Born on February 9, 1737 (according to the Gregorian calendar), Paine was a brilliant essayist whose polarizing pen brought him praise and scorn on both sides of the Atlantic. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man John Adams once called “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.”
1. HE ARRIVED IN AMERICA WITH A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION FROM BEN FRANKLIN.
The first half of Thomas Paine’s life was marred by setbacks and sorrow. Born and raised in Norfolk, England, his formal education consisted of a five-year stint at Thetford Grammar School which ended when he began apprenticing under his father—a stay-maker—at age 13. By the time Paine turned 38, he’d suffered the death of his first wife and child, parted ways with his second one, and had twice been dismissed from his post at the English Excise Service. But around that time, Paine was introduced to Benjamin Franklin by their mutual friend, mathematician George Lewis Scott. Franklin encouraged Paine to emigrate to the American colonies, and in 1774, Paine set sail for Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from Franklin. It instructed Paine to show the document to Franklin's son-in-law, Pennsylvania businessman Richard Bache.
“The bearer, Mr. Thomas Paine, is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man,” Franklin wrote. “He goes to Pennsylvania with a view of settling there. I request you give him your best advice and countenance, as he is quite a stranger there. If you can put him in a way of obtaining employment … you will do well, and much oblige your affectionate father.”
At the end of a long and arduous journey, Paine arrived in the new world on November 30, 1774. As instructed, he showed the letter to Bache, who obligingly found him a tutoring job. The following year, Paine was hired as the executive editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, a monthly periodical, and within three months, Paine’s provocative essays on various social issues had driven the number of subscribers up from 600 to 1500.
2. JOHN ADAMS WAS RUMORED TO BE THE REAL AUTHOR OF COMMON SENSE.
Paine is primarily remembered, at least in the U.S., for writing Common Sense. Released on January 9 or 10, 1776 (sources differ), the essay championed the idea of American independence and the establishment of a New World republic—two subjects which, by and large, hadn’t been taken seriously in the colonies. Paine later said that the pamphlet sold anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 copies, but modern historians doubt that.
At first, Common Sense was published anonymously, which led to speculation about who the author might be. In Boston, it was rumored that John Adams had penned the manifesto—but Adams didn’t fully agree with the premise of Common Sense, which he once referred to as a “poor ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass.” His biggest criticism involved the author’s call for a new American republic overseen by a unicameral (i.e.: “one-house”) legislature. To rebut Common Sense, Adams anonymously published a pamphlet of his own, titled Thoughts on Government, which advocated the creation of a bicameral legislature as one component of a three-pronged governmental system that would also include a judiciary branch and an elected governor. (Sound familiar?) Paine's identity as the author of Common Sense was revealed on March 30, and Adams, who instantly regretted publishing his tract anonymously, also attached his name in later printings.
3. HE (BRIEFLY) WORKED FOR THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS.
Specifically, Paine was brought onboard in April 1777 to serve as the organization’s Secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs. Paine was paid $70 a month, and his job consisted of maintaining the committee’s records and drafting letters to American diplomats stationed overseas. But he continued to write essays in support of the revolution on the side, which got him into serious trouble when he publicly mentioned top-secret negotiations with the French. He also made some powerful enemies by accusing diplomat Silas Deane of war-profiteering. In January 1779 Congress began taking steps to remove Paine from his position, but Paine voluntarily resigned.
4. PAINE ONCE DESIGNED AN EXPERIMENTAL KIND OF BRIDGE.
Like Franklin, Paine loved tinkering and was known to invent the occasional product (for example, a “smokeless candle”)—and when the Revolutionary War ended, he turned the world of infrastructure upside down with an inspired new bridge design.
During the late 18th century, the average bridge was constructed mainly out of stones and wood and was typically built with half-circle arches that allowed tall ships to pass beneath them. Unfortunately, steep arches like that forced architects to steeply incline both ends of the road on top of the bridge—a major inconvenience for pedestrians and carriages. It was possible to construct a bridge with support piers in the middle of the span, but ice routinely destroyed these bridges.
Paine came up with a radical alternative. In 1787, he sketched out the blueprint for a bridge with an incline free road made possible by an underlying arch that didn’t curve upwards so sharply. And for resiliency’s sake, he designed the whole thing to be made of iron. Since visual aids are always helpful, Paine built a 13-foot model that he showed off to Pennsylvania statesmen. Hoping to generate more interest, Paine returned to his native England, where he received a government patent for the design.
5. IN THE U.K., SEVERAL PRINTERS WERE ARRESTED FOR SELLING COPIES OF RIGHTS OF MAN.
When France's revolution began in 1789, Paine—who had returned to England—vocally supported the uprising. But of course, not everyone shared his enthusiasm. In 1790, Irish-born politician Edmund Burke released the widely-read pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, wherein he denounced the revolution as a risky and destructive political gamble. In response, Paine began working on Rights of Man, a fervent defense of the rebel cause. (The two-part essay was published in 1791 and 1792.) With its anti-monarchical sentiments, the treatise infuriated Britain’s government—so much so, in fact, that the authorities actually jailed printers who sold The Rights of Man within Great Britain. The prison sentences for guilty parties ranged from a couple of days to seven years in length.
