Born in England in 1737 to an Anglican mother and a Quaker father, Thomas Paine was an influential eighteenth century writer of books and pamphlets including “Common sense,” his most influential work endeared him to the population managing them to sway them to the necessity and right to independence from the British, then colonial power in America. His careers was however not successful and to compound his problems, his wife and child died at childbirth in 1760 and his corset business went under (Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1992).
With little formal education, Paine learned to read, write and do arithmetic and at 13 started to work with his father making corsets and later worked as an excise officer collecting taxes from tobacco, liquor as well as hunting smugglers. He subsequently wrote a 21 page pamphlet defending the high pay for excise officer, a first in his political work managing to distribute 4000 copies to citizens and members of parliament. His woes deepened in 1774 when he was relieved of his job.
He was however soon to meet Benjamin Franklin who convinced him to move to the United States where he started off editing the Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775. It is here that he began writing in earnest synonymously or under pseudonyms. His early works included a scathing attack against slavery. At this time, the conflict with England was at its height and Paine could not have arrived at a better time articulating the ideas for not just taxation from England but complete independence. This idea is best captured in “Common Sense” a pamphlet of 50 pages, his most significant work published in 1776, his ideas having a profound effect on the American Revolution (Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1992).
He was later to move to France where he was also deeply involved in the French Revolution. It is here that he also wrote the Rights of Man in 1791 defending the French Revolution to counter its critics. He was later to be tried and convicted in absentia for his attacks on Edmund Burke, a British writer on grounds of seditious libel. In the same year 1792, he was among those elected to the French National Convention despite not speaking French. He was arrested in Paris 1793 and released in 1794 proceeding to write “The Age of Reason” a book advocating for deism and the separation of state and religion. His pamphlet “The Agrarian Justice” contained in it the concept of minimum income and discussed the origins of property. He was to return to the United States in 1802 and died on June 8, 1809. By his time his friends had abandoned him, ostracized for his attacks on Christianity with only six people attending his funeral including African Americans.
Common Sense is written in such a way that the reader is forced to make a choice right from the onset becoming a convincing message to Americans on the need to resist the British colonialism. The putting forth of the “Common Sense” to the general American citizens awakened the British imperialists to the reality that there was need for public discussion in the wake of an enthusiastic population that was increasingly assertive, no longer hiding their opposition to colonialism. “Common Sense” is credited for its role in the recruitment of the “Continental Army” and is characterized in history as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era.”
Paine’s unadorned style in “Common Sense” deliberately avoiding philosophical speak was especially wrought with the ordinary person in mind, written like a sermon with numerous biblical references presenting a uniquely American identity and arguably paving the way for the Declaration of Independence. So much was its success it sold 500,000 copies in just a few months. He also wrote “The American Crisis Number I” read to the troops to motivate them.
He became the Secretary for the Committee for Foreign Affairs where he was to accuse a fellow member of corruption in the French aid given to America and was subsequently expelled. He became clerk to the General Assembly in Pennsylvania State where he actively marshaled resources for the wartime effort.
Paine returned to England in 1787 where he heard and got interested in the unfolding French revolution. His book “the rights of man” was an attack on Edmund Burke, a British writer opposed to the revolution. His book was not merely about the French revolution but went further to discuss reasons for society’s discontent with the monarchy that was ruling then. He was eventually arrested when he directly called for a “bloody revolution” and charged for treason.
Much as he was for the revolution, he was for the idea of saving the live of the King Louis XVI and instead advocated for his banishment. It was for this reason that he was imprisoned when Robespierre, the leader of the radicals took power, narrowly escaping execution during his imprisonment between 1793 and 1794. It was also during this period that a first part of “The Age of Reason” was published.
The book criticized institutionalized religion and even went further to challenge the Bible’s validity. The British government prohibited its publication prosecuting anyone publishing or distributing it. He published the second two parts after release in 1794 from prison and later returned to the United States in 1794 at the invitation of President Jefferson. By then his reputation and influence had significantly declined with most people having already forgotten him save for being a “world class rabble rouser.”
By his death in 1809, his image was so damaged the New York Citizen characterizing him as “having live long, did some good and much harm.” This became his reputation, a century after his death until 1937 when major magazines such as the “Times of London” started referring to him as the “English Voltaire” a fair evaluation of his character that has prevailed. He is now popularly regarded as a critical figure in the American revolution.
Eric Foner, a biographer sees in Thomas Paine’s writing and thought a utopian vision for a republican society. He believed in liberal markets, liberty and natural justice. He is reputed as the intellectual father of latter day revolutionaries including freethinkers, anarchists, social democrats, and liberals and his work is said to have led to an increase in deism.
Right from the start, Thomas Paine makes it impossible for the reader to disagree with him persuading him that he will use “simple facts, common sense and plain arguments. In any case no one can argue against common sense. He indicates that what he is going to write is simple, something the reader will have no difficulty understanding. Obviously the reader has no reason to stop reading on given this fact.
