Fresh off the boat from England in 1775, Tom Paine published an article on the most pressing problem he saw in the 13 colonies: “African Slavery in America.” At the time, mainstream opinion — northern and southern— still supported human bondage. Moderate critics of slavery advocated gradual emancipation followed by the deportation of free blacks. Paine, however, urged colonial legislatures to liberate bondsmen immediately and grant them jobs and land to give them a solid stake in American society. Several weeks later, he became a founding member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Early the next year, Paine wrote Common Sense, a massively influential pamphlet that decisively shifted colonial opinion toward separation from Britain. Before Common Sense, most Patriots aimed their ire at Parliament while professing continued loyalty to king and country; some continued to hope George III might take mercy on his American subjects and find some way to accommodate their needs within the empire. As an antidote to this silly delusion, Paine underscored the king’s complicity in the colonists’ plight and mercilessly mocked hereditary monarchy as an inherently absurd institution: “Of more worth is one honest man to society than all the crowned ruffians who ever lived.”
Few propagandists enjoy such immediate gratification: Six months after the publication of Common Sense, the Continental Congress seceded from the British Empire. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s rhetoric follows Paine in pinning all of the colonies’ woes directly on George III; the document barely mentions Parliament.
Late in 1776, after a series of military setbacks caused Patriot morale to sag, Paine — having enlisted in the Continental Army — began penning The American Crisis, a stirring serial that helped sustain America’s fighting spirit through the darkest months of the war: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Even Paine’s antislavery efforts eventually bore fruit. By 1784, five of the seven northernmost states had passed immediate or gradual emancipation laws, without deporting the freedmen, but sadly without the compensation Paine had recommended. In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, banning slavery west of the Appalachians and north of the Ohio River. The last northern laggards — New York and New Jersey —had approved gradual emancipation by 1804, ensuring the end of slavery everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
During the Revolution, Paine had published anonymously because advocating rebellion was a capital offense. Only after independence did his authorship become public knowledge.
Had he died at that point, Paine would be more fondly remembered today. He became quite controversial when he returned to Europe and published The Rights of Man (1791)—a staunch defense of the French Revolution — and The Age of Reason (1794), which promoted Deism at the expense of Christianity.
Granted honorary citizenship in France, Paine won election to the National Convention, where he supported the abolition of the monarchy, but advocated exile rather than execution for Louis XVI. That humane position landed Paine in prison on death row during the Reign of Terror. Due to a bureaucratic error, the jailers failed to collect him on the date of his scheduled execution. A few days later, Robespierre fell from power, and the US Ambassador, James Monroe, managed to arrange Paine’s release.
At first, Monroe let him live in the American embassy in Paris, but the diplomat wisely evicted the writer when Paine started publishing attacks on the character and policies of the ambassador’s boss — including unfounded accusations that President Washington had conspired with Robespierre to keep Paine in prison.
After Napoleon assumed dictatorial powers, the writer returned to the United States. A national hero when he had left the country a decade before, Paine returned as a pariah, reviled for his impious criticisms of Christ and Washington. He died unmourned by an ungrateful nation.
A few decades later, Robert Ingersoll described Paine’s sad end:
“One by one… his old friends and acquaintances… deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred — his virtues denounced as vices — his services forgotten — his character blackened…. Even those who loved their enemies hated him… with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came…. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead — on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head — and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude — constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.”