Mightier than the sword – the impact of the ideas of Thomas Paine on the American Revolution

The year was 1776 and it was time for Americans to sever links with Britain and assert their independence. Thomas Paine set himself the task of writing what was to become the biggest-selling, most widely read and successful political pamphlet in history: Common Sense.

Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain. (Joel Barlow, American diplomat and poet)

There was but one topic of conversation throughout the American colonies in the summer of 1776. Although the settlers were locked in a bloody armed struggle with Britain the talk was not, as one would expect, of battles won or lost. Wherever people gathered, in every farmyard and factory, in every tavern and town, from the lowest paid farmhands to the richest merchants and landholders, the talk was the same: Common Sense. This was the title of a 47-page political pamphlet which was gripping everyone's imagination with its powerful, persuasive arguments against the monarchy and in favour of American independence.

Thomas Paine
 Thomas Paine

But who was the author of this unsigned work which was so dramatically changing the attitude of so many Americans towards the nature of their conflict with the ‘Mother Country'? The political and intellectual elite were certain it was one of their own: "...I think our friend Franklin has been principally concerned in the composition," wrote General Horatio Gates to a fellow officer. Others credited were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (two future presidents of the USA); others thought it was Samuel Adams, who was to become governor of Massachusetts. But it was none of these political luminaries. The author was a recent arrival on America's shores. His name was Thomas Paine.

Born on January 29, 1737, the son of a Quaker father and Anglican mother, Paine lead an interesting and eventful, but ultimately unhappy life in England. Twice married (his first wife died when he was twenty-four-years-old.), his career in his homeland was varied: privateer, teacher, preacher, customs officer and shopkeeper, he campaigned for better wages for his colleagues, the poorly paid excisemen. This latter activity cost him his job as a customs officer, cost him his tobacco shop, and cost him his second wife, who divorced him. The unhappy, disillusioned Paine returned from Lewes, where he had been stationed as an exciseman, to London, where a friend introduced him to an elderly but energetic American, the sixty-eight-year-old scientist, writer and statesman Benjamin Franklin. Franklin took an immediate liking to him and was later to boast that Thomas Paine was his "...adopted political son." Sensing that Paine was the sort of man who belonged to the America he hoped to build, he urged him to emigrate there. On November 30th, 1774, Paine arrived in Philadelphia with a letter of introduction to Franklin's son and son-in-law in his pocket.

Paine looked around Philadelphia, the unofficial capital of the American colonies, and liked what he saw: a society of mixed religions and ethnicity, its immigrant workers were spirited and dynamic; they were eager to seek a better life than that which they had endured in the oppressive regimes of England and the rest of Europe. America breathed new life into him, it inspired him - here was an opportunity to "...begin the world anew."

It was far from perfect, this new society that Paine had joined: there were inequalities and there were social injustices; many of the richer settlers and landowners behaved just like the English gentry, and worst of all - there was slavery! But these wrongs could be put right. This was a young country peopled by many who had themselves fled from various forms of injustice and oppression in their own homelands; the ordinary men and women in this new world could, given direction and leadership, make this land the best place in the world to live in, and set a shining example for the rest of humanity. And Thomas Paine was determined to point them in the right direction. He was excited to learn that even the lowest paid workers were already demanding the right to vote in city elections, and there was even talk that the Philadelphia Militia were demanding the right to elect their own officers. Yes - these were people with fire in their bellies, these were people capable of shaping their own destiny.

He was in his element when he was offered a job as editor in a new periodical, The Pennsylvania magazine. Along with editing, he was also writing articles for The Pennsylvania and other magazines. He railed against slavery:

"That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising." (March 1775).

Under his editorship The Pennsylvania became the biggest selling periodical in America. He was on the crest of a wave: his own writing was attracting critical acclaim, and Franklin's son-in-law, Richard Bache, was introducing him to some of Philadelphia's leading citizens. Then once again things took a turn for the worse: he angered John Witherspoon (the magazine's co-publisher) by editing some of his work. He was obliged to resign and the vindictive Witherspoon slandered him with false allegations that he was a drunkard. Paine did not drink to excess but for the rest of his life his many detractors maliciously circulated this false rumour.

