Thomas Paine: An Agitator And Revolutionary

One figure in early American history has the unique distinction of being a significant actor in both the American and French revolutions.  Thomas Paine is not widely known today (or at least not as widely known as he should be), but his career shows him to have been a man of integrity and courageous conviction.  He was born in England and moved to the American colonies as a thirty-seven-year-old adult in 1774, just as the fires of revolution began to smolder.

Discovering a latent talent for agitation and pamphleteering, he threw his energies into promoting the cause of the American rebels.  His short essay Common Sense was extremely influential in swaying public opinion in favor of what was decidedly an uncertain cause.  Written in a racy, colloquial English that any literate man could understand, it became something of a manifesto among revolutionaries. It is difficult to overstate the importance that this book had in popularizing the rationale for independence from Britain.  Paine had a true gift for expressing complex historical and philosophical ideas in ways that the unlettered reader could digest.


During the war he used his talents to maintain the morale of Nathanael Greene’s soldiers, who were suffering greatly from lack of supplies and want of victories.  His pamphlet The American Crisis (1776) is a classic of political rhetoric. Who will protest at quoting once more its stirring opening lines?

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 their country; but he that stands 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: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.

He took a more active role in the new American government after 1777, but his experiences in politics were darkened by controversies and imbroglios that might have been avoided had Paine learned to be better at the game of politics.  But he was an idealist, not a politician, and such men are rarely spared trouble.  His problems began in 1777 when he foolishly leaked news of secret negotiations with France; for this he was publicly censured.  Further scandal arose when Paine criticized Silas Deane, the man appointed to conduct negotiations with the French.  Paine considered him unsuited to the job due to conflicts of interest; but Deane had powerful friends, and it was Paine who had to back down in humiliation.

At the end of the war a grateful public had awarded him a plot of land in New York state.  But he was restless with revolt, and longed for further battle.  His experience in America seems to have turned him into a professional revolutionary with a loathing for monarchies.

Immediately after the war in North America ended he set sail for France to agitate for revolution against the inept monarchy.  Unlike most of the French revolutionaries, however, he was against mindless butchery and tried to have the French nobility exiled rather than executed.  This and other indiscretions caused him to fall out of favor, and he was tossed into prison in December 1793.  Released the next year, he startled public opinion with the release of a book called The Age of Reason, in which he argued for the rejection of “superstition, of false forms of government, and false theology.”

Paine turned his guns on organized religion, which (as he saw it) did little more than enslave the human mind to false doctrines:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church nor by any church that I know of.  My own mind is my own church.  All national institutions of churches…appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

So it seemed to Tom Paine.  The anti-clerical doctrines of the Enlightenment burned brightly in him; he could see little more than ignorance and foolery in organized belief.  He was not precisely an atheist, but rather a deist.  His opponents were not careful with the distinction, however.  His ideas were too radical for the simple folk on both sides of the Atlantic; they could not forgive his contemptuous dismissal of their cherished beliefs. When he returned to the United States in 1802, his reputation as an atheist preceded him, and there were few old friends to greet him.  He had burned his bridges nearly everywhere by this time, and died in near obscurity in 1809.

He was a man of action, better suited to wartime conditions than to peacetime politics.  In retrospect he should have confined his efforts to writing and public relations instead of entering the lion’s den of political intrigue.  He did not understand that where powerful men and institutions are concerned, winning every argument is not always the best policy.  He was a lover of liberty and a man of integrity, but he never learned to temper his passion for these virtues with sound political judgment and a measured understanding of human nature.

Tom Paine reminded the crowned heads of England and France of their limitations.  But no one ever reminded him of his own.

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32 thoughts on “Thomas Paine: An Agitator And Revolutionary”

  1. I’m sure that after George Washington sent troops to crush the Whiskey Rebellion (payback time for Hamilton against the farmers who got on his nerves) Thomas Paine was telling the people “I warned you!”. The people were outraged that Washington would use a sledgehammer to crush a gnat just to show the power of the new government.

    1. Thanks for the info consider myself fairly knowledgeable about American history but had no diea about the Whiskey Rebellion. Some interesting reading there..

        1. Yes the only ” sitting ” president in American history to lead troops as far as I know..

        2. James Madison led (a sorry excuse for) American troops when Washington, DC was under attack in the War of 1812.
          A historical curiosity that one of only 2 POTUS who have personally led troops in battle while in office was a man who was barred from combat service during the Revolution due to his diminutive stature and health.

