History's HEROES? 1737 - 1809

Thomas Paine

His world
  • The Enlightenment - a call for change

    Replica of Newton's TelescopeTowards the end of the 17th century, people across Europe were looking for more rational or scientific explanations for the workings of the world around them. The old superstitions that had seen the witch trials and the persecution of heretics seemed to be less relevant in the Age of Newton. A growing understanding of mathematics and science was known as the Age of Reason. It saw the start of what would become known as the ‘Enlightenment'.   

    What was the Enlightenment?
    The Enlightenment was a movement that swept through Europe in the 18th century, bringing with it new ideas and philosophies that covered every aspect of life. The enlightenment called for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by religious faith, superstition or tradition. It was believed that the power of human reason, backed up by scientific explanation, could be used to create a more perfect, fairer society.

    What changed during the Enlightenment?
    There was a wave of experimentation and observation which led to great advances in scientific understanding. There were also calls to combat ignorance and superstition and liberate the individual from the restraints of tyranny. At the centre of the Enlightenment was a new questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals. This included the idea that the right for governments to govern should be based on reason - not religious dogma - or inheritance (as in the landed gentry) or divine right (as in royalty). Hence the Enlightenment challenged the joint power of the state and church.

    Why did the Enlightenment happen?
    Science was offering new explanations for how the world worked. At the same time exploration and the discovery of new lands saw a new class of merchants become wealthy through their own efforts, rather than inheriting wealth like the traditional aristocrats, so changing society. Improvements in trade and communication during the late 17th and the 18th centuries also showed ordinary people that change was possible. New worlds could be discovered, new governments formed and new laws passed.

    The Rights of Man
    These changes led to calls for more people to have a say in how the country was governed. Why, it was asked, should some people who contributed little to society have great wealth whilst other struggled to feed themselves just because of the family they were born into? This led to the idea, promoted by Thomas Paine, that people were born with certain ‘inherent rights', including the right to participate in society by voting. However, during the 18th century these concepts would be opposed strongly by those in power.

    The Enlightenment and Thomas Paine
    Thomas Paine was familiar with the latest scientific advancements as well as with the writings of the great philosophers: Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. Their ideas had a great influence on him. Like others, he challenged the twin authorities of state and church. However, his genius was to express these, often very difficult, ideas in a way that was easy to read, so they could be understood by the masses.  Because of this his writings were to have an important influence on the American and French Revolutions.    

    Reason and Revolution
    Many of the leaders of the American Revolution - Jefferson, Washington, Franklin - were powerfully influenced by Enlightenment thought and these ideas can be seen in the American Declaration of Independence and the United States Bill of Rights.  They are also reflected in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In France, Enlightenment ideas found eager allies among the impoverished masses who were all too aware that with each passing year they were paying higher and higher taxes to support a few thousand idle aristocrats.

    Sedition and Treason
    When Thomas Paine attacked hereditary government in Britain and argued for equal political rights, in his book 'Rights of Man Part the Second' (1792), it was seen as a threat in Britain and he had to flee the country before he was charged with seditious libel. So worried were the government about his writings that they sent out the Deputy Minister for War to check the degree of revolutionary feeling across the country and they went to great lengths to discredit him through publications and propaganda.

    The End of the Enlightenment
    By the beginning of the 19th century the idea of a 'perfect society' had collapsed amid the terror of the French Revolution. However, the concepts of individualism, freedom and change had begun to replace those of community, authority and tradition, and many of the ideas we value today, including freedom of thought, social democracy and human rights, had their birth in the Enlightenment era.


  • Empire, wealth and justice

    Georgian TimesThe Georgian period, into which Thomas Paine was born, was a period of great change and dramatic expansion abroad in terms of British commerce, territory and power. 

    The Growth of an Empire
    Britain started the period as one of several leading European states, along with Spain, Holland and France. During this period there were many conflicts and great rivalry between the different European powers. The result of these saw Britain obtain a vast empire that took in much of India, a scattering of colonies in Africa, the immensely valuable West Indian islands and the vast expanses of Canada. The only major loss was the American colonies following the American Revolution.