But in 1775 there were more pressing matters occupying Paine's thoughts: the quarrel between America and Britain had escalated into open warfare with the battles of Lexington and Concord in April, followed by a much bloodier confrontation at Bunker Hill in June. He concluded that the aims of this dispute must now be changed. It was no longer sufficient to fight for rights and justice within the framework of the British Empire; it was time for Americans to sever links with Britain and assert their independence. To this end he set himself the task of writing what was to become the biggest-selling, most widely read and successful political pamphlet in history: Common Sense.

We were blind

"We were blind, but on reading these enlightening words the scales have fallen from our eyes." Thus wrote a Connecticut reader to the Pennsylvania Post in 1776. To appreciate the impact of Paine's writing it is essential to be aware of the prevailing psychology at the time. It is true that there always were some who had advocated fighting for independence, but they were very much in the minority. Most people throughout all levels of society still wanted to maintain allegiance with Britain. They believed it was parliament, and not ‘good' King George, that was to blame for the unfair taxation that was being imposed upon them. Get rid of these vile ministers and Americans would dwell with respect and dignity under the British constitution as part of the Empire. George Washington and his fellow officers were still drinking to the King's health; Thomas Jefferson wrote: "There is not a man in the British Empire who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do."

Washington, one of the richest men in America, and others of his ilk, had every reason to remain locked into the British Empire; they were alarmed by the growing confidence of the working-class whom they despised and wished to keep in their place. Statesman Gouverneur Morris referred to the common people as ‘reptiles'. And of course the ordinary people themselves, preconditioned by generations of having loyalty to king and country drilled into their psyches, were still proud to be British.

Then Common Sense struck the continent like an earthquake, its shockwaves shattering the political status quo in every state along the entire East coast of America. No longer would his royal majesty be held in such reverence and awe, no longer would the workers and peasants regard the aristocracy and the landed gentry of Britain (and America) as their betters. Overnight the people of America had become wide awake to reality, and they were demanding the right to rule themselves - total independence! Such was the power of Tom Paine's pen.

Common Sense was published on January 10, 1776, and the world had seen nothing like it before. It was the most powerful and persuasive piece of political writing that had ever been produced; its irrefutable logic utterly destroyed the case for the monarchy, the aristocracy and the corrupt system of British government. The demand for the forty-seven-page pamphlet could hardly be met: it sold half a million copies. Considering the size of the population, of which a large proportion could neither read nor write, this made it the biggest seller of all time; relative to today's population the equivalent sales would be 50 million. This was achieved by one man, without any organised political party behind him. One can sense the excitement and growing confidence the American settlers must have felt as Paine demolished the myth of the monarchy, beginning with William the Conqueror - "A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself King of England against the consent of the natives." He then went on to belittle "...the folly of hereditary right in kings." He argued for the separation of church and state, went on to discuss America's economic, military and naval potential and suggested a framework for American self government.

After reading the pamphlet the vast majority of working-class Americans, and even many of the social elite, were convinced that complete independence was the only way forward for their country. Paine's achievement was swift, incredible and irreversible. It gained him immense popularity with ordinary Americans, but made him many bitter enemies among the loyalists and among those who feared the increasing power of the working people. There followed a concerted effort by many of the social elite to attack Common Sense, leading to an intense war of words in the Pennsylvania press between Paine and his many detractors, especially John Adams (not to be confused with John Quincy Adams), who developed a lifelong hatred for him. But now the people's demand for independence could not be stopped. Washington wrote to his secretary, Joseph Reed: "...by private letters I have lately received from Virginia, I find ‘Common Sense' is working a powerful change in the minds of men." On July 4th, 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