    2. The more I learn about Hamilton, the more it makes sense that the political left has turned him into something of a hero for them.
      …looking at the exorbitant excise taxes on alcohol nowadays, I’m somewhat surprised that there hasn’t been another such rebellion.

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    2. Assuming that the parents themselves have learned history as it actually happened.
      But, even if they haven’t, the liberal lies that today’s parents were taught in yesteryear’s schools is far superior to the crap that is being taught today, like Christopher Columbus being a “war criminal”.

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  2. I didn’t know Paine was a Deist, was always taught he was an atheist in school. I think Deist’s believe in a stand offish creator and therefore reject all reveled works (Bible, Quran, ect.). a lot of the founders were deists (why we have separation of church and state) & I think there are still some of them around.

    1. I was under the impression that only a couple of prominent founding fathers (Franklin, in particular) were either Deist or Unitarian. The remainder were, at the time, various denominations of Christian.
      I think the biggest reason for the First Amendment protection is to keep the State from meddling in religion, which all the founding fathers seem to have agreed was a personal faith. It is important to note that the Constitution is binding on the powers of the Federal government but not on the people or the States (until the Supreme Court used their extra-Constitutional power to change that…).
      Either way, I never knew that Paine was Deist, either. You believe correctly about them – Deists are essentially Intelligent Design as a religious proposition.

      1. yes most people don’t realize that the states were free to declare themselves whatever they wanted. I think some called themselves ‘Christian Democracy’ and so on. I can only ever remember Washington (Christian), Franklin (deist), Adams brothers(Christian), and Jefferson(deist) off the top of my head as founders so I figured Deists were fairly numerous at the time but I am probably wrong and my public school education is showing itself

    2. There is no such thing as seperation of church and state. What we have is no state endorsed religion. There is a difference. US gov by design, isnt supposed to force one belief on the people, but tolerates or embraces all equally.
      Seperation of church and state means, by defalt, government rejects all religion. That is definately not what the founders intended.

  3. I am glad that ROK published an article on Thomas Paine. As an American deist myself I believe he doesn’t get the proper recognition he deserves, not only in his contribution towards Deism but in his contribution toward the Revolution.

    1. Right he was a “big deal” but doesn’t get the proper credit because he wasn’t religious at all and was the closest thing to an atheist you could be at that time. His nonbeliever /agnostic/irreligiosity made him much less famous than he should be . Got kinda blacklisted. His great friend Thomas Jefferson had his remains taken from a potter’s field /obscure graveyard and re-buried with a proper marker . Christopher Hitchens was a huge fan of Paine . Read Hitchen’s bio of him…excellent.

      1. IMO it works out that, except for Common Sense (still taught in US History AFAIK), Paine has been forgotten.
        Had his quasi-atheism not done it in his day, his idiotic aiding of the French Revolution would have done it later on.
        It (ahem) pains me that a hero of the American Revolution later took leave of his senses and became an 18th century equivalent to an “Occupy Wall Street” rabble-rousing hippie.

        1. I get the impression Paine was always a rabble-rouser; he just happened to be on our side for a moment.

      2. Thank you for the intro to Hitchens I’ll be sure to read it. Truth be told some of our most influential Founding Fathers agreed with Paine’s beliefs, however due to the fear of ostracism they mostly kept their beliefs private.

  4. Paine was also famous for his body odor. Even at a time when men walked around pretty ripe, he was heads above … er, pits below. Funk Level 5.

  5. Really also a sad story. Sounds like he was cut down to size halfway through his ascendancy. A bit of the Icarus Complex, the part where Paine was unable to rise above his condition later on (lack of connections or powerful friends at a critical juncture, inability to exercise tact and tactical judgment, etc.).
    Not to compare myself to Thomas Paine but I also sense certain moments of my own idealism as lacking the wider council (and unwritten laws) of an inherently politicized social world. Great/inspired ideas can feel unhinged in their isolation from public approval or adoption. Always a crossroads of thought — should I use this moment as a way to keep myself in check, or remain unbowed and risk being perceived obstinate or foolish under public scrutiny? It’s worth pondering the risk before the thought passes from mind to mouth. Because if you’re *not* able to connect with people or properly debate your conviction, the best of ideas won’t break through.
    In a way, Thomas Paine appears to come across as the archetypal Everyman of unpopular thought, though he obviously took it to more profound levels and enriched his life by doing so. And he seems to have achieved this free of doubt. Therein lies the triumph (in addition to his actual historical triumphs).
    Finally, *this* required an iron pair of balls back in the day:
    “All national institutions of churches…appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

    1. Thomas Paine’s US political struggles bring to mind a classic US political quote, Henry Clay’s “I’d rather be right than President!”

