeheartedly with the pamphlet’s clarion call for independence, Adams found problems with Paine’s suggested democratic government (Kaye 60).

John Adams wrote a pamphlet of his own in response to Common Sense titled: Thoughts on Government. Adams’ main criticism of Common Sense was the notion that all the State’s power should be consolidated into a single body directly elected by the people. Popular opinion of the masses tends to be very fickle and such a system would produce “hasty results and absurd judgments” Adams would write. Adams’ alternative was to create three separate co-equal branches of government: an executive branch, a bicameral legislative branch, and a judicial branch. Each branch would have unique powers and would “check and balance” the others (Keane 125). Thoughts on Government would become the model of several state constitutions (Ellis 165) and ultimately the United States Constitution.

Though Paine’s arguments of the proper shape of government were inferior to those of Adams’, such arguments at this point were academic; America was yet to be an independent State. At this moment, the message of independence was of paramount importance. Paine was not content with merely writing about why others should fight, however. Paine could have easily enriched himself with the profits made from Common Sense but he believed in the cause so much that he donated the proceeds to Washington’s Continental Army which was in dire need of basic supplies (Kaye 57).

Beyond Paine’s much-needed financial contributions, he would also serve as a soldier, diplomat, government official, and war correspondent. As a soldier, Paine served under the command of General Daniel Roberdeau. Roberdeau’s unit’s campaign ended in September of 1776 seeing no action. As many of the men in the unit went home as their enlistments expired, Paine went north to join General Nathaniel Greene’s unit on the Hudson River.

At this point of the war, the Continental Army was short on supplies, exposed to the harsh New England winter, and suffered numerous defeats. The general morale of the troops was very low. Paine felt that it was time to once again inspire both the troops and the American public with a new pamphlet. With permission, Paine left his unit for Philadelphia to do just that.

By the time Paine had arrived in Philadelphia, the British had taken the city and congress had fled to Baltimore. The cause for independence was in grave jeopardy. Appropriately, Paine titled his new series of writings The American Crisis (Kaye 64-65). The opening lines of the first paper in this series are among his most well-known:

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed is so celestial and article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. (Stade 73)

The first printing of The American Crisis ran 18,000 copies. Paine once again donated all his proceeds to the war effort. Just as Paine had hoped, The American Crisis boosted the morale of Washington’s troops and could not have come at a better time. Copies of The American Crisis were read aloud and distributed among the troops immediately before Washington and his men crossed the Delaware. Washington’s army surprised the Hessians and then the British forces in the dark of night with overwhelming force. These were Washington’s first decisive victories of the war and a major turning point in America’s war for independence (Kaye 64-67).

Had Thomas Paine’s story ended along with the American Revolution, there is little doubt that he would be more commonly considered part of the pantheon of America’s founding fathers. Certainly Paine would have had a more flattering eulogy than “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.” The story of Thomas Paine does not end with the American Revolution; his most controversial writings would come as the French Revolution began.

Shortly after America secured its independence, Paine decided to pursue his dream of designing a bridge. Paine was weary of politics and wanted to return to his scientific pursuits. After lobbying congress and several states to finance the building of his bridge unsuccessfully, Paine decided to take his design overseas. In 1787, Paine took his bridge design to France only to have his design rejected once again. By this time, France was on the brink of a revolution of its own. Paine decided to take a break from lobbying his bridge design and returned to his childhood home of Thetford, England to visit his recently widowed mother. After his brief visit, Paine would try one more time to have his bridge built; this time in England. Though Paine had not originally intended to involve himself in politics again, the lack of freedom found in Europe, particularly England and France, pulled him back in. (Keane 267-89).

Paine saw the beginning of the French Revolution as the second phase of a larger revolution (the first phase was American independence) to transform Europe from one of a tradition led by monarchs into a new tradition led by the people. Englishman Edmund Burke saw things very differently from Paine. Burke was opposed to the French revolutionaries and believed Paine’s support of the revolution as a threat to political stability in England. Burke wrote a pamphlet titled: Reflections on the Revolution in France. In this work, Burke encouraged Louis XVI to resist the revolutionaries. After reading Burke’s pamphlet, Paine decided to respond with a pamphlet of his own, The Rights of Man to express solidarity with the revolutionaries. This work would become one of Paine’s most controversial writings on both sides of the Atlantic (Kreis).

