Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Thomas Paine

Among those who spent their lives advocating peace with justice, few names are nobler than that of Thomas Paine. English by birth, but American by choice and temperament, he called himself “a citizen of the world.” His motto: “My country is the world; to do good is my religion.” To a remarkable degree Paine’s life and writing are one, after he discovered his particular genius as a pamphleteer on issues of liberty and social justice.

As a literary radical, Paine brought his background as a working class citizen to everything he wrote, from his first pamphlet advocating higher wages for overworked and underpaid civil employees, to Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Agrarian Justice. Throughout he exhibited a talent for making complex ideas, economic, and political truths understandable to a large audience, and his writings were among the first best sellers in the U.S. His list of humanitarian causes reads like a list of democratic movements of the past three centuries: abolitionism, land reform, women’s rights, better conditions for workers, resistance to imperialism, civil rights. Although occasionally impudent and impetuous in his personal behavior, he remained faithful to common folk to the end of his life, championing their cause and working in their interest. Many poor people benefited from his generosity and not a few tyrants suffered because of his forthrightness in dedication to the truth.

Thomas Paine (spelled originally without the “e”) was born in Thetford, seventy miles northeast of London, on January 29, 1737. His mother, an Anglican, was the daughter of an attorney; his father, a Quaker, was a small farmer and staymaker. In Paine’s life and writings, his association with the Quakers remained significant, as the French radical, Marat, spitefully pointed out years later. When Paine voted against the execution of Louis XVI, in the French assembly, Marat claimed Paine did so because Quakers opposed capital punishment. For practical reasons, many Frenchmen regretted afterward their failure to follow Paine’s advice.

After several years of schooling, the young Paine worked as an apprentice in his father’s shop, went to sea, married, and became an excise officer in the town of Lewes. Widowed by one woman, he married again, only to be legally separated shortly afterward.

In 1773, Paine’s friend, Benjamin Franklin, provided references for the younger man’s move to the American colonies. A little over a year later, in Philadelphia, he published Common Sense, which helped to unite the colonies against a common foe, and to fan the first flames of revolution in America and then abroad.

Two years later, his Crisis papers championed the American cause against Great Britain and won support among the merchant class for the Revolution. George Washington and others praised Paine’s papers as central to the American victory, and although congress eventually voted Paine a stipend for his writing, a statement in American Crisis II accurately described his usual generosity:

My writing I have always given away, reserving only the expense of printing and paper, and sometimes not even that. I never courted fame or interest, and my manner of life, to those who know it, will justify what I say. My study is to be useful.

Paine subsequently alienated many powerful politicians by exposing lies and deceit in the new government; and in later years, only Thomas Jefferson remained loyal to him. As with his later attacks on superstition and traditional religion, his exposés of political skullduggery prejudiced early commentators, especially the Federalists, against him.

Away from America between 1787 and 1802, Paine played a significant role in the French Revolution, and nearly lost his life for opposing the extreme policies of Robespierre. In prison outside Paris, he continued writing essays and poems, reading and revising The Age of Reason. Earlier, Rights of Man (1791), an attack on Edmund Burke and a defense of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, led to charges of sedition in his native England, from which he was banished, narrowly escaping imprisonment in 1792.

The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and of Fabulous Theology (1794-96) attempted to purge institutional religion of its abuses, “lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government, and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity, and of theology that is true.” The book caused a furor in Europe, as well as in the United States after Paine’s return in 1802. He died seven years later, on June 8, 1809, in Greenwich Village, New York City.

A scurrilous biography shortly after Paine’s death provoked controversy over his life and writings once again, and later critics, such as Theodore Roosevelt, mistakenly regarded Paine as an atheist. Yet against all detractors, Paine’s own defense, in response to a royal proclamation suppressing his Rights of Man, accurately described his central concerns:

If, to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy, and every species of hereditary government—to less the oppression of taxes—to propose plans for the education of helpless infancy, and the comfortable support of the aged and distressed—to endeavor to conciliate nations to each other—to extirpate the horrid practice of war—to promote universal peace, and civilization, and the commerce—and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank—if these things be libellous, let me live the life of a Libeller, and let the name of LIBELLER be engraved on my tomb.

For subsequent libertarians William Lloyd Garrison and Walt Whitman, Eugene Victor Debs and Randolph Bourne, Paine was an inspiration and a guide, and his writing espouses values and programs still associated with nonviolent social change.

Like many American radicals, Paine hated privilege and pretension, and reacted strongly against anything that smacked of condescension toward the down-and-out, among whom he spent his earliest years. He was, to the end of his days, the supreme democrat, and his eloquent indictment of poverty, from Agrarian Justice, speaks to the economic injustice of the present world, as it did two centuries ago:

The rugged face of society, checkered with the extremes of affluence and want, proves that some extraordinary violence has been committed upon it, and calls on justice for redress. The great mass of the poor in all countries are become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible for them to get out of that state themselves. . . . It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. . . . The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye is like dead and living bodies chained together.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Thomas Paine
  • The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. Ed. Philip Foner. New York: The Citadel Press, 1945.
  • Thomas Paine: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes. Revised. Ed. Harry Hayden Clark. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961
Selected material about Thomas Paine
  • Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1959.
  • Fennessy, R.R. Burke, Paine, and the Rights of Man. A Difference of Political Opinions. The Hague, 1963.
  • Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Hawke, David Freeman. Paine. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.
  • True, Michael. “Thomas Paine.” In American Writers, supplement 1, part 2. Ed. Leonard Unger. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979, 501-25.

Related Resources


Agrarian Justice - Paine's last pamphlet, from 1797


Selected quotes by Thomas Paine

  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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