Paine, Thomas (1737–1809)
With no formal education, Paine loved the unconventional ideas of human striving, individual rights, and freedom. His eclectic, energetic, and self-directed learning patterns immersed him in the social and political ideas and issues of his age, free from the academic establishment.
Paine’s anonymously written Common Sense (January, 10, 1776) inspired American colonists to revolt against repressive control by the British monarchy. The 47-page pamphlet urged an immediate declaration of independence from the English monarchy that would fulfill America's moral duty to the world as a nation of free people. This work led John Adams to remark, 'Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.'
Against the status quo, Paine advocated for a republic governed under a constitution with a bill of rights, elected leaders serving limited terms, and a judiciary accountable to the general public. He argued for universal suffrage, and the end of privilege by virtue of social class, birth, rank, economics, or religion. An early abolitionist, he helped establish one of the first abolitionist organizations.
In 1791, Paine wrote Rights of Man, in part as a defense of the French Revolution against its French and British critics. While imprisoned in France, he wrote The Age of Reason (1793–94), in which he advocated deism, and promoted reason and free, rational thought. He argued against the hypocrisies and untruths of institutionalized religion in general, and Christian doctrine in particular.
In 1802 he returned to America. Appreciative of his support of the American Revolution, Congress allocated £3000 to him, Pennsylvania awarded £500, and New York gave him a former British loyalist estate in New Rochelle. He died on June 8, 1809. Because his difficult personality and criticism of Christianity had alienated many friends and supporters, only six people attended his funeral.
Paine believed that democratic republicanism, in which leaders are periodically elected under a constitution, was the only legitimate form of government. His vision of free individuals living in democratic self-rule became the spirit of many independence movements across the world.
His courage and outspoken advocacy of truth and individual liberty inspired the Constitution of the United States, civil rights, and later the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights.