Thomas Paine (1737-1809), English author, was born at Thetford, Norfolk, on the 29th of January 1737, the son of a Quaker staymaker. After several years at sea and after trying various occupations on land, Paine took up his father's trade in London, where he supplemented his meager grammar school education by attending science lectures. He succeeded in 1762 in gaining an appointment in the excise, but was discharged for neglect of duty in 1765. Three years later, however, he received another appointment, at Lewes in Sussex. He took a vigorous share in the debates of a local Whig club, and in 1772 he wrote a pamphlet embodying the grievances of excise men and supporting their demands for an increase of pay. In 1774 he was dismissed from the service for absence without leave—in order to escape his creditors.
A meeting with Benjamin Franklin in London was the turning point in his life. Franklin provided him with letters to his son-in-law, Richard Bache, and many of the leaders in the colonies resistance to the mother country, then at an acute stage. Paine sailed for America in 1774. Bache introduced him to Robert Aitkin, whose Pennsylvania Magazine he helped found and, edited for eighteen months. On the oth of January 1776 Paine published a pamphlet entitled Common Sense, a telling array of arguments for separation and for the establishment of a republic. His argument was that independence was the only consistent line to pursue, that "it must come to that some time or other"; that it would only be more difficult the more it was delayed, and that independence was the surest road to union. Written in simple convincing language, it was read everywhere, and the open movement to independence dates from its publication. Washington said that it "worked a powerful change in the minds of many men". Leaders in the New York Provincial Congress considered the advisability of answering it, but came to the conclusion that it was unanswerable. When war was declared, and fortune at first went against the colonists, Paine, who was then serving with General Greene as volunteer aide-de-camp, wrote the first of a series of influential tracts called The Crisis, of which the opening words, "These are the times that try men's souls", became a battle-cry. Paine's services were recognized by an appointment to be secretary of the commission sent by Congress to treat with the Indians, and a few months later to be secretary of the Congressional committee of foreign affairs. In 1779, however, he committed an indiscretion that brought him into trouble. He published information gained from his official position, and was compelled to resign. He was afterwards clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature, and accompanied John Laurens during his mission to France. His services were eventually recognized by the state of New York by a grant of an estate at New RocheUe, and from Pennsylvania and, at Washington's suggestion, from Congress he received considerable gifts of money.
In 1787 he sailed for Europe with the model of an iron bridge he had designed. This was publicly exhibited in Paris and London, and attracted great crowds. In England he determined to "open the eyes of the people to the madness and stupidity of the government". His first efforts in the Prospects on the Rubicon (1787) were directed against Pitt's war policy, and towards securing friendly relations with France. When Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France appeared, in 1790, Paine at once wrote his answer, The Rights of Man. The first part appeared on the 13th of March 1791, and had an enormous circulation before the government took alarm and endeavored to suppress it, thereby exciting intense curiosity to see it, even at the risk of heavy penalties. Those who know the book only by hearsay as the work of a furious incendiary will be surprised at the dignity, force and temperance of the style; it was the circumstances that made it inflammatory. Pitt "used to say", according to Lady Hester Stanhope, "that Tom Paine was quite in the right, but then he would add, 'What am I to do? As things are, if I were to encourage Tom Paine's opinions we should have a bloody revolution'". Paine was indicted for treason in May 1792, but before the trial came off he was elected by the department of Calais to the French convention, and escaped into France, followed by a sentence of outlawry. The first years that he spent in France form a curious episode in his life. He was enthusiastically received, but as he knew little of the language translations of his speeches had to be read for him. He was bold enough to speak and vote for the "detention of Louis during the war and his perpetual banishment afterwards", and he pointed out that the execution of the king would alienate American sympathy. He incurred the suspicion of Robespierre, was thrown into prison, and escaped the guillotine by an accident. Before his arrest he had completed the first part of the Age of Reason, the publication of which made an instant change in his position on both sides of the Atlantic, the indignation in the United States being as strong as in England. The Age of Reason can now be estimated calmly. It was written from the point of view of a Quaker who did not believe in revealed religion, but who held that "all religions are in their nature mild and benign" when not associated with political systems. Intermixed with the coarse unceremonious ridicule of what he considered superstition and bad faith are many passages of earnest and even lofty eloquence in favor of a pure morality founded on natural religion. The work in short—a second part, written during his ten months' imprisonment, was published after his release—represents the deism of the 18th century in the hands of a rough, ready, passionate controversialist.
At the downfall of Robespierre Paine was restored to his seat in the convention, and served until it adjourned in October 1795. In 1796 he published a long letter to Washington, attacking his military reputation and his presidential policy with inexcusable bitterness. In 1802 Paine sailed for America, but while his services in behalf of the colonies were gratefully remembered, his Age of Reason and his attack on Washington had alienated many of his friends. He died in New York on the 8th of June 1809, and was buried at New Rochelle, but his body was in 1819 removed to England by William Cobbett.
See the biography by Moncure D. Conway (1892).