    The British Transatlantic Slave Trade
    The slave trade grew rapidly during this period. Slave ships left ports in Britain for West Africa, carrying goods that were exchanged for enslaved Africans, who were, in turn, shipped across the Atlantic to labour in plantations in the Caribbean and America. The money from the sale of the enslaved people was used to buy goods such as sugar, coffee and tobacco, which were transported back to Britain for sale.  Wealth flowed into Britain seeing the development of the financial institutions, factories and the technologies that underpinned the industrial revolution. Great fortunes were made through the slave trade. It was a trade that greatly shocked Thomas Paine.

    Georgian Life
    In Georgian times most people still lived in small rural communities but the towns were growing rapidly. The enclosure of common land was resulting in larger, more productive farms. As the Agricultural Revolution reached its peak, towards the late 18th century, many people were forced off the land into the towns and cities to find work. This swelled urban populations.

    Society and Wealth
    There was a vast difference between the lives of the rich and the poor. Society was still dominated by wealthy landowning families. These were the people that held influence in parliament and ran the counties and parishes. However the rise in wealth was also seeing British society re-shaped with the rise of a large, urban middle class, these people with ‘new money' were challenging the old order.

    Poverty and Crime
    As the 18th century progressed, the population increased. Most people in Britain still had enough to eat (unlike in many European countries) but times were getting harder. Poorer people worked long hours with little reward for their efforts. At the very bottom of the social heap were paupers who had fallen into permanent poverty. Criminal gangs were common and there was a growing fear of crime as the era progressed. Punishments, if caught, were harsh. 

    Social Justice
    Despite working hard, most people had little say in how society was run. Most labourers did not have access to education and the only provision for the destitute was the old Poor Law. Meanwhile the very rich aristocrats lived a life of luxury, for very little effort. People began to question the idea of inherited power and call for a new fairer society and for the right to vote.  One of these people was Thomas Paine. He believed deeply in justice and the need to build a fairer society.

    Growing up in Thetford, Norfolk
    Thetford, in Norfolk where Thomas grew up, was a town of mainly small traders, farmers and labourers. Thomas's family often struggled to make sufficient money to educate their son. Only approximately 1.6% of the population had enough wealth to be able to vote at an election. From an early age, Thomas was moved by the plight of the poor. As a child, he was very affected when he saw a mob jeering and attacking some town's people who were being punished in the Thetford stocks.  

    Working Life
    In his early working life, as an excise officer he saw the terrible effects of poverty. He was a campaigner for better pay and working conditions. In the summer of 1772, he published his first pamphlet, 'The Case of the Officers of Excise', which put the case for a pay rise and was distributed in parliament. He also believed in free public education for all, a guaranteed minimum income and pensions for the elderly. These ideas he wrote in his books 'The Rights of Man' and 'Agrarian Justice'.

    Thomas Paine and the Monarchy
    Thomas Paine was an early supporter of Republicanism. He believed that monarchs and common people were of equal value and worth. He therefore proposed ending the rule of kings and queens forever. He viewed government as a necessary evil. It is said that King George III read Thomas Paine's Rights of Man whilst in a book shop in Windsor; it caused him great anger and concern.

    Social Change in Britain
    For a time there was a real fear amongst government that revolution could spread from France to England. However, civil war and the change to a constitutional monarchy that had already happened during the 17th century in England meant that the power of the aristocracy diminished more gradually in England, unlike in France where they were violently uprooted.  


  • Fighting for an independent America

    RevolutionBy 1763, Britain owned much of the land in North America. Victory in the Seven Years' War meant that Britain now also ruled Canada, Florida and the lands east of the Mississippi. In 1765 most American colonists still considered themselves loyal subjects of the king.

    No Taxation without Representation
    The British expected the Americans to pay for some of the cost of protecting and defending their lands. They decided that the American colonies should pay £78,000 towards these costs. Even in those days, this was not, in fact, a very large sum, but many of the colonists felt that if they were not allowed a say in how their land was governed, then they should not have to pay taxes either. The phrase, "No taxation without representation" became the motto of those unwilling to pay taxes to the British.

