[published: May 20, 2009]
The author of Common Sense and architect of American democracy died penniless in a Greenwich Village boarding house 200 years ago next month. Historian James S. Kaplan traces his forgotten legacy.
On June 8, 1809, a 72-year-old man died in poverty and relative obscurity in a rooming house on Grove Street in Greenwich Village. His name was Thomas Paine, and 33 years earlier in 1776 he had been the most important political theoretician in the country. The New York Post on June 9, 1809, one of the few papers even to note his passing, stated that he “lived long, did some good and much harm.”
Despite his modest obituary, Paine has not been forgotten, although many think he still has yet to receive full recognition for his achievements. In the last ten years there have been more than five full-length biographies of Paine, most of which argue that he was one of the most important men in modern history. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death, I will be giving a walking tour on Sunday, June 7 sponsored by the Fraunces Tavern Museum that examines Paine’s underappreciated impact on the growth of New York City, where he resided at the time of his death. In a sense it is to refute the New York Post obituary of 200 years ago.
Paine was born in 1737 in Thetford, England, a market town approximately 75 miles north of London. His father, Joseph was a corset maker and Quaker. His mother, Frances, was the daughter of a lawyer and a member of the Anglican Church, which meant she was of a somewhat higher social class than his father. She was also 11 years older.
At the time of Paine’s birth, England was rising in power, but this expansion of military and economic might did not necessarily flow down to all elements of society. England was ruled by a constitutional monarchy in which the crown and an oligarchy of wealthy nobles and businessmen shared most of the nation’s wealth. Artisans and laborers were considerably less favored.
Paine as a young man from a lower middle class family must have been acutely sensitive to these inequities. He held a number of jobs as a young man, most consistently that of excise tax collector, an important by low-paying civil service position. Paine was asked by his fellow excise tax men to draft a petition to the excise tax board arguing that it was in the government’s interest to grant a salary increase, in which he very cogently argued that such an increase would reduce the rampant temptations for graft. His eloquence brought him to the attention of certain important figures of the English enlightenment, but, the government rejected the petition and fired Paine.
Around this time Paine attempted to go back into stay-making and also run a store (apparently with the backing of his second wife‘s father), but both efforts failed, and his wife divorced him. At the age of 37, he was thus completely penniless and had basically failed in everything he had tried. But he did have connections with prominent writers and scientists of the so-called English enlightenment. It was through these contacts that he turned to Benjamin Franklin, then expatriate American and the colonial government’s official representative to England, to see if there were any possibilities for him in America. Franklin, a fellow Quaker, was highly sympathetic and reportedly told him that America was a big country and could use a man like Paine. He wrote Paine a letter of introduction to his son-in-law Richard Bache in Philadelphia whom he encouraged to put Paine in a “way of obtaining employment as a clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor( all of which I find him very capable).”
Thus in September 1774, at the age of 37, having no money or prospects other than Franklin’s letter, Paine left England for America. A less likely candidate for the man who would change the subsequent history of America and the world could not have been imagined.
Once in Philadelphia. Paine quickly noticed the prosperity and diversity of the City, Paine was offered a job as editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, where he proved a keen observer of political and social conditions. While he applauded the more egalitarian nature of American society and its prosperity, Paine also noted its contradictions. He denounced slavery and the oppression of women, as well as the lack of a social safety net for the poor. Whether in spite of or because of these radical ideas, the circulation of the magazine rose from 600 to 1500, making it one of the most widely read periodicals in America.
These were times of great social and political ferment in the colonies. After the outbreak of open hostilities at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, there was an active shooting war in Massachussetts. However, the question still remained: what were the colonial objectives? The colonists had frequently indicated that they were seeking the rights of Englishmen, and that a mere redress of their grievances would satisfy them. But as the war began to develop, the idea of complete independence from Britain began to circulate. However, the Congressional leaders in 1775 thought this was too radical an idea even to have discussed openly.
It was in this situation that Paine decided that he would provide his views of the situation in a pamphlet called Common Sense, which transformed his life and the life of the United States. Although rereading it to today one can question its literary merit, there is no question that it is one of them most influential and important political documents in world history. In essence, Paine, who had hardly been in the United States for a year, told the American people how to resolve their dilemma as to the goals for the conflict with Britain.
From Paine’s point of view, the Americans’ insistence that they were seeking to obtain the rights of Englishmen and to establish a fair relationship with the mother country was ridiculous. As one who had lived almost all his life in England and suffered greatly from the corrupt English political and economic system, Paine thought the last thing Americans should want was the “rights” of Englishmen or to be ruled by the British King. America, Paine argued, must be free and independent of Britain if it was to prosper both politically and economically. Furthermore the whole monarchical British system based on the divine right of kings was completely flawed. Citing Biblical and historical arguments, he argued that the current British monarchy is in reality based on a usurpation by a French bastard,William the Conqueror, taking over against the consent of the inhabitants. With the American Revolution, Americans had the opportunity to remake government along democratic lines in a way that has never been done in the past. This to Paine would be a momentously important effort and one that should not be missed. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he wrote. To Paine the conflict with Britain was not one about taxes, but about the very basis of society. The beneficiaries of the American Revolution should not be solely upper class merchants, he believed, but rather the broad base of artisans and working people whose political and economic rights would be augmented.
