Thomas Paine was a pioneer in popular rhetoric, a form of discourse most familiar now in advertising, which he employed primarily in support of the natural rights of humankind, but he is best known for his association with the American and French Revolutions and for his rejection of conventional Christianity. Although this last position was common among his Enlightenment contemporaries, it was the ruin of Paine. He was a serious writer, never humorous, whose plainness and lack of pretense, were it not for allusions to contemporary issues, more closely resemble good political discourse of the 20th century than of his own, especially in his most famous work The Rights of Man (1791–92,).
Paine was nearly 40 when he became an overnight sensation with his first published work, Common Sense (1776), a pamphlet which urged the American colonies to consider the rightness of separation from England. He spent the next two decades basking in the glow of various revolutionary fires, although he personally objected to violent overthrow and viewed revolution as ideally a “natural selection” in government. While in France, he nearly lost his life in a failed defense of Louis XVI on these grounds. Controversy followed him wherever he went, inviting a popular form of personal attack at the time; his biography is, unfortunately, a part of all readings of Paine. Political enemies funded the first Paine biography with money provided by an English MP after the publication of the first half of The Rights of Man. It suggests that he was cruel to his mother, killed his first wife, abandoned his second, drank excessively, and did not wash. Although cleverly written, it is neither history nor biography, and has colored all subsequent Paine scholarship. Controversy surrounding The Rights of Man culminated in a conviction on charges of treason for too nearly suggesting the overthrow of the English monarchy to some readers, although modern readers will have difficulty seeing it.
With the publication of the first part of his statement of personal belief, The Age of Reason (1794–95), Paine’s infamy was complete. He lost his popularity in America, the only country he claimed as his own, a final, deeply ironic failure as an essayist in a lifetime of spectacular success in that genre. Immediately after his death, a large body of unpublished work was probably destroyed by a former French revolutionary out of combined loyalty to Paine and to the Catholic Church, to which she had converted while caring for Paine in his old age. A fire destroyed the rest several years later. Near the end of the 19th century, the first editor of Paine’s collected works ended his biography of Paine with a call for world government and religious tolerance in a style reminiscent of Paine’s own, the first scholarly testament to the power Paine continues to wield with readers.
The basic elements of the Paine myth—the scurrilous biography, the late-life apostasy, the legions of loyal Paineites—have always overshadowed the essayist Paine. It goes without saying that any serious appreciation of the simple logic of his essays—all of it intended as public discourse and unrelated to the controversies which followed him to the grave—should absolutely exclude the “life” of Thomas Paine, especially since the private Paine is lost with the lost papers.
All that remains of the popular Paine are the opening lines of the first installment of what is now collectively referred to as The American Crisis (1776–83): “These are the times that try men’s souls…” With this essay, Paine invented an American identity and with it the possibility of an American nationalism necessary in times of war. These lines, written to rouse disheartened soldiers in General Washington’s army, have reappeared in wartime speeches of commanding generals ever since, although Paine’s personal political views were idealistic and pacifist, founded on the idea of the people’s right to establish or re-establish their own government based on present need rather than on either tradition or the fundamental notion of “might makes right.” His philosophy proved impractical, even to himself in the end when he failed to influence the French with his rhetoric of reconciliation, a realization which lent much of the bitterness to The Age of Reason.
At the height of his powers, Paine produced the immensely popular The Rights of Man in support of the French and in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Unlike the philosopher Burke, Paine approached the essay form as a populist means to current ends rather than as a literary form in the service of philosophy. Although he succeeded, according to relative sales of the two documents, he did not do justice to the subtleties of Burke’s argument. While Burke addressed a social and political elite with the power of England’s literary past behind him, Paine produced rhetoric that inflamed a broader readership, choosing what proved to be a superior moral high road.
Now that the argument no longer matters, Paine’s is clearly the superior rhetoric, although Burke is of course the superior philosopher, as Paine was neither systematic nor profound in his thinking. Without exception, his well-circulated works set off a storm of print reaction. Much of this reaction, both contemporary and in the large body of subsequent scholarship, suggests a linguistic counterpoint—an unmistakable mirroring of Paine’s style—resembling face-to-face argumentation (in which disputants tend toward the code of the strongest speaker), unlike the strictly rule-bound style of formal debate taught in the university system which had produced Burke. Olivia Smith suggests in The Politics of Language (1984) that the keen awareness of audience which characterized Paine’s prose is even more apparent in The Rights of Man than in his American writing because Paine studied Burke’s use of himself as a narrative device, noting his broadly drawn images as well as his frequent attention to his readers. Whether or not Paine was constructing himself in this document as the ideal opponent to Burke, only Paine knew, but his relationship to his audience is clear. He set up two audiences—on the one side his larger audience, to whom he speaks sometimes boldly, sometimes patiently, the rhetorician using his skill to inspire a range of emotions according to his will. On the other is Edmund Burke, whom he repeatedly challenges to respond to his response. The effect of the clearly distinct audiences is to strengthen the voice of Paine himself and to place the reading audience always in the position of taking up the dialectic in opposition to a common foe.