These are the times that try men's souls

That year Paine enlisted in the militia and became aide to General Nathaniel Greene¸ arguably the best general on either side. Washington was now Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He was an imposing personality and was personally brave, but as a field commander he left much to be desired. To his credit he was aware of his shortcomings, and the shortcomings of his militia. He enlisted the Prussian officer Friedrich von Steuben to drill his troops into military efficiency and co-opted the aid of La Fayette's French army and De Grasse's French fleet to help America's cause. Astonishingly, considering the availability of an abundance of expert horsemen, he never developed a cavalry wing to his army. His idea of ‘inspiring' his men was to threaten them with hanging if they showed cowardice in battle, hardly the hallmark of a great leader. It was his good fortune that he had an able subordinate in Greene and that his British counterpart, Howe, allowed himself to be distracted from the job in hand by his American mistress. By the end of the year the outlook was bleak for America's cause: Washington's army was in retreat and soldiers were deserting their units every day; Congress had fled from Philadelphia, fearing its occupation by British troops and everyone was anticipating defeat. Everyone except Thomas Paine. In his American Crisis (the first of many with that title) he penned the stirring words that were to fan the flames of American patriotism:

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 his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

The American Crisis sold in tens of thousands, boosted morale, revived recruitment and turned the tide of battle. Washington ordered his officers to read Crisis to his troops. The troops listened to Paine's words, crossed the Delaware, routed the Hessian troops and captured Trenton. The situation had been completely turned around. As with Common Sense, Paine never took a penny from the profits of his writing, he gave it all to provide clothing for the troops. Throughout the Revolutionary War he devoted himself tirelessly to the cause, serving in various posts and issuing pamphlets, continuously rousing the flagging morale of the Americans:

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.

When Washington's depleted army was taking refuge in Valley Forge and Congress was questioning his ability to command, it was Paine who came to his defence - a loyalty that was not reciprocated by Washington when Paine later needed his help. He also endeavoured to patch up teething problems in the young and growing nation, advising on territorial disputes, taxation and other matters of government. Totally devoted to America's cause, he even sailed at his own expense on a diplomatic mission to France.

On October 19, 1781, the British forces under General Cornwallis were decisively beaten by combined French and American troops. Britain's cloak of invincibility was torn to shreds and it was the beginning of the end for the mighty British Empire. America was the first revolutionary state to defeat a great European power - the war ended with the Treaty of Paris in April, 1783.

The far seeing Paine was still anxious about the future of the union, realising that many Americans took it too lightly. He feared that some states might, for reasons such as slavery and commerce, decide to break away and go it alone:

"I ever feel myself hurt when I hear the union, that great palladium of our liberty and safety, the least irreverently spoken of. It is the most sacred thing in the constitution of America."

And the declared purpose of the ‘Union of the States':

"To see it in our power to make a world happy, to teach mankind the art of being so, to exhibit, on the theatre of the Universe a character hitherto unknown."

The rights of man

"I wonder you did not hang that scoundrel Paine for his blackguard libel on king, lords, and commons. I suppose the extreme scurrility of the pamphlet, or the villainy of those who wish to disperse it among the common people, has carried through so many editions. For it appears to me to have no merit whatever; but it may do mischief in ale-houses in England, and even more in whiskey-houses in Ireland. I think it by far the most treasonable book that ever went unpunished within my knowledge; so, pray, hang the fellow if you can catch him." (Lord Mornington.)

The war was over. Thomas Paine had given his all to the revolution: the proceeds from his writings had gone to help the war effort and now he was jobless and without an income. He petitioned Congress for a modest pension in acknowledgement of his contribution to the war's success. He had the support of Franklin, Jefferson and Washington. But he had also made some powerful enemies and they were not going to make life easy for him. His fight for democracy, his egalitarianism, his zealous opposition to corruption had earned him the implacable enmity and undying hatred of many in the rich, landowning ‘aristocracy' of America. So Congress rejected his petition but agreed to a grant of $3,000 - he would have been much, much richer if he'd kept the proceeds from his writings. Pennsylvania gave him a gift of $500 and New York gave him a farm which had been confiscated from a Tory landowner. He now had breathing space to contemplate his future.

Common Sense by Thomas Paine As a young man Paine had learned a lot about science and engineering by reading and attending lectures; he decided to put his knowledge to practical use. He designed an iron bridge which he believed was safer and more durable than the traditional wooden bridges of his day. But no one in America was willing to invest in his project so, on Franklin's advice, he sailed for London and Paris to seek backing. He expected to be away for a few months; it was to be sixteen years before he saw his beloved America again.

