History's HEROES? 1737 - 1809

Thomas Paine

Who was he?

Things you may not know about Thomas Paine

He took great pains to educate himself and read widely. More
He refused to take any money for his revolutionary writings. More
He counted on well-to-do friends to provide grants or board. More
His books were instant bestsellers. More
He used money from his legal separation from his wife to pay for his ticket to America. More
For Thomas, like many others, America provided a second chance for success. More
At different times, he was a citizen of Great Britain, the United States and France (even though he couldn't speak French). More
His words helped inspire a revolution. More
Some of his more radical suggestions for democracy were opposed. More
His book 'Rights of Man' terrified the British establishment. More
He was an engineer and inventor. More
The British government paid £500 to have a hostile biography written about him. More
After he published The Rights of Man, part 2, he was charged with seditious libel. More
The British Establishment went to great lengths to discredit him and win popular support. More
He was nearly killed by the mob in the streets of Paris. More
He did not believe in capital punishment; this nearly cost him his life. More
He spent a year under constant threat of death by guillotine. More
Napoleon claimed he slept with a copy of Rights of Man under his pillow. More
Benjamin Franklin advised Thomas Paine not to publish his anti-Christian views. More
Controversy over his Age of Reason aroused great passions. More
Returning to America he was treated as an outcast by many and refused a vote. More
He was instrumental in the United States buying the territory of Louisiana. More
Only a few people mourned his passing or attended his funeral. More
His bones were dug up in 1819 and brought to England. They have since been lost! More
All the papers and letters relating to his life were accidentally destroyed. More

Thomas Paine in brief

I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense...

Thomas Paine lived at a time when revolution was in the air. He was an inspirational writer who wanted to change the way people thought and acted. His writings were able to stir the hearts of ordinary people. 

His clear, easy-to-read, writing style, meant that millions of people read his works. So, when he wrote that Americans should fight for complete independence from Britain and set up a government which upheld the rights of ordinary men and women, they listened. When he wrote to defeated and demoralised Revolutionary soldiers, urging them to remain true to their cause, they obeyed. And his book  'Rights of Man', written in support of the French Revolution, has inspired many thinkers and politicians down the ages to work for a government that enables all people to live free and secure lives. 

At the time, however, his writings saw him charged with treason in Britain, and he had to flee to France. Here he was welcomed as a hero, only to be put into prison sometime later. It was during his imprisonment that he finished the first part of one of his most controversial works, ‘The Age of Reason'. Although he believed in God, he despised organised religion. The book lost him many friends. 

Thomas Paine also found time to be an inventor and engineer. He designed iron bridges and a smokeless candle. He was also, it appears, a difficult man to get on with, and he quarrelled with many of his friends.  His writings made him many enemies amongst the ruling classes and the religious leaders of the time. He died poor and almost friendless, in New York, in 1809. However his writings live on - encouraging people to question how the world should be and struggle for change. And people are still listening, even now!

Picture Gallery Thomas Paine

The Thomas Paine Collection (500 items at Thetford Library)

Source documents

Pamphlet extract
The Crisis
Text from Document
Declaration of Independence
Letter extract
The Age of Paine
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