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The Age of Paine
Posted on Jul 3, 2009
By Scott Tucker
Paine’s father was a Quaker and a master stay-maker (a maker of the whale-bone corsets worn by fashionable women at the time, not the usual line of work among Quaker artisans). Paine’s mother was a member of the Church of England, and must have had a streak of independence to marry a Quaker of any trade or social rank. As a boy and young man, Tom often went with his father to the local Quaker meeting in Cage Lane, adjoining the jail, the pillory and the gibbet. (In later life, Paine readily claimed that he had received “an exceeding good moral education” from the Quakers.) Twice in his late teens Paine ran away from home to the London docks, seeking employment as a privateer. The first time, he was found by his father at the docks and was persuaded to come home. The second time he did go to sea and he came back with 50 pounds, good wages at that time. He bought a set of clothes fit for a gentleman, but was out of funds a few months later.
Paine married twice while living in England. His first wife died in childbirth, and the child did not survive. He obtained a legal separation from his second wife, and they had no children. He tried several lines of work—as a stay-maker, teacher, tobacco shop owner and tax collector. In 1772, he published his first political article, “The Case of the Officers of Excise,” a petition for better wages and working conditions. He moved to London, and there, in the clubs and coffeehouses where artisans, merchants and aristocrats often mixed, he joined in conversations about culture and politics. He also attended public lectures on astronomy and other sciences. He took a practical interest in engineering, and he got a British patent for his design of a single-span iron bridge. In London he met the radical Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley, one of the two discoverers of oxygen. He met the Scottish astronomer James Ferguson. And, most important, he met a man with whom Ferguson was collaborating on the design of a new clock, Benjamin Franklin.
As Craig Nelson wrote in “Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations,” “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. … In the 18th century they called themselves ‘mechanics’, and their great hero was the world’s most celebrated self-made mechanic, Benjamin Franklin. … ”
Franklin’s gospel of thrift, patience and self-improvement may well have brought a new focus and resolve to the life of Paine. This whole period in London encouraged Paine to test his own powers and set himself new tasks. In Nelson’s view, “Those two years would make him a central figure in the creation of the modern world.” Franklin encouraged Paine to make his future in the American colonies. In October 1774, Paine sailed from London and he arrived in Philadelphia on Nov. 30. He was 37 years old. He spent his first weeks recovering his health after being stricken by the typhus fever that swept through crew and passengers during the ocean crossing. But he also held several letters of recommendation from Franklin, and these served as his key to the city.
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In March 1775, Paine (writing under the pseudonym “Justice and Humanity”) wrote and published an article against slavery, arguing that the subject relationship of the colonists to the British crown should have taught them enough moral and practical lessons to renounce holding Africans as property. According to Nelson, this essay brought Paine to the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner, who introduced him to other prominent colonial citizens. In August of the same year, he also published a plea for women’s rights, noting that “even with changes in attitudes and laws,” women often remained “slaves of opinion which rules them with absolute sway and construes the slightest appearances into guilt; surrounded on all sides by judges who are at once tyrants and their seducers. … ”
In Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn had offered not only religious freedom, but also the most nearly republican political culture of any of the colonies. In 1682, Penn declared in his Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, “Any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws.” But by the time Paine arrived, an upper class of merchants and landowners (including Penn’s descendants) had consolidated so much power that open class resentment had grown among hired workers and tenant farmers. In his biography of Paine, Nelson estimates that mechanics constituted nearly half the population of Philadelphia on Paine’s arrival, and held 30 to 40 percent of its wealth. By background and by conviction, Franklin and Paine had close ties with this working-class stratum of skilled artisans. Yet Franklin fashioned a smooth social mask and was prosperous enough to find a fixed place among the Founding Fathers, whereas Paine has always been regarded as a much more prickly and plebeian outsider. Paine joined with a band of Philadelphia radicals who not only pressed for national independence but also spearheaded a revision of the state constitution in 1776.
In 1780, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed in Pennsylvania, and carried Paine’s signature as clerk of the General Assembly. Though it was a legal milestone, nothing like the later resolute Abolitionist spirit of John Brown and Frederick Douglass is found in that document. On one side of the scales of justice, this document weighed the fact that God chose to create people with diverse complexions, “so all are the work of an Almighty Hand.” But the other side of the scales was weighed down with a large concession to the surrounding slave states, namely, a clause stating that the passage of the act “shall not give any relief or shelter to any absconding Negro or Mulatto slave or servant. … ” Slavery, as a daily moral problem and as a daily material reality, had been exported by the British to their colonies, including the West Indies and southern Africa. And yet that very geographical distance is one reason the British made decisive legal and political moves against slavery well before the American Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In England, after a long campaign in Parliament led by William Wilberforce (and supported by some evangelical Christians and secular republicans), the British finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. In the United States, the home ground was more deeply stained and entangled with slavery, so the struggle against it passed in time from Quaker persuasion to the more militant abolitionists.
Paine had argued with Aitken about his wages at the Pennsylvania Magazine, and by summer of 1775 he was determined to publish a new extended essay elsewhere. In September he read the first draft aloud at Dr. Rush’s house, and by December he had passed out copies to astronomer David Rittenhouse, Boston rebel Sam Adams and of course his benefactor Benjamin Franklin. John and Samuel Adams, along with Franklin, had been among the very few people who argued in private for an independent nation, but Paine was the first to make these arguments in public print. Paine’s pamphlet of 96 pages, “Common Sense,” was published by Robert Bell on Jan. 9, 1776. (In the second edition of “Common Sense,” Paine appended an open letter to the Quakers, suggesting that they should keep quiet if they wished to keep a consistent witness of political quietism, or else they should make their protest for peace directly to the king of England. In Pennsylvania, the more prosperous Quakers, Presbyterians and Anglicans formed an odd de facto coalition opposed to the agitation for independence.)
Competing publishers and pirate editions soon made Paine’s first serious work a best-seller. By the end of January a German translation appeared in Pennsylvania, and a French translation appeared in Quebec by the end of April. Other editions soon appeared in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Moscow. In his “History of the American Revolution,” George Trevelyan wrote, “It would be difficult to name any human composition which has had an effect at once so instant, so extended and so lasting. … ”
Nelson wrote, “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.” Washington found “sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning” in “Common Sense,” and noted that the pamphlet was “working a wonderful change in the minds of many men.” “Common Sense” was, in the view of American historian Bernard Bailyn, “the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language.”
Paine opens the argument of “Common Sense” with a distinction between society and government: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” And the second paragraph begins with some of the most famous lines Paine ever wrote: “Society is in every state a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one. … Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver. … ”
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