      …archetypal Everyman of unpopular thought

      Sounds more like a run-of-the-mill anarchist to me, someone who wants to overthrow “The Man” just for the sake of doing so.

      1. He did get edgy and overplayed his hand, hence the ostracizing. I generally think revolutions and anarchy are to be avoided at all costs. Paine might tell me that stable, higher-minded solutions are the politenesses of kings.
        Another ROK poster just before me (jammyjaybird) said Paine smelled bad, and if that is true then I would conjecture to add that he probably wasn’t punctual either. I run too tight a ship not to be punctual, but I still sometimes think the way he does. Particularly about the salve of religion, which is a pretty unpopular notion on ROK. Paine may have registered at the higher end of insufferable narcissists amid mixed company that ultimately excluded him. What could be harder to deal with than a combative, unhealthy narcissist-atheist (aka ersatz “deist”) who loved himself or his ideas too much.
        Thanks for the thoughtful reply…I’ll have to look into some Henry Clay after this. Since I’ve crossed 40 I’ve become more interested in the details of history than in youth, because it eventually dawns on some of us that society could go into retrograde if we fail to properly examine the lessons from history. I aced history exams as a kid on memory, not on actually giving a shit. Past as Prologue, and now I do care, and this article by Quintus Curtius helps expand the horizons. I’m almost fishing for a reply like yours, one that slightly disagrees and invites further detail.

        1. I am a hardcore conservative Catholic. There may be other Christians on here lurking.

  6. That was an excellent ode to Thomas Paine. One cannot underestimate the importance of men like him. Trump’s inaugural speech was gagued well too like ‘Common Sense’ and resonates broadly. His pre election rallies got him warmed up with speaking a tone that resonates likewise. Expect more fine speeches from Trump. I’ve noticed there’s a little bit of Thomas Paine in his words.

  7. I read some pamphlets of Paine….
    I still try to forget them….
    They are of these writings that are horrible from the first sentence, and continue to surpass themselves ’till the end. If one needs to know why democracies are immoral and tend to collapse by themselves, look no further, if one bases his core ideas on such unreadable material such will be the nature or his regime.
    Also, he used to name-call far too much. The cuter of these was “Paraoh” thrown against the English king.
    The pamphlets that I read were in a collection of oxford univercity press “the rights of man”.

  8. The French Revolution didn’t turn out too good did it? Ironically it was partly due to the King blowing all ‘his’ dough on the war with us Brits on behalf of the Americans. And does he get the credit for it?

  9. I am against the American Revolution: had I been alive in 1775, I would have fought with the Loyalists and the British Army. Bear in mind, I’ve served two combat tours in the Middle East with the American Army and given more than most for the United States of America.
    The reasons for the war were mostly BS: The Boston “Massacre” where British soldiers only opened fire after the crowd threw rocks and clubs at them *grievously wounding a British soldier with a massive head wound*. The “unfair taxes” the Crown was imposing were actually less than British citizens living in the UK were paying, and they were only imposed to pay off the debt from the French and Indian War (Seven Years War) in which Britain paid hundreds of thousands of GBP to defend American colonists from Native savages. And the idea that you could be executed for criticizing the Crown is stupid: during the Napoleonic Wars less than 20 years later, newspapers regularly printed cartoons portraying George III as an insane wierdo (which he was), and none of them were executed.
    One of the few legitimate reasons for the American Revolution is this: Taxation without representation. On this, Lord North and George III handled the situation worse than Obama handled Syria and Hillary handled Benghanzi. While it wasn’t unjust for the Crown to insist that the colonists pay for a war that protected them from the savage Indians, Lord North could have quashed the entire revolution without a single British soldier: by simply giving the colonists token (1 per colony or “state”) representation in Parliament.
    While I would not have supported the Revolution and it’s mostly bullshit rallying cries, it is one of the few wars (the War of 1812 being the other) that I would not have supported American involvement in. We should just be thankful that Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, didn’t get sent to America in 1812: he was Britain’s best General, and defeated Napoleon’s best Marshals except Davout and even Napoleon himself. There was no General in America that could have defeated him.

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