Common Sense was first published on January 10, 1776 and was an overnight success. Whereas previously a best selling pamphlet would sell a few thousand, Common Sense sold over 150,000 copies, the equivalent of 15,000,000 today. By June of 1776, six months after the publication of Common Sense, Congress was not only ready to debate, but to declare independence, a proposition that was so radical the previous year that it could not be discussed. Although the Declaration of Independence would be drafted by Thomas Jefferson with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, Paine’s Common Sense was its forerunner.By the fall of 1776 the reversal of fortune for Paine could not have been more dramatic. He was now a national hero in America and a recognized leader of the American Revolution. After the American army was overwhelmed and disastrously defeated at the Battle of Long Island in late August, the American cause was at a low ebb. Hampered by a lack of supplies and men, the morale of the remaining troops by December 1776 was plummeting and many were deserting. At this point Paine, who had enlisted in the American army, began a series of essays called The Crisis, the most famous of which is The Crisis, No. 1 which was written at the request of George Washington to stem desertions of the troops before the battle of Trenton and encourage new recruits. Among his words which Washington had read to his troops were the following: “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 the country, but he that stand is 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 — t’is dearness that gives everything its value. “
The eloquence of this many times oft-quoted passage was credited by Washington as a critical factor in saving the American army. The publication of the American Crisis further solidified Paine’s status as a national hero.
However, Paine’s meteoric rise in the nascent American government would soon come to a halt with the so-called Silas Deane affair, an incident hardly known today except for among hardcore Paine aficionados and whose facts are still the subject of some controversy. Deane was a businessman assigned to be the first American diplomat to France to get supplies for the Revolutionary cause. He and Paine fell out and in effect Paine was accused of revealing an American plan to obtain supplies from France by paying off French and American merchants. The result of this imbroglio was that Paine, notwithstanding his iconic status, lost position with the Committee on Foreign Affairs and would never again hold an official position with the United States government.After having been fired from his post, Paine continued to write future issues of The Crisis and generally to seek to serve the patriot cause, but he increasingly began to have financial difficulties. In the 1780s he was appointed a clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly , and at the end of the war he briefly worked as a secretly paid writer for the U.S. government on local newspapers in Philadelphia. Although he sought compensation from Congress for his work during the war it was never forthcoming, even though others such as Silas Deane, who was later shown to be a British agent at the end of the war, were rewarded handsomely for their services.
The state of New York however did award him a farm of a former Tory in New Rochelle that could provide some financial security. It appeared that he might settle down to the quiet life of a gentlemen farmer, writer and political commentator. However, he believed that democracy was not just an American phenomenon, and that his work was far from over. He soon left his farm in New Rochelle to return to Europe where he would play an even more central role in the spread of democratic government than he had in the United States.
While in Europe Paine was shocked by Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution and wrote a new pamphlet called The Rights of Man. Intended as a European version of Common Sense, the Rights of Man was an overnight success. Paine, who was now internationally famous as a theoretician of democracy, was indicted for sedition in England, but soon left for France when he was invited to serve in the French National Assembly, where he became a leader o fthe moderate Girondin faction and unsuccessfully argued against the execution of Louis XI. He was then almost himself executed during the Reign of Terror, when Gouverneur Morris the U.S Ambassador refused to recognize him as an American citizen . Unable to leave France because of the British blockade until 1801, he returned to America after the election of Thomas Jefferson, and returned to his farm in New Rochelle. However, the politics of America had significantly changed, Paine’s accomplishments were largely forgotten (although he had some relationship with Jefferson) and he was reviled by many because of his anti-Deist ideas as expressed in a pamphlet called the Age of Reason written while he was in jail in France. The ultimate indignity came when in 1806 he was denied the right to vote in the New York state elections by the New Rochelle election board on the theory that he was not a United States citizen because he had served in the French assembly. Paine was so disgusted that he left to live in Lower Manhattan where he stayed in a number of boarding houses and ultimately died penniless and largely forgotten in the house of a friend on Grove Street in Greenwich Village.
He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle (which had been rented). There were reportedly only ten people at his funeral and burial. A decade later, his grave would be surreptitiously robbed and his bones taken back to England by a supposed supporter, who lost them.
James Kaplan will be giving a walking tour sponsored by the Fraunces Tavern Museum on Sunday June 7 at 2 p.m., in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Thomas Paine’s death. Call 212-425-1778 for tickets. The tour leaves in from Broadway and Murray Streeet in front of City Hall park.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
- #1 Rock 'n Real Estate
- #2 Farm/Land
- #3 Showbiz
- #4 Violence & Conflict
- #5 Islands
- #6 Animals
- #7 The Subterraneans
- #8 After the Deluge
- #9 Boredom
- #10 Fear and Loathing
- #11 Medicine
- #12 Obsession
- #13 Migration
- #14 Revolution
- #15 Hidden In Plain Sight
- #16 Independence
- #17 Exploration
- #18 Education
- #19 Walls and Borders