The celebration of America's birthday rarely includes references to Thomas Paine, the author of the pre-Revolutionary War pamphlet "Common Sense." But Paine's role in the break with Great Britain was important, and his life has a way of reminding us that our nation has had enormous tolerance for wayward individuals — a sobering contrast to the consistent propriety exemplified by history-makers such as George Washington or John Adams.
Paine was born in 1737 in Thetford, a village 70 miles northeast of London, the son of a staymaker or corsetmaker. In school, he showed intelligence, but mostly laziness. Paine trained in his father's shop, then ran away from home at 16, first serving as a sailor on the high seas. At 21 he opened his own staymaking shop with a loan he never repaid. A wretched businessman, Paine married in 1759 as his business foundered. His wife died a year later, and Paine left his shop one night, leaving a legacy of debts and mystery.
He went back home to his parents even though he was no child and began training for a position in the government's excise service, which had jurisdiction over taxes on alcohol and tobacco. By age 27, he had passed the service's entry exam and landed a position in an area north of his hometown. A year later, however, he was dismissed for sloppy inspections; humiliated, he grudgingly worked again as a staymaker, supplementing his income by teaching English.
After three years, Paine implored — quite literally — the excise service to take him back. Finally, at age 31, he was reinstated in a position at a town south of London. For six years he served, also helping to run a tobacco and grocery shop for the family with which he roomed. But, again, Paine's poor business sense led him into a conflict of interest in that the store sold items that he was charged to monitor as a government official. Paine also married the eldest daughter of the family, a union that he never consummated or broke up by divorce.
Paine complicated his life even more in 1772 by getting involved in a campaign on the part of excise officers to increase their salaries. He wrote an essay on their behalf and left his job to stoke the fires of his argument in London. Not surprisingly, nothing came of the campaign, but his stay in London provided Paine with the opportunity to meet numerous individuals, including Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as an agent of the American colonies.
During Paine's absence, the fortunes of the tobacco and grocery shop declined, and his future in the excise service dimmed. In 1774 Paine was again removed from the service, this time for abandoning his duties during his London trip. What was worse, his debts were so weighty that his personal goods were auctioned. Paine was 37 years old — no young man in his day — and flat broke, but he still had a dream: to venture to America, where he planned to establish a school for the education of young girls.
With Franklin's assistance, Paine got to Philadelphia. And this man who had been nothing in the Old World would find a place for himself in the New. He wrote "Common Sense," which was published in January 1776 and argued for total independence from the mother country. It became an enormous influence, and with this and other pamphlets, Paine played a critical role in the coming of the American Revolution — even though he would be controversial to the point of offending (future President John Adams labeled Paine a "disastrous meteor").
He would complicate his life after the revolution by venturing to Europe where he became a supporter of the French Revolution, a backer of President Thomas Jefferson and a critic of his opponents, leading to his controversial reception when, after a 60-day journey, he arrived in Baltimore in late 1802. And like much of his early life, he would remain, unlike other Revolutionary leaders, unheralded and obscure in the United States until his death in 1809.
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University in Washington. His email is Tvmzdb6063@cs.com.
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