Thomas Paine's achievements
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- Thomas Paine helped to inspire the American Revolution. - In 'Common Sense', published in January 1776, Thomas Paine said that the Colonists should aim for complete independence from Britain. Among the arguments he used were that Britain governed the Americans for its own benefit, not theirs, and that, in any case, the distance between the two nations made governing from England very inefficient. The pamphlet sold in its thousands and was very influential. It helped to turn a local uprising into a War of Independence and Thomas Paine was given the title ‘Father of the American Revolution’.
- He helped the American Revolution to succeed. - He wrote stirring pamphlets and even songs that inspired the soldiers of the American Armies to fight on, even when things looked hopeless. For example, he published a Crisis Paper, which starts with the stirring words “These are the times that try men's souls” which encouraged the beaten and demoralised Revolutionary soldiers to remain true to their cause. In this way, he helped the revolution to succeed. He gave his own money to try to make sure that the American soldiers were fed and clothed properly and he held important positions in government. He was secretary of the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs. As such, in 1781, he sailed with a delegation to France, to try to get more provisions for the Army. The mission was successful. Without it, the American Army may well have had to surrender to the British.
- He was an important influence during the French Revolution. - For Thomas Paine, the French Revolution represented a new beginning, in which a person’s natural rights were not taken away by those who had inherited land, power and wealth. His book ‘The Rights of Man’ was written in support of the French Revolution. He visited France in 1790 and 1791 and was there when the royal family fled the capital. That act changed public opinion from support for a constitutional monarchy, to support for a pure republic. He founded La Société des Republicains and wrote a document explaining that the king’s flight meant that he was abdicating and that this was a golden opportunity for the nation. In 1792, Thomas Paine was made an Honorary Citizen of France and, although he did not speak French, he was appointed to the French National Convention. Here he was a moderate. He opposed capital punishment and spoke against the execution of the king. This landed him in prison.
- He was one of the greatest promoters of Human Rights. - It is now accepted by the UK government that all people have the right to live in safety, have enough food and an equal opportunity to education and health care. When Thomas Paine wrote 'The Rights of Man', in 1791 and 1972, this was not the case. Many people could not read or write and most lived in poverty. 'The Rights of Man' put forward a strong argument for certain basic 'natural rights', including: the right to be educated, the right to work, and the right to be looked after in old age. He said that governments which did not protect these rights were unlawful. The book was very critical of monarchies and the nobles, saying that, since people did not necessarily inherit wisdom, it was wrong that they inherited the right to rule.
- He promoted votes for all (men) and fairer representation in parliament. - Today in the UK, all adults over the age of 18 have the right to have a say in how the country is run, by voting in elections. In Thomas Paine's time, only a small percentage of men had the right to vote. In his books ''The Rights of Man' and 'The Rights of Man Part, the Second, Combining Principle And Practice', he provided a model for a fairer political system. He suggested that the House of Lords should be abolished and that all men over 21 should be given the vote. He felt that this would mean that the House of Commons would pass laws that were good for most people. He proposed a fairer spread of MPs in parliament, saying "The town of Old Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upwards of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any. Is there any principle in these things?"
- He proposed social and economic measures, which were far ahead of the ideas of his time. - In his writings ('The Rights of Man', 'The Rights of Man Part the Second', 'Agrarian Justice', and other works) he argued that the State should care for the poor and those unable to look after themselves, particularly young people. He also proposed that public money should be spent on education for all, unemployment insurance and the provision of old age pensions. To pay for this, government should create a national fund by using progressive taxation (i.e. those that could afford it should pay more) including a death duty on estates. Many of these ideas would later be put into place by government in the19th and 20th centuries.
- He managed to reach out, through his writings, to a mass audience. - Many of Thomas Paine's ideas were not new but built upon the philosophies of other great Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Voltaire. What Thomas was able to do, with his gift for writing in a clear simple way, was to present these arguments so that ordinary people could easily understand them. Because of this, his books were very powerful and influential. They were the bestsellers of their time, bringing the ideas to a mass audience.
- He challenged religious dogma and helped to promote the idea of freedom of conscience. - This is the freedom of any person to hold a view, or thought, independent of the views of others. Thomas Paine’s book ‘The Age of Reason’ (published in 1794) was an open attack on organised religion. The book caused an outcry and saw Paine become almost an outcast. He was a Deist, that is he believed in God but not in the stories in the bible for which he saw no reasonable explanation. He was also a believer in spiritual freedom (the right to worship (or not) in any way you wish). As Thomas Paine himself said “As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both”. In writing The 'Age of Reason', he had the courage to give reasons for his opinions and to stick to these views, despite how unpopular he became. It was an important step on the road to people tolerating beliefs that differed from the majority, or their own, and the right of all people to worship (or not) according to their own consciences and understanding.
- He was an engineer, scientist and inventor. - Thomas Paine designed the Sunderland Bridge over the Wear River at Wearmouth, England. It was patterned after the model he made for the River Bridge at Philadelphia in 1787. He was a capable inventor and invented, among other things, the smokeless candle. He took a keen interest in applied science. Among his later works were suggestions on the building of warships and the treatment of yellow fever.
- His works have influenced many people down the ages. - Thomas Paine's writings greatly influenced people in his own times and also inspired many British thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. People who saw a need for change: the working class radicals, liberals, feminists, democratic socialists, social democrats and anarchists, have all claimed to have been followers of his ideas. He has inspired generations of democratic reformers throughout Great Britain. His main aims of a democratic society, an early type of welfare state, full human rights for all members of society and the right to freedom of conscience, have led to our modern democratic form of government. In 1999, Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.