Iain King examines the relationship between war and thought.
George Washington once remarked ‘Americans owe their liberty to Thomas Paine more than any other man’. John Adams, the second US President, was less sympathetic, describing Paine and his writing as ‘ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, and crapulous’.
Undoubtedly a controversial figure, Paine’s life was both fascinating and varied. It was also, ultimately, tragic.
Paine was born in Thetford, England, in a house overshadowed by public gallows. There he received only a basic education before becoming an apprentice to his father, who made corsets.
As a young adult, Paine tried his hand as a tax inspector, shopkeeper, school-teacher, and privateer, restlessly shifting from one profession to the next after a succession of failures. His first wife died in childbirth, and his second marriage ended in acrimony. By 1774, aged 37, after a narrow escape from a debtors’ prison, he was desperate for a new start. It was a chance meeting in London which set him on his course: Paine was introduced to Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin did not just encourage Paine to emigrate to America; he also wrote him a personal letter of recommendation. It meant that, soon after he arrived in Philadelphia, Paine landed the editorship of the Pennsylvania Magazine – a post that enabled him to hone his style and make himself known.
Throughout 1775, as skirmishes between British soldiers and American rebels turned into battles and spread from Massachusetts to the other thirteen colonies, Paine denounced his homeland in words styled for a semi-literate public.
After the immense success of his pamphlet Common Sense, Paine volunteered for a revolutionary militia in Pennsylvania. Initially, he tried ‘flying’ to skirmishes in the state, but seems to have little military impact, so he concentrated on handing out copies of his pamphlet to potential deserters, of which there were many, and then became secretary to the revolutionary general Daniel Roberdeau. By the end of 1776, he was aide-de-camp to Major General Nathanael Greene – Washington’s most trusted military commander.
Paine always remained focused on the political side of the battle, recognising the importance of clear war aims, and of keeping the wider population engaged and committed to the fight. He continued to write and publish and, as he had shown with Common Sense, often departed from the patrician instincts of many in the revolutionary movement – including Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
But he was also pragmatic when he needed to be: he became Secretary for Foreign Affairs for the Congressional Committee, and helped secure a huge loan for the war effort from the French King – proving he was able to engage with one of the most reactionary regimes in Europe, apparently without qualms.
The French Revolution
After the war, Congress rewarded Paine with a large estate in New York State, land which had been confiscated from a loyalist. But Paine remained restless. He returned to Europe, where he designed a new type of bridge, and oversaw the construction of a prototype in northern England. He continued to write tracts calling for an end to hereditary government, and he applauded the French Revolution of 1789, backing it by writing The Rights of Man in 1791.
When, in 1792, his ‘treasonous’ views made him an outlaw in Britain, he escaped to France, where, even though he could not speak French, he was elected to the National Convention. There, perhaps surprisingly for such a radical, he opposed the execution of King Louis XVI, a view which made him suspect to many in the new French Republic, and during Robespierre’s Terror, he ended up in prison.
He escaped the guillotine only by the most unlikely serendipity – the chalk mark on his cell door, which indicated him out for execution the following morning, was scrawled near the hinge, where it could not be seen when the door was closed. The warden missed it.
Nevertheless, Paine felt abandoned by the then-President Washington. Even though a new American minister to France, future pesident James Monroe, later secured his release, Paine accused Washington of treachery.
Paine was also dismayed by Washington’s conservative Presidency, and turned his skills as a polemicist against his former mentor: ‘The world will be puzzled to decide whether you have … abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.’
Ever-keen on revolution in Britain, France, and America, Paine was perpetually depressed by the outcomes. He mocked the reform movement in Britain, and his hopes that Napoleon could bring revolutionary ideals to both sides of the Channel were crushed.
Paine despised efforts by both Washington and Adams to support Britain against France. And he wrote bitterly against the influence of religion – a view which alienated many in the States.
It was fitting that Paine spent his last years in America (where he turned to drink, and died in 1809). He had invented the term ‘United States of America’, helped define the country, and galvanised it to win a most unexpected victory against the world’s superpower.
But Thomas Paine’s tragedy was that America, whose revolution he had championed, never lived up to the polemic he had penned on America’s behalf.
Common Sense: the pamphlet that created America
Common Sense made possible the Declaration of Independence, and inspired American rebels to become ‘patriots’ intent on defeating the British Empire. It was probably the most influential propaganda leaflet in history. But Common Sense was much more than propaganda.
In January 1776, when Paine’s pamphlet was published, talk of separation from Britain was treasonous. Even revolutionary radicals – including most who would go on to become ‘Founding Fathers’ – simply wanted to renegotiate the link with Britain and pay less tax. Dr Benjamin Rush, who commissioned Paine to write Common Sense and suggested the title, specifically instructed Paine to avoid mention of independence. Paine disobeyed.
Instead, he invited readers to imagine what could be possible – such as proposing that the abundance of timber in America meant that a future US fleet might outgun the Royal Navy. He suggested an American revolution could spark democratic uprisings around the world. And he said it all in language that was eloquent, emotive, simple, and direct Common Sense is a well-structured essay, infused with high rhetoric and daring insults. Paine famously described the British King George as a ‘worm’.
The relatively short pamphlet – less than 20,000 words long – was an instant hit. Early print-runs sold out, and more than 100,000 copies had been bought by March 1776, as Paine’s message was discussed in taverns and preached from pulpits. In just a few short weeks Paine had transformed the debate taking place throughout the colonies.
Common Sense did not just liberate people to talk about independence; it compelled them to demand nothing less. Colonists who had deferred to Britain and revered King George just months earlier had been radicalised: Paine’s pamphlet had defined their revolutionary war aims for them.
Paine would later boast about his authorship of Common Sense, but he wrote the pamphlet anonymously, and even objected when the phrase ‘written by an Englishman’ was added to the second edition.
The American War of Independence
The American Revolutionary War began in April 1775, when British soldiers en route to confiscate a rebel arsenal in Massachusetts engaged militia in Lexington. Fighting spread, and the British were driven back to Boston.
A costly victory at nearby Bunker Hill failed to break the siege of the town by separatist militiamen, and this inspired the Continental Congress to establish a regular army under George Washington.
Washington’s men dragged artillery from New York state to force the British out of Boston, although his attempt to attack the British in Canada was a failure.
Increased British forces in 1776 met with increased resolve among the ‘patriots’ – including a clarification of their war aims through the Declaration of Independence. But while British victories – in Philadelphia and New York – had little strategic impact, Washington’s victories at Trenton and Saratoga inspired support from European powers, notably France.
By avoiding a knock-out blow and maintaining morale and political support, Washington’s army survived long enough for France to challenge British control of the sea. When the French Navy took Chesapeake Bay, Washington could isolate the poorly-provisioned British army at Yorktown, and British commander Cornwallis was forced to surrender. Fighting ceased in October 1781, and a peace treaty signed in 1783.