    The Stamp Act
    In 1765, the British government passed the Stamp Act, allowing them to tax the American colonies. All newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, and official documents - even decks of playing cards - were required to have the stamps. All 13 colonies protested and a secret group, the 'Sons of Liberty', formed in many towns and threatened violence if anyone sold the stamps, and no one did. After appeals by Benjamin Franklin and others, the Act was repealed in the following year. However, in 1767, parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which placed a tax on essential goods including paper, glass and tea. Angered at the tax increases, colonists organised a boycott of British goods.

    Tea Party
    On December 16th, 1773, resistance to the British ‘Tea Act' saw a group of men board ships of the British East India Company and dump £10,000 worth of tea into the harbour, after officials refused to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain  This event became known as the Boston Tea Party.  After this there were many minor skirmishes and local rebellions.

    The Fighting Begins
    Real hostilities began in April 1775, and the following months saw battles take place at Lexington and Concord, at Bunker Hill and at Saratoga, amongst others. By March 1776, the Revolutionaries were in control of all 13 colonies and ready to declare independence.

    Common Sense
    On January 10th, 1776, Thomas Paine, who had emigrated to America in 1774, published a political pamphlet entitled 'Common Sense', arguing that the only solutions to the problems with Britain were republicanism and independence. This pamphlet was widely read, the arguments clearly and strongly made. It was extremely influential in changing mass opinion and paving the way for independence.

    Declaration of Independence
    Some of the American states declared their own independence. Virginia declared its independence from Britain on May 15th, 1776.  On July 2nd, 1776, Congress voted for the independence of the United States and two days later, on July 4th, it adopted the Declaration of Independence. This date is now celebrated as Independence Day in the United States.

    The American War of Independence
    Thomas Paine played a vital role in the war. He joined the American army, wrote songs and pamphlets that kept up morale, visited France with a delegation to help secure finance to support the troops and even gave his own money to ensure the troops were properly clothed and fed. There were many hard-fought battles, and times when it looked like the American forces may be defeated. In 1781, however, the American forces defeated the British armies at Yorktown, and, by 1783, the British government was evacuating its 'loyal' citizens from America, many of them leaving to set up a new home in Canada. Independence had been achieved.

  • Revolution comes to France

    French Revolution

    The revolution in France followed hot on the heels of the earlier uprising in America which, by this time, had resulted in the British giving up their claim to lands in that country and accepting that America was now wholly independent. In fact Louis XVI of France had supported the American colonists against the British.

    Revolution across the Channel
    The French Revolution, which began in 1789, was a period of huge social and political change in both French and European history. The monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years. French society underwent huge transformation, as the old ways of ruling were swept away by radical groups and the masses on the streets. Old ideas about hierarchy and tradition gave way to new principles of equality, citizenship and human rights.

    Financial Crisis
    During the 1770s and 1780s, France faced a growing crisis within the country. Because the king had spent large amounts of money fighting wars against Britain and others, France was bankrupt and following some poor harvests, many of the poorer people of France found themselves penniless and facing starvation. The financial crisis came to a head in 1788, when a meeting was called of the Estates-General, a council representing clergy, commoners and nobility, in order to approve a plan to raise money for the government. At the meeting, a number of the liberal noblemen and many of the clergy decided to join the commoners (the Third Estate). They formed the new National Assembly, which granted itself power to make and carry out the law.

    Fall of The Bastille
    On July 14th, 1789, the infamous prison, known as The Bastille, was stormed by the citizens and, within weeks, the end of feudalism and serfdom was announced. At the end of August, 'The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen' was issued by The National Assembly. By October, Parisians, led by a large number of women, marched upon Versailles and forced the royal family to come to Paris as virtual prisoners.

    The Flight of the King
    In 1791 Thomas Paine wrote his book 'The Rights of Man' in support of the Revolution in France. The book called for representative democracy and proposed a republican government. On June 21st 1791, whilst visiting France, Thomas Paine witnessed the flight of the Royal family. He founded The Republican Society (La Société des Republicains) and wrote a manifesto (which was plastered on the city walls). The king's flight, he said, meant abdication and the nation should seize the opportunity to establish a Republic. The royal family were arrested as they attempted to leave France and, in 1792, they were returned to Paris.

    Thomas Paine Flees to France 
    Thomas returned to England in the summer of 1791 and published 'The Rights of Man, part the Second' in 1792. He had to flee Britain to avoid arrest and trial but was welcomed as a hero in France and elected to the National Convention, where he held an important position.

