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For many years Thomas Paine was the epitome of American histories greatest drawback. In American history there is always that one detail that doesn?t make it into popular curriculum. Whether it be the point of view from the loosing side of a war, to the secret dalliances of a popular politician, to the truth of a times social opinion- the American student is taught only so much. The most proper, popular material makes it in; along with any major facts too commonly known to ignore. Anything else is liable to fall to the wayside without enough support from historians or academia. There is always room for the improvement of materials taught; so said, it would seem there is much more to know about Thomas Paine then is currently taught.
Within the last twenty years there has been a resurgence of interest in both Thomas Paine and his work. The new social consciousness is more in tune with his writings, and his underdog status appeals to many. His blunt style of speech has earned him admiration in many corners; in fact one of President Ronald Regan?s more clever speech writers took to adding exerpts from Paines? writings into the President?s major addresses. Paine has lately been heralded as ?Americas? first modern intellectual?, and is the subject of numerous books which have come out within the last four years.
Common knowledge of Paine includes his birth in 1737 in Thetford, England, his writing of the Common Sense pamphlet in 1776, and his involvement in the American Revolution. Less common knowledge is his other writings: The Crisis, Rights of War and The Age of Reason; along with his role in the French Revolution. Even further down the path into the obscure is his brief French citizenship, his time in a French prison, and the short period of fourteen months which elapsed between his arrival in the Americas, and the publication of Common Sense.
Paine is nothing if not the son of both perseverance and necessity. His financial woes are the stuff on which young loan sharks are weaned. He grew up the soon of a poor corset maker, and knew only poverty most of his life. His employment track is littered with miss-starts in many fields, including stints as a teacher, a seaman, a tobacco shop owner and at various times a excise man. None of these were to be successful positions for Paine, giving him the start of a grudge towards England and its economy. After surviving one wife and separating from another, Paine was near his perceived end. Yet on the recommendation of a new acquaintance from America he decided to head west to the colonies, in hope of escaping the misery he?d endured in England. With nothing to his name but letters of recommendation (from the American whom he?d met in London), he arrived in Philadelphia, America in 1774. This American happened to be none other then Benjamin Franklin, and the prominence of Paines? recommender gained him the position of editor of the newly founded Pennsylvanian Magazine. Here, Paine established himself as a radical thinker, a person unafraid to enter into the independence furor. Remembering the hardships he had faced in England, Paine became he ideal American patriot.
In 1776 Paine published the Common Sense pamphlet without signing his name to it. Demanding independence from England and the establishment of a strong American union, the pamphlet found overwhelming support and approval with American colonists. With the revelation of its? author the pamphlet continued its? wave of success, drawing commendation from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In one of the most perfectly timed releases in history, Common Sense was unleashed to a public hungry for direction, and touched upon a raw nerve the size of a revolution. Paine quickly followed up in December of that year with the first in a series of pamphlets entitled The Crisis. It began, ?These are the times that try men?s souls…Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.? These lines were read aloud to Washington?s? men as they lay shivering in the winter cold. From that point on Paine looked to figure prominently in the American revolution.
Thomas Paine served in the army as a solider, and froze along side the rest of America?s patriots during the winters of 1776 and 1777. In 1777 he received appointment to the position of Secretary to the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs. His luck had changed since his arrival in 1776, yet his personality was to be his eventual downfall. By openly and honestly exposing corruption within his departments ranks, he earned himself the first in a long line of enemies. Paine was forced to resign his position, and found himself in the situation of surviving off charity. With subsequent appointments he gave away much of his money to the revolutionary cause, and preferred to focus on continuing his Crisis pamphlets. Several years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Paine was given approximately $2500. by the state of Pennsylvania, a house and farm near New Rochelle by New York and was voted the amount of $3000. by congress. Regardless of his newly acquired wealth, Paine found ways to disrupt his own life, first by going to France in support of it?s revolution, and then finding himself an outlaw in England after he had published his two part Rights of Man there in 1791 and 1792.
On August 26, 1972, Thomas Paine became a French citizen, and quickly positioned himself in the limelight surrounding France?s Revolution. He won wide support, and gained a seat in the National Convention. Once again, Paines? brutal honesty earned him enemies when he criticized the amount of bloodshed France?s Revolution was seeing. Once again he lost his power, being quickly stripped of his seat, his citizenship, and any immunity; and finding himself squarely in prison for over ten months. Once again it was outside help that saved him, this time in the form of the American Minister, James Monroe. Monroe claimed Paine as an American Citizen, and secured his release. From then on Paine would slide further and further into territory which marked him as merely a historical blip, rather then the rousing character he was.
Paines? last work The Age of Reason, was published in two parts, one just after his arrest an imprisonment and one shortly following his release. The book was written on Paines? own religious beliefs, and started the uproar that eventually outlived even him. Heralded as the ?Atheists Bible?, Paines? beliefs seemed radical and inconceivable at the time. His denouncement of orthodoxy and many church held beliefs made him the most hated man of his time (John Lennons comparison of the Beatles to Jesus resulted in the same sort of uproar). Most all of his American friends deserted him after the books publication, and he decided to stay on in France for some time after his release from prison. In 1802 Thomas Jefferson arranged for his safe arrival in America. Paine quickly found that he?d been forgotten for everything but his ?Atheist Bible?, and that most people had more of an angry impression then a working knowledge of that book. Alone and in poverty his last few years went without notice, marked only by an attempted assassination in 1804.
In 1809 Thomas Paine died, one of America?s most noted men passing sadly in neglect. He lived on in infamy, his bones deported to England in 1819, and his burial site unknown to this day. Theodore Roosevelt helped keep the tradition of Paine loathing alive when he referred to Paine as a…?dirty little atheist?. To this day, you?ll find little more about Thomas Paine in classroom history books other then that he was the author of the Common Sense pamphlet. No mention of his personal contributions in fighting the war and maintaining the government. Not a word of how he gave his last cent to the cause of the revolution and then went begging for more. Here we have a man who helped spark the flame of revolution that brought about the United States of America, relegated to the role of cheerleader. Thomas Paine gave his all for America, always going openly and honestly about his work, and in the end sacrificing his own life so that the truth might be heard.
Wood, Gordon S. ?Disturbing The Peace?
New York Review of Books June 8, 1995
Wilentz, Sean ?The Air Around Thomas Paine?
New Republic April 24, 1995 Vol. 212 Issue 17
Keane, John ?Tom Paine: A Political Life?
Comptons Encyclopedia, William Benton 1973
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