6. THE AGE OF REASON WAS PARTIALLY COMPOSED IN A (RATHER LUXURIOUS) PRISON.
Controversial as it was in Britain, Rights of Man was wildly popular in France. So when Paine fled there in 1792, he was greeted with open arms—at first. Shortly after his arrival, Paine was elected as a member of the country’s National Assembly, but he was soon stirring up controversy. Paine spoke out against guillotine usage and King Louis XVI’s execution, and on December 28, 1793, the political thinker was charged with treason, probably because of his stance on capital punishment (though the rationale behind this accusation remains unclear). Paine was taken to Luxembourg Prison, a palace-turned-jail where he was given a spacious room and free rein to explore the rest of the building during daylight hours. Inside, he busied himself with a new pamphlet he’d begun writing before his arrest: The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology.A critique of organized religion. The two-part document questioned the Bible’s legitimacy and made the case for Deism, the belief in a creator-God who doesn’t interfere with world affairs or the lives of individual people. Naturally, the text triggered passionate debate on both sides of the Atlantic, and still does so today.
7. HE OPENLY CRITICIZED THE WASHINGTON ADMINISTRATION.
James Monroe, then America’s minister to France, arranged to have Paine released from the Luxembourg in November 1794. While in prison, Paine had developed a grudge against President Washington, whom he’d admired during the American Revolution. As Monroe informed James Madison, “He thinks the president winked at his imprisonment and wished he might die in gaol [jail], and bears his resentment for it; also he is preparing an attack upon him of the most virulent kind.”
Just as Monroe said, Paine wrote a blistering open letter to Washington in 1796. Lambasting the president for not interceding on his behalf when the French seized him, Paine went on to accuse America’s chief executive of being a closeted monarchist. “Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement,” the pamphleteer charged. “The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator … In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”
Americans of just about every political stripe were outraged by Paine's statements. Combined with a strong backlash to The Age of Reason, the anti-Washington tirade brought Paine’s popularity to an all-time low in the states.
8. HE CALLED FOR AN EARLY VERSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY.
Paine spent the winter of 1795-'96 at Monroe’s home in Paris, where he authored what’s often considered his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice. In it, he recommended the establishment of a “National Fund” financed by 10 percent tax on inherited property. Money from this fund would then be redistributed: All citizens (of both genders) above the age of 50 or with disabilities were to receive a yearly stipend. Furthermore, every single citizen could also expect a one-time payment of 15 pounds sterling upon turning 21. “It is not a charity but a right,” Paine declared, “not bounty but justice.”
9. MOST OF HIS REMAINS ARE UNACCOUNTED FOR.
In 1802, at the invitation of President Jefferson, Paine returned to the U.S. For a time, he resided at a 277-acre farm in New Rochelle that had been gifted to him by the New York State Legislature in 1784. Unhappy with his life there, Paine relocated to Manhattan, where he died on June 8, 1809.
Paine was laid to rest on his New Rochelle farm without much fanfare; in fact, the service may have been attended by as few as five people. Strangely, though, Paine’s travels hadn’t ended yet. In 1819, a British admirer by the name of William Cobbett snuck onto the property and dug up the dead author’s body. Believing that Paine deserved to be buried in his birthland, Cobbett boxed up bones and took them back to London. But after years of trying to build a suitable memorial, Cobbett died himself. Paine’s bones were gradually sold off, and their current whereabouts remain a mystery. (However, the Thomas Paine Museum in New Rochelle does have a few strands of his hair under lock and key, and his mummified brain stem has been buried there in an undisclosed location.)
10. MARK TWAIN WAS AN ADMIRER.
Despite his contributions to the country’s revolution, most Americans held Paine in low regard throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. When he died, the New York Post Evening Post helped set the tone with a eulogy that read “he had lived long, done some good and much harm.” Other posthumous statements about Paine were even less charitable: Theodore Roosevelt famously called him a “filthy little atheist.” In the Gilded Age, he was so widely disliked that when a freethinking sculptor gifted Philadelphia’s Independence Hall with a marble Paine bust in 1876, the city refused to accept it.
Nevertheless, he still maintained an underground fan base in those days. One of the most famous Paine enthusiasts of all time was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A celebrated critic of organized religion, Clemens was particularly keen on the ever-controversial Age of Reason. In his words, “It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read” the pamphlet. Paine’s pro-deism treatise made an appearance in Those Extraordinary Twins (1894), one of Twain’s manuscripts that centered on a pair of conjoined brothers with wildly different personalities. To help accentuate their dissimilarities, the very first chapter sees one of them reading Christian devotionals while his counterpart flips through The Age of Reason.
11. THOMAS EDISON HELPED BREAK GROUND ON THE THOMAS PAINE MEMORIAL MUSEUM.
In 1884, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association was founded, and in 1925, Edison became vice president of the group. “Paine’s teachings have been debarred from schools everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his memory is hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind,” Edison said. “We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic [than Paine]. He was the equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where Washington performed, Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the Weld were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen.”
Today, the association maintains the cottage Paine owned in New Rochelle along with the nearby Thomas Paine Memorial Museum. Construction on the latter began in the spring of 1925—and once the project broke ground, it was Edison who had the honor of turning the first shovel of dirt. Since then, Paine’s reputation in America and elsewhere has considerably improved. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan both admiringly quoted him in their presidential addresses. A golden Paine statue has been erected in Thetford, England. And in 2002, he was ranked number 34 on the BBC’s list of the 100 greatest Britons of all time.