With his persuasive language, Paine has already manipulated the reader to accept that his work is unbiased and worth reading. The title of the book in itself fulfils this aim suggesting that his arguments will only be logical and reasonable, that both the reader and the author will arrive at the same conclusion after being presented with the facts, that the truth of his opinions are open for examination. A rephrased sentence serves as a sugar coating to drive his point to the reader without much difficulty. He characterizes his adventure as that of discovering the true character of man, indicating that his work if free from prejudice. He knows very well that the best way to motivate people is by allowing them “determine themselves” as he put his-to assure them of the power and freedom they have to make decisions. With this sugarcoating, Paine manages to appeal to the reason of the colonists and to a great extent manages to massage their egos.
Paine aptly reminds the reader the evils British colonialists have brought upon their land, vividly capturing the gory details of colonialism in a way that moves the reader to action. It gives his ideas the moral high ground for which no effort should be spared to defend them. He tells the reader that one cannot speak of the feelings of those who have lost loved ones, and that if one has suffered these calamities and yet still wants to be cordial with the oppressor, then he is simply “a coward with the spirit of a sycophant.”
He uses terms that evoke feelings such as “touchstone,” “delay,” “fire and sword,” ruined and wretched,” “coward,” “murderers,” “sycophant” and “coward” an indication that he is trying to influence. Paine’s even uses terms such as “touchstone of nature” to show the reader that such evil deeds visited upon their land by the colonialists are unforgivable, that they are not found in nature. The use of “fire and sword” is significant as it identifies England as a hostile and brutal invader who should be expelled at all costs. Both are symbols with fire identifiable with destruction and “sword” with death underlining the invading force as fundamentally evil.
The language is packed to incite the erstwhile passive reader into action against an unnatural force that threatens their existence and all that life means to them. He attacks the seemingly comfortable relationship at the time with Britain among most of the populace despite the “violations” or injustices exacted upon them with no apparent provocation from them. The use of the word “violations” is deliberate as it evokes images of both physical and most likely sexual abuse. The imagery creates disturbing feelings of “wretchedness,” a worthless and pitiable life. The use of the word “murderer,” also has this same effect on the reader and the use of the word “unworthy,” smirks of men who have abdicating their role of defending their wives and children. It means that fathers and husbands are expected to protect those they love and stand by their beliefs. If they sit by while these loved ones are being subjected to abuse, then they are not worthy fathers and husbands but sycophants and cowards both undesirable qualities depicting an image of self seeking fawning parasites flattering the authorities to protect themselves.
It is also worth noting the way Paine frames statements as questions, achieving his earlier promise to leave the decision as to what is common sense to the reader. This fits into his larger scheme of appealing to the reader’s emotions, provoking the pride and motivating them to act. He forces the reader to identify with his side fighting for the rights of those they love against the onslaught of oppression by the colonialist who has brought suffering upon the land. Paine’s use of rhetoric is good managing to move people to action by appealing to their imagination, emotions and reason (Miller, 1992).
“The Age of Reason” was written by Thomas Paine while he was imprisoned in France for refusing to endorse the execution of King Louis XVI after his dethronement during the French revolution in which he has himself actively participated. The book is characteristic of any of his other works with his clear arrangement of ideas and his effort to avoid complex arguments and dense logic. It is for this reason that he managed to communicate to both intellectuals and the public alike. The book is a scathing attack on organized religion, specifically Christianity professed by many in Britain, America and France, countries which he travelled and based his struggle. He attacks organized religion as a tool for those in power to control our behavior to prevent our free conscience. He argues that the content of the Bible has no basis in reality and pushed for Deism and Nature as the true bible (Miller, 1992).
He argued that God had in any case endowed us with abundance around us and wondered why we “need foolish miracles of religion.” It is this plain language that differentiates his work from similar ideas that has been held by earlier philosophers such as David Hume.
The first part of the book consists of a general discussion of religion and the second a scathing attack on Christianity which at the time was very powerful and in operation in almost every aspect of life. His style is quite straight choosing to discard any pretensions behind theory yet his arguments remain so logical and captivating to this day.
He picks some of the significant events in Christianity such as the resurrection of Jesus in a way that his argument appeals to the common man on the street even to this day. Satire is apparent in most of Paine’s work, a technique that was widely in use during that period as a way of ambiguously attacking the authorities at a time when doing so would attract harsh punishment including execution and exile. In a satirical way, Paine exposes society’s maladies in a way that moves one to action.
Thomas Paine may have lost his reputation on his return to America and after penning “The Age of Reason” attacking Christianity but his contributions to American literature endure to this day by the fact that he had the ability to penetrate all classes from the elite to the ordinary.
His was simple unveiled language encouraging people to think freely and to defend their freedom of beliefs and thoughts. He managed to prove the mind as a powerful tool that can penetrate class divisions.
Paine T. “The American Crisis”” Heritage of American Literature Beginnings to the Civil War.
Editor-James E. Miller, Jr., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Collage Publisher,
Paine, Thomas “Common Sense.” Heritage of American Literature-Beginnings to the Civil War.
Editor-James E. Miller, Jr., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Collage Publisher,
1992 “Thomas Paine.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Third Edition