In America, partisan politics was dividing the new country; whether or not to support the revolutionaries was one of the more divisive issues. Because of this polarizing issue, when The Rights of Man made its way to American readers, it received a very mixed reception. This would be the beginning of the end of Paine’s popularity in America. Among Paine’s most notable supporters of his cause was Thomas Jefferson. On the other side was one of Paine’s earliest critics of Common Sense: John Adams, now the Vice President of the United States. Adams’ twenty-three year old son John Quincy Adams also took exception to The Rights of Man believing that some of Paine’s criticism of Burke was also an indirect criticism of his father. The younger Adams responded with his “Publicola” essays (Grant 359-67).

In England, Paine’s writings were more than controversial, they were treasonous. Sensing he was in danger of imprisonment, Paine fled back to France. Paine received a hero’s welcome (Kaye 105) and was one of two foreigners chosen to join France’s National Assembly to form a new government (Kreis). Unfortunately for Paine, the new system of government scarcely resembled that of America’s. John Adams’ words in Thoughts on Government regarding unbalanced democracies’ tendency toward “hasty results and absurd judgments” turned out to be quite prophetic. When Paine voted against the assembly’s majority to have Louis XVI executed, he too would later be sent to prison to join the deposed king’s fate.

Prior to his imprisonment, Paine turned his attention to the subject of religion. He had wanted to write about his deistic beliefs for awhile; much of these beliefs were unknown to many of his acquaintances. Paine had completed the manuscript for the first volume of The Age of Reason immediately before his arrest on Christmas morning of 1793. As the French authorities took him away, he convinced them to stop by his home to give the manuscript to his trusted friend Joel Barlow for safe keeping. During Paine’s ten month prison stay, he wrote poetry and began working on the second volume of The Age of Reason.

Toward the end of his time in prison, Paine’s fortunes began to change for the better. Paine was scheduled to be beheaded but a mistake made by a guard spared his life. Before the error was caught, France’s radical leader Maximilien de Robespierre was removed from power and executed the next day. Paine saw this as an opportunity to convince the new leadership of the National Convention to release him. Though the new leadership denied his request, Paine’s fortunes would once again fall in his favor: James Monroe replaced Gouverneur Morris as the American Minister to France. Morris was an old political foe during the American Revolution and did not seem sympathetic to Paine’s plight. Monroe, however; was an admirer of Paine and successfully secured his release (Kaye 110-21).

Paine continued to write the second volume of The Age of Reason as a free man. Paine also wrote a scathing open letter to President George Washington because of the president’s apparent lack of interest in his imprisonment and near execution. Monroe convinced Paine not to send the letter prior to his release; now that he was free, Paine had no more reasons not to send it. Paine charged: “I ought not to have suspected Mr. Washington of treachery but he has acted towards me the part of a cold blooded traitor.” These harsh criticisms of Washington outraged many Americans (Keane 429).

The Age of Reason with Paine’s public criticism of Washington and his controversial The Rights of Man turned much of American public opinion against him. Prior to publishing The Age of Reason, Paine sent a transcript to Benjamin Franklin for his review. Franklin urged Paine not to publish the work but not because he necessarily disagreed with its content. Franklin feared a backlash would likely ensue against Paine and the possibility that some people “have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice.” Paine decided to put off publishing the pamphlet for awhile longer but when he eventually did publish the work; Franklin’s first reservation became a reality (Isaacson 468).

Paine, still a British fugitive, wanted to return to America but feared capture. Paine needed help from the American government to give him safe passage to America. Unfortunately for Paine, his old political foe John Adams was now president and was unlikely to help (Kaye 128). In 1798, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Alien Act made it possible to deport anyone of foreign birth who the president found “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” The Sedition Act made it a crime to write or speak “any false, scandalous, or malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States.” At that moment the Federalists had control of all three branches of the federal government; these laws were intended to silence the opposition Republican Party. One of Paine’s admirers and outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Thomas Cooper, was one of a few individuals convicted under the Sedition Act. Cooper spent six months in prison and paid $400 in fines for his crime of criticizing the Adams Administration (Grant 405-8). Had Thomas Paine been in America while Adams was president, he would likely have also been similarly convicted if not deported.

In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams becoming America’s third president. The Alien and Sedition Acts proved to be very unpopular and contributed to Adam’s defeat. The election of Paine’s good friend to the highest office was very good news for his prospects of returning to America safely. In 1802, Paine accepted Jefferson’s offer to leave France and return home (Kaye 130).