It was 1787, just two years before the storming of the Bastille. Things were changing in France - and in England. In France the poor and the middle-classes were seething with anger at the heavy taxation they suffered while the nobility shared little or none of the burden of running the country. Soldiers returning from America spoke of the more just and democratic society that was growing in the new republic and this made the French masses determined to build a more just society for themselves. Their anger would soon turn into a terrible, unstoppable rage which would eventually give rise to the ‘reign of terror'.

England at that time was the most industrially advanced and commercially successful nation in the world, but its people paid a terrible price: the momentum of the industrial revolution led to merciless exploitation, inhuman working conditions and a wretched, poverty-stricken existence for the working-class. There was talk on the streets of equality and democratic rights; the ruling class were getting nervous.

Paine spent two years trying to find investors for his bridge, while inevitably involving himself in the turbulent politics of the times. Then on July 14, 1789, the crowds stormed the Bastille and soon afterwards began invading the great estates of the landowning aristocracy. The next twenty-five years of European history would be written in blood as the ancien régime struggled to maintain the status quo.

It was Thomas Paine's dream that the revolutionary zeal which had crossed the Atlantic to France would quickly spread throughout Europe, creating republics in place of monarchies, each republic working in harmony with its neighbours to create a humane and civilized Europe - "To begin the world anew."

The turncoat Edmund Burke, who had originally championed the American Revolution, was now paid by the British Government to write Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was to give him the reputation as the father of modern conservatism. Marx was to say of Burke:

"The sycophant - who in pay of the English oligarchy played the romantic laudatory temporis acti against the French Revolution just as, in the pay of North American colonies at the beginning of the American troubles, he had played the liberal against the English oligarchy, was an out and out vulgar bourgeois."

Burke's condemnation of the French Revolution was considered to be a great success but it really was a wasted exercise: it was aimed at the upper classes and the well educated, preaching loyalty for the monarchy and the aristocracy. It was preaching to the converted. And that was the difference between his writing and Paine's. Paine had the ability to communicate with all levels of society, from the poorest to the richest: Burke's Reflections sold 20,000 copies in a year, whereas Common Sense sold several times that in a month. There were many radicals in England who took issue with Burke but, not surprisingly, the most effective reply came from Paine's Rights of Man.

Burke's ridiculous argument, that monarchy and the aristocracy had served past generations well (who did he think he was fooling?), and that the present and future generations should perpetuate this tradition, was rubbished by Paine. Burke not only denied that the people of England had the right to choose or reject their own government, but also claimed:

"That the people of England utterly disclaim such a right, and that they will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes."

Paine replied:

"That men should take up arms, and spend their lives and fortunes not to maintain their rights, but to maintain they have no rights, is an entire new species of discovery, and suited to the paradoxical genius of Mr Burke."

The establishment's ‘intellectual champion' was no match for Paine. He tore apart Burke's arguments with the same irrefutable logic and scathing sarcasm that had defeated so many of his political adversaries in the past. He also encouraged the spirit of revolution in Britain by advocating a system of graduated taxation on the wealthy that would provide child education; pensions for the aged; maternity benefits and other proposals for helping the poor and unemployed. He was a man ahead of his time. But most audacious of all - he defiantly called for the establishment of a British Republic! This was too much - freedom of speech was guaranteed in England of course, but only if you said the right things - it was time to hang Tom Paine!

On September 14th, 1792, Paine, who had been elected to the new National Convention in France for the purpose of writing a new constitution, left England on a boat bound for Calais. It was a fortuitous departure: Pitt and his government were poised to vent their wrath upon their tormentor, but now he was out of their grasp. In vindictive fury they conducted a witch-hunt, persecuting and imprisoning everyone involved in publishing, selling and in any way promoting Paine's writings. Paine was tried in his absence and found guilty of seditious libel for writing The Rights of Man.

The French revolution

He arrived in Calais to a hero's welcome and its citizens elected him their representative to the new National Convention. These were perilous times for the people of France: surrounded by hostile nations, they were at war with Austria and Prussia, and Louis XVI was in prison for colluding with the enemy. The republicans were split into two factions: Girondins (moderates) and Jacobins (radicals). It was only a matter of time before the revolution began to devour its own children.