    The King is Put on Trial
    The king was put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to death in January 1793. Thomas Paine was opposed to capital punishment and spoke out strongly against the king's execution - an action which upset Robespierre and would later land Thomas Paine in a French prison. Thomas Paine had implied that to execute the king would be the behaviour of a corrupt despot. Even Robespierre, he said, had in the past publicly denounced capital punishment.  The Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, tried to have Thomas's vote nullified, claiming he was a Quaker and hence "his religious views would not let him support capital punishment." Thomas Paine responded by declaring that France's only ally in the world, the United States, would not look kindly on the execution.

    Thomas Paine is Arrested
    On June 2nd 1793, The Jacobins led by Robespierre gained power. Thomas had associated himself with the Girondins (now the opposition). On the 3rd of October, Thomas was denounced in the National Convention as a traitor to the Revolution. Robespierre wrote: "Demand that a decree of accusation be passed against Thomas Paine, for the interests of America and France as well." Early on Christmas Day, 1793, Thomas Paine was arrested. He believed that this was because Robespierre feared he would report to the Americans just how bloody the Revolution had become and how many had been executed.

    The Reign of Terror 
    On October 15th, the Tribunal Criminel-Révolutionnaire began. The Revolution now became much bloodier, as any opponents of the new government were rounded up, hastily tried and executed by guillotine. As many as 40,000 people were killed during the 'Terror' of 1793 and 1794. Thomas himself narrowly escaped execution.

    Death of Robespierre and the End of the Revolution
    On July 4th, 1794, Robespierre was executed after his own trial and attempted suicide, ending the Reign of Terror. When the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte was established, in 1799, the Revolution is generally thought to have come to an end.

  • Religion, freedom and respect for all

    CathedralThe second half of the 18th century saw the birth of many new ideas regarding politics, society and the role that religion played within people's daily lives. 

    Organised Religion
    For many years the power over people's lives had been held jointly by the state and the Church. During the 16th century, after King Henry VIII broke with Rome and the Catholic Church, people had to change their religious belief according to the monarch of the time. Furthermore, a growing number of different Protestant Christian Churches developed. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, these Churches, each offering the ‘true' path to salvation, and some thinkers, began to question the legitimacy of any kind of organised religion. Groups such as radical Quakers had broken with old dogmas and were seeking a more personal relationship with God, an idea which impressed the writer and philosopher, Voltaire.

    Many thinkers at this time, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson and Washington, rejected orthodox Christianity. They shared a faith called 'Deism'. Deism sees God as the creator of a world that is allowed to operate according to 'natural rules', including ethical as well as physical laws. The good life is a life in harmony with these laws. It does not depend on the need for either prayer or organised religion. It does depend on justice and respecting the rights of others. These beliefs would eventually have an influence on religion as well as other aspects of society.  

    Religious Influences on Thomas Paine 
    It is likely that Thomas Paine's beliefs grew for a number of reasons. His father was a Quaker, whilst his mother was a member of the Church of England. These two religious groups were strongly opposed to one another and this may be where Thomas first developed his dislike of organised religions. He expressed admiration for the Quakers for "the care of the poor of their society..." and "...the education of their children...". However, he was later highly critical of their role in the American Revolution.

    Thomas Paine's Religious Views
    Thomas Paine, like other Deists, held very strong views against organised religion and Churches, not against the belief in a god. Thomas Paine's later work 'The Age of Reason' attacked the beliefs of the Christian Church and organised religion as well as the hereditary position of aristocratic landowners. It was his writing against the churches which turned many people against him in his later life. He wrote that, "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

    Respect, Tolerance and Justice 
    Part of his Deist belief was that people should respect God by respecting other people and that all people had rights, not just Christians or those with wealth and power. He believed in the equality of all people and that no man had a right to own another or to decide their fate. This was at a time when slavery was the bedrock of the wealth of many countries, including England and America.  Also, it was a time when many indigenous peoples were regarded as savages and treated accordingly. He believed in free public education for all, a guaranteed minimum income and the setting up of an organisation to keep world peace: ideas then considered to be extremely radical.

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