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Common SenseSummary and Reviews of Common Sense
The American CrisisSummary and Reviews of The American Crisis
Age of ReasonSummary and Reviews of Age of Reason
Writings of Thomas PaineSummary and Reviews of Writings of Thomas Paine
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Thomas Paine

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Thomas Paine (1732-1809) doesn’t quite come as close to universal admiration today as his contemporary, Benjamin Franklin, does.  Although many recognize the importance of his writings today, especially his most famous piece, Common Sense, people don’t quite admire the man behind the pen as much.  In reality, modern readers and historians are divided.  Paine is the prime example used by historians who try to counter the idea that Christians founded the U.S. and framed the government on Christian principles.  For this reason, Paine’s reputation among Christians, as a man, is not as high, and those historians who believe that the Founders based the national government on Christianity almost dismiss Paine as a minor figure in the Revolutionary era.

Regardless of his practical role in the American transformation from British colony to fledgling nation, Thomas Paine had a huge role in starting Americans down the path.  Of his seventy-two years, he spent only nineteen of them in America, and his first period in America was by far his most successful.  As mentioned, he was a contemporary of Franklin, and, in fact, he came to Philadelphia and established himself with the help of letters of introduction from Franklin himself.  Franklin recommended Paine for the job of editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, and he “paid the bills” with this position while he began to produce his major writings on current events in the British colonies and individual rights in general.

Paine was born in England, and while still there, he began his attraction to what were then radical political ideas of individual rights and representative government.  Paine’s father was a Quaker so he grew up knowing the oppression of the power of church-state combination.  He also studied and applied Newtonian science’s ideas of harmony, order, and natural laws to the political arena, and both of these factors produced, in Paine, a man determined to eradicate tyranny.

Paine’s first major piece of writing is his most admired and, possibly, his most important.  Common Sense appeared in twenty-five editions in 1776 alone, and its arguments for American independence from Britain and the establishment of a representative government settled its lasting effect on the history.  Common Sense helped spread a patriotic spirit in America even before it was a nation, and this feeling among the general public in America led directly to the Declaration of Independence.  The pamphlet’s call for a complete break from the British crown and a termination of any attempt to reunite with England may have been just the right argument to bring the people to their nationalistic fervor.

Paine enlisted in the Continental Army and was an aide-de-camp during a number of battles, but his gift for writing was where he made his biggest contribution.  He did not stop with Common Sense.  While he was still in the military, he began publishing essays that together comprise his second major work, the Crisis papers.  The first of the fifteen essays contains in its first line the most quoted of Paine’s many axioms, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Paine, like Franklin, realized that he could use the power of the maxim, a phrase with plain language but emotional power, to inspire action.  The early Crisis papers led to a paid position with Congress that allowed Paine to continue producing the pro-American Crisis papers until the end of the war.

The end of the war was a turning point in Paine’s personal life and his purely American literature.  He went back to England and, after a failed business venture, he turned back to writing, this time turning out his second major success, The Rights of Man.  Because The Rights of Man argued for the elimination of the hereditary monarchy, Paine had to leave England again, this time landing in France.  At first, Paine supported the French Revolution going on at that time and his new fellow citizens even elected him to the National Assembly, but when the Assembly decided to execute Louis XVI, Paine broke from the revolutionaries in France because he protested the decision as contrary to the enlightenment on which the Revolution was based.  The revolutionary government put Paine in prison, and he would have stayed there had his American friends not persuaded the French that because he was an American citizen they should allow him to go back to the United States.

While he was still in France, Paine published the first part of his last major work, The Age of Reason.  The title gave a name to the era of enlightenment happening in science, politics, and society, but when Americans read the entire work their opinion of Paine diminished.  The majority of people of America, at that time, were not ready to take the next step with Paine from individual liberty and representative government to the idea that humanity was supreme and reason was its guiding force.  Paine, in The Age of Reason, claimed that religion was irrational.  While he did not argue that God did not exist, he did argue that God had left human beings to run the world and that they should do so with reason not faith.  It was largely this work and its argument that made Paine a controversial figure, and by the time he died in New York in 1809, even the Quakers denied him a proper graveyard burial.  He was buried on a farm, and his remains were lost after a later supporter who exhumed his body for burial in an English grave died.


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