At the Convention he and the other delegates voted to abolish the monarchy and France was declared a Republic. He was then appointed to the committee responsible for drafting a new constitution. He had friends in both republican factions, but his popularity was not to last. Although Paine loathed the monarchy he opposed the execution of Louis XVI. He proposed instead that Louis be exiled to America, where he would be unable to meddle in France's affairs. He had been sickened by the concept of capital punishment when, as a child growing up in Thetford, he witnessed the horrifying spectacle of poor working-class people who had been hanged for stealing a mere pittance: there was a clear view of Thetford's Gallows Hill from the house he grew up in. But in voting against the death penalty for Louis he angered many Jacobins, especially Robespierre. And Robespierre was about to come to power.

In the ensuing power struggle the Jacobins emerged victorious and showed no mercy to their political opponents; the Reign of Terror commenced. On December 28th, 1793, Paine was arrested. There is no doubt that it would have taken just one word from George Washington to obtain his release, but Washington remained silent: he was keen to resume trade with England and he knew the British establishment wanted to see Paine dead. Business and commerce came before loyalty and friendship to the politically pragmatic Washington. This perfidy must have astonished as well as embittered Paine: Washington had previously been a loyal supporter of Paine and had given him great credit for his part in America's victory over Britain. Equally treacherous was the American Minister to France, Gouverneur Morris. He could have effected Paine's release with little effort, but had no intention of doing so. Morris, who believed that no decent civilization could exist without an aristocracy, would have been delighted to see Tom Paine's head roll - and it almost did.

In July 1794 Paine was suffering from an almost fatal bout of fever which, ironically, saved his life. The day before he was due to be executed his cell mates asked that the cell door be left open to allow the air to circulate and cool the fever. When the prison officers came to mark the cell doors of the condemned prisoners, Paine's door was opened wide, with the inside of the door now facing outwards and the outside face of the door tight against the wall. Because of this the inside of the door was marked by the prison officers. When the door was closed later that night the ‘condemned' mark was on the inside of the cell and was not seen by the executioners who came to collect their victims next morning. Thus, by sheer chance, Tom Paine missed his appointment with death. Before his execution could be rescheduled his persecutor was overthrown and it was Robespierre's head that tumbled into the executioner's basket. Some historians claim that Washington did nothing to save Paine because he was unaware of his plight; this is naïve, Paine himself had no doubts about Washington's treachery. He remained imprisoned until Morris was replaced by James Monroe, who obtained his release on November 5th. Still severely ill, he was looked after by Monroe and his wife at their official residence.

Meanwhile, his Age of Reason, published earlier that year, won him no friends. Paine was by this time a Deist, believing in God but not in organized religion. He enraged church leaders by criticizing the bible, saying of the Old Testament: "... a history of grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales." Referring to the New Testament he described Christ as a virtuous man, a reformer and a revolutionist, but dismissed the Immaculate Conception and Christ's resurrection as fraudulent stories. Age of Reason gave his enemies all the ammunition they needed to destroy his popularity in that God-fearing age.

Return to America

Relations between Monroe and Paine became strained as a result of Paine's hostility to Washington and in 1796 he moved out of Monroe's house. He wanted to return to America but French ports were being blockaded by the British navy so he moved in with the family of Nicolas de Bonneville, writing articles for de Bonneville's paper, Bien Informé. Despite his non-stop political activity he also continued with his passion for engineering, designing canal systems, bridges and cranes. Then in 1801 Thomas Jefferson, now president, offered to bring him back to America, a decision that brought down a torrent of criticism on the president's head from the political opposition. In October 1802, the sixty-five year old Paine arrived in Baltimore to be met by a storm of abuse from the Federalist press. Although he still had loyal friends he was faced with widespread hostility wherever he went, but he remained politically active, writing letters criticizing the Federalist opposition and proposing to Jefferson that the United States purchase the Louisiana Territory.