Born 29 January 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk, England. Studied at grammar school until age 13. Apprentice to his father in the staymaker trade; privateer at sea, 1756; staymaker, London, 1756–57, Kent, 1758–60, and Norfolk, 1766. Married Mary Lambert, 1759 (died, 1760). Excise officer, Thetford, 1761, Lincolnshire, 1762–65 (dismissed), and Sussex, 1768–74 (dismissed for organizing a demand for a pay rise); usher, London, 1766–68. Married Elizabeth Ollive, 1771 (legally separated, 1774; died, 1808). Traveled to Philadelphia, 1774; editor, Pennsylvania Magazine, Philadelphia, 1775–76; contributor, Pennsylvania Journal. Secretary, Continental Congress committee to negotiate treaty with the Indians, 1777, and the committee on foreign affairs, 1777–79; clerk, Pennsylvania Assembly, 1779–81; secretary on a mission to France to raise money for George Washington’s army, 1781. Lived in Bordentown, New Jersey, and on a farm near New Rochelle, New York, 1783–87; lived in England and France, from 1787. Tried in absentia for treason (over The Rights of Man) and outlawed from England, 1792. Made a French citizen by the French Assembly, 1792; member of the National Convention, for Pas de Calais, 1792, as part of Gironde group, which supported the banishment rather than death of Louis XVI; at the fall of the Girondists he was deprived of French citizenship and imprisoned, 1793–94; resumed seat in Convention, 1795, and lived in Paris until 1802. Returned to the U.S., 1802, and lived in New Jersey, New Rochelle, and New York City, 1802–09. Awards: honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Died in New York City, 8 June 1809.
Essays and Related Prose
Common Sense, 1776; revised edition, 1776; edited by Isaac Kramnick, 1976
The American Crisis, 13 nos., 1776–83
The Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution, 2 vols., 1791–92; edited by Henry Collins, 1969, Arthur Seldon, 1969, Eric Foner, 1985, and Gregory Claeys, 1992
The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology, 2 vols., 1794–95
Selections from the Writing of Thomas Paine, edited by Carl Van Doren, 1922
Representative Selections, edited by Harry Hayden Clark, 1944
Common Sense and Other Political Writings, edited by Nelson F. Adkins, 1953
The Thomas Paine Reader, edited by Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, 1987
Political Writings, edited by Bruce Kuklick, 1989
Rights of Man, Common Sense, and Other Writings, edited by Mark Philp, 1995
Other writings: works on history and politics.
Collected works editions: Life and Works, edited by William M. Van der Weyde, 10 vols., 1925; Complete Writings, edited by Philip S.Foner, 2 vols., 1945; Collected
Writings (Library of America Edition), 1995.
Aldridge, A.O., “Thomas Paine: A Survey of Research and Criticism Since 1945,”
British Studies Monitor 5 (1974):3–29
The Thomas Paine Collection at Thetford: An Analytical Catalogue, Norwich: Norfolk
County Library, 1979
Wilson, Jerome, “Thomas Paine in America: An Annotated Bibliography, 1900–1973,”
Bulletin of Bibliography 31 (1974): 133–51, 180
Aldridge, A.Owen, Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1959; London: Cresset Press, 1960
Aldridge, A.Owen, Thomas Paine’s American Ideology, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984
Butler, Marilyn, editor, Burke, Paine, Godwin and the Revolution Controversy, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984
Conway, Moncure Daniel, The Life of Thomas Paine, New York: Putnam, 1892; London: Watts, 1909
Dyck, Ian, editor, Citizen of the World: Essays on Paine, London: Helm, 1987; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
Fennessy, R.R., Burke, Paine, and the Rights of Man, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963
Foner, Eric, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976
Fruchtman, Jack, Jr., Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom, New York: Four Walls Eight
Keane, John, Tom Paine: A Political Life, Boston: Little Brown, and London: Bloomsbury, 1995
Philp, Mark, Thomas Paine, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989
Powell, David, Tom Paine, The Greatest Exile, London: Croom Helm, 1985
Smith, Olivia, The Politics of Language, 1791–1819, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984
Wilson, Jerome D., and William F.Ricketson, Thomas Paine, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1989 (original edition, 1978)
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