Paine arrived in America to a very mixed reception. Many of his former friends shunned him mostly because of his anti-religious statements in The Age of Reason. Paine’s contributions to America’s war for independence were a distant memory. Paine lived out the remaining years of his life in America and continued to be outspoken in the debates of his time. On June 8, 1809 at approximately nine o’clock in the morning, Thomas Paine died in his sleep (Keane 536). The next day, Paine was buried in New York with only six mourners attending his funeral (Miller). Dignitaries and statesmen were not among them (Kaye 143).

Just as Thomas Paine was a controversial figure in his time, his legacy remains controversial 197 years after his death. Theodore Roosevelt referred to Thomas Paine as a “filthy little atheist” in his1891 biography of Gouverneur Morris; an inaccurate label which continues to be associated with Paine. George Stade points out that Roosevelt was ignorant of the many contributions Paine made to the American Revolution (382). Modern Christian organizations which want Americans to “return to their Christian roots” view Paine as a problem. These groups can choose to ignore him or they can confront his work directly. As interest in the revolutionary generation continues to grow, at least a few of these organizations confront Paine’s writings directly and recognize that at least a few notable founders were not in fact Christian. Matt Kaufman writing for Citizen Magazine, a political action website and magazine for James Dobson’s Focus on the Family acknowledges that Paine, Jefferson, and Franklin were among a minority of non-Christian founders. Kaufman writes: “[D]isturbing trends […] would later worsen, especially a tendency to elevate human reason over scriptural authority.”

The harm Paine caused mostly seems to be that he expressed an opinion about organized religion which was and is unpopular in America. At the time that Paine’s epitaph was written in The New York Citizen, the author might have had other biases relating to the political differences he held. John Adams, who once referred to Paine as “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a butch wolf” (Ellis 207) had also said “History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine.” Paine is also credited as the first to call America “the United States of America,” (Stade 381) was among the first abolitionists, believed in the rights of individuals of both sexes and all races, presented politics to the common man, served in the American Revolution in multiple capacities, and fought against tyranny in its many forms. Many of these ideals were too revolutionary for an era which most historians consider a revolutionary time. Most every individual causes “much harm” to the world around him or her but few can lay claim the immeasurable “good” Thomas Paine contributed to the world. Common Sense continues to inspire individuals to challenge conventional wisdom and “begin the world over again.”

Works Cited

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Grant, James. John Adams: Party of One. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2005.

Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Kaufman, Matt. “Founding Father Chic.” Citizen Magazine December 2001 30 July 2006 .

Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.

Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. Boston: Little, 1995.

Kreis, Steven. “Lecture 14: The Language of Politics: England and the French Revolution.”

The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History April 2006

29 Aug 2006.

Larkin, Edward “Inventing an American public: Thomas Paine, the Pennsylvania Magazine, and American Revolutionary political discourse.” Early American Literature 33.3 (1998): 250-276. Research Library. ProQuest. DeVry University. 5 Aug. 2006

“Paine, Thomas.” Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. 2005. New York: Random. 6 Aug 2006

Stade, George ed. Thomas Paine: Common Sense and Other Writings. New York: B&N, 2005.

Related Post: Demonizing Thomas Paine

  • Brad Warbiany

    Excellent post, and far more information than I ever knew about Paine… I might have to add some of this onto my rapidly-growing reading list…

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  • Stephen Littau

    Thanks Brad! I worked on that research paper for 8 weeks or so for a college writing class I was taking. I read just about anything I could get my hands on regarding Thomas Paine and let me tell you what I posted here is a mere thumbnail sketch. If you are wanting to know more about Paine, the book I recommend is John Keane’s book Tom Paine: A Political Life. That’s by far the most comprehensive source (I noticed that many of the other sources I consulted used this book as a source). If you want a more condensed biography that covers Paine, I would suggest you read Harvey Kaye’s book Thomas Paine: Firebrand of the Revolution (this book also heavily references Kean).

    Paine is a very complex and interesting figure who does not fit neatly into any political category that I know of. He wasn’t as much of a Classical Liberal as I first thought and in fact was among the first to propose a social welfare program similar to Social Security. He was also more in favor of a true democracy than the other founders (most of which preferred a constitutional representative republic). He’s a mixed bag to be sure but he does deserve much more credit than he receives for helping to form this great nation.