In 1803 Margaret de Bonneville and her three sons arrived in America: her husband was under surveillance by the French police and could not leave France, so Paine assumed responsibility for the children's education. Despite his fading health and wealth (he had to sell part of his farm to pay his debts) his pen was in constant use, writing to and for the press on varied subjects. When Jefferson did buy Louisiana from France in April 1803 for $15,000,000 it was the biggest land deal ever struck between two nations: the Louisiana Purchase stretched east to west from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, north to south from Canada to the Mexican Gulf. But Jefferson appalled Paine by allowing the establishment of slavery in the new territory. Bitterly disappointed, he pleaded with the president to permit black families to leave the ‘slave states' and settle there. But Jefferson rejected his pleas and the curse of slavery was perpetuated until, sixty years later, it tore the country apart.

In his final years his condition became pitiful: his health reduced him to a shadow of his once indefatigable self, and he was kept alive by the charity of friends; he was even refused the right to vote on the grounds that he was not a true American. This last insult, coming after the treacherous treatment meted out to him by Washington and Morris, must have been devastating: the man who was known as ‘the voice of the revolution', the man who had done more than any man alive to inspire and motivate the people of America to free their young country from the shackles of British imperialism, was turned away at the polling station. He spent his last days in the rented house of the de Bonneville family, where he died on the morning of June 8th, 1809. On his deathbed he was approached by Presbyterian ministers who asked him to accept the Christian Church; defiant to the end, he gave them short shrift. He was buried the next day, with few to mourn him, at his New Rochelle farm, having been refused burial at the Quaker cemetery.

Lest we forget

"To all these champions of the oppressed Paine set an example of courage, humanity and single-mindedness. When public issues were involved, he forgot personal prudence. The world decided, as it usually does in such cases, to punish him for his lack of self-seeking; to this day his fame is less than it should have been if his character had been less generous. Some worldly wisdom is required even to secure praise for the lack of it". (Bertrand Russell: The Fate of Thomas Paine)

Russell is correct in saying that Paine is less prominent in history's hall of fame than most of his less worthy contemporaries: both as a human being and as a contributor to the momentous political events of his time he stood head and shoulders above all of them. A tireless seeker of justice and truth, a dedicated champion of ordinary working people, he was generations ahead of his time in his political thinking. Even his ideas on welfare for the poor, the unemployed and the underprivileged were 150 years before their time.

Statue of Thomas Paine (Photo by Homermeyn)
Statue of Thomas Paine in Thetford, Norfolk,
England, Paine's birthplace.


But it is not merely his lack of self interest which accounts for his lack of historical acclaim: since his death there has been a conscious attempt by the political establishments of Britain and the USA to underplay his contribution to 18th and 19th century history and to slur his reputation (Theodore Roosevelt called him a ‘dirty little atheist'). His lucid and logical ideas on the governance of nations would still embarrass the corrupt excuses for so-called democratic governments which prevail in the USA, Britain and the rest of Europe today. His anti-clericalism and his criticism of organised religion with all its hypocritical ‘pomp and circumstance' has incurred the indignant wrath of all branches of the religious establishment in Europe and America, and his anti-monarchist views did nothing to endear him to the British establishment.

Thus the man who was a household name in America, Britain, Ireland and France in his lifetime, and whose fame was more widespread than even Jefferson, Franklin or Washington, has been deliberately shunted into the sidelines of history. True, American presidents occasionally quote him, usually out of context, when it suits them. But his name will not be found on the list of Founding Fathers of the USA despite his enormous contribution to the cause of American independence. As for England, there are relatively few today in the land of his birth who have even heard of him.

But things are changing: Richard Attenborough recently expressed an ambition to film his life story. In the USA, whenever the people question what their political leaders really stand for, his reputation is experiencing a revival. In Morristown, New Jersey, a monument has been erected to him; his Common Sense has been listed as number one in historian E.F. Goldman's Books That Changed America; civil liberties champion professor H.S. Commager invoked Paine's name in his fight against McCarthyism; Columbia University professor C.W. Mills (who died tragically young) put Paine on a par with Max Weber and Karl Marx.

Thomas Paine was a truly great man who used his genius as a writer to fight for a better life for ordinary working people, a cause to which he dedicated his own life. No other writer had such a dramatic and immediate impact on the political events of his time. No other man before or since has proved so effectively that words are weapons, and that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.


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