The Revolutionary Thomas Paine

The Revolutionary Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) was an English political activist, philosopher and revolutionary figure, who was born to Quaker parents and for a short period worked in Lincolnshire as a tax collector.

In the England of Paine’s youth religious intolerance was widespread. Despite The Toleration Act of 1689 that provided legal freedom of worship, Quakers were still faced persecution for their dissenting beliefs.

Paine’s father Joseph Pain (the ‘e’ was later added when Thomas Paine arrived in London)  was a practicing Quaker and his mother was a member of the Anglican Church. When they were married in her church in Thetford, Norfolk, Joseph was disowned from the Quaker community for ‘marrying out’.

At a young age Thomas Paine would have keenly aware of the prejudice and discrimination of the dominating Anglicans toward the Quakers of Thetford. His lifetime in defense of the underdog might well be traced to these experiences. Despite never having Convincement to become a member of the Society of Friends, Paine expressed appreciation for the Quakers, “Care of the poor of their society” and, “The education of their children.” However, he would later become quite critical of the Society when it came to the American War of Independence.

In 1762, as a young man he joined the Excise Service as a tax collector and sent to Lincolnshire. He was first posted to Grantham and two years later was sent to Alford. A considerable amount of smuggling was taking place at that time. It was at that this point whilst collecting Paine witnessed several injustices.  

He briefly served in Lewes, East Sussex before he met Benjamin Franklin at Parliment in London who advised him to emigrate to America in 1775 to pursue his politics. He promptly got a job as editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, which Franklin owned.

After his arrival in America, he soon became highly influential by publishing his pamphlet Common Sense, in 1776, shortly after the revolutionary war had begun. The pamphlet did a great deal to swell support for the American Colonies becoming an independent country and shift loyalties from British rule to a new republic. The United States of America was the name Paine coined for this new republic.

Within a year his pamphlet had sold upwards of 150,000 copies, a massive amount at the time, stirring the public and the Continental Congress into action on July 4, 1776.

The historian Walter A. McDougall said of Paine.

“The American Revolution happened when it happened, because Tom Paine stirred up a storm.”

criticizing the quakers

Paine’s criticism of the Quakers comes in an appendix to Common Sense entitled An Address to the People called Quakers, where he attacks the society for its lack of support for the Revolutionary War. He argued the Quakers were advising their members to resist the American authorities in carrying out their tasks of defense against British forces.

While he defended the Quaker’s right to refuse to bear arms in any war under any circumstances, Paine thought it treasonous when they prevented others from bearing arms.

“Could the peaceable principle of the Quakers be universally established, arms and the art of war would be wholly extirpated: But we live not in a world of angels…I am thus far a Quaker, that I would gladly agree with all the world to lay aside the use of arms, and settle matters by negotiation: but unless the whole will, the matter ends, and I take up my musket and thank Heaven He has put it in my power.”

In Common Sense, Paine concludes his criticism of the Quakers more generally writing:

“The principles of Quakerism have a direct tendency to make a man the quiet and inoffensive subject of any, and every government which is set over him.”

final years

Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote Rights of Man (1791), in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics, which led to his arrest and imprisonment in Paris. Because of his connections with the US government, Paine was granted a diplomatic release and returned to America.

Paine died, aged 72, in Greenwich Village, New York City. In his will he stated that he wished to be buried in a Quaker burial ground. However, the local Quakers would not allow it to be buried in their graveyard as per his last will, so his remains were buried under a walnut tree on his farm.

Many years later the writer and orator  Robert G. Ingersoll wrote:

“Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul.

He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend.

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.”

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