Thomas Paine, Liberty’s Hated Torchbearer

George Ford Smith

When Thomas Paine’s ship pulled into Baltimore harbor on October 30, 1802, a large gathering of friends and admirers were waiting at dockside to welcome him back. Others stood by as well, some filled with loathing, merely to observe a famous figure. Since leaving the United States in 1787 to find a builder for his iron bridge, Paine had authored some of the most incendiary tracts of the 18th century, had been imprisoned and narrowly escaped Robespierre’s guillotine, and was widely reported to be a drunk and an atheist.

When he journeyed to Federal City on November 5 to pay his respects to the country’s third president, he found that he needed an alias and help from a presidential aide to get a room at Lovell’s, the city’s only hotel. As he later wrote a friend and future biographer, Thomas Clio Rickman,

You can have no idea of the agitation which my arrival occasioned. From New Hampshire to Georgia (an extent of 1,500 miles), every newspaper was filled with applause or abuse.1

The source of the abuse was the Federalist press, a collection of newspaper editors and writers who were the big-government allies of Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson, the new president, had unseated Federalist John Adams and many of his congressional cohorts in what Jefferson called the “Revolution of 1800.”

The party of war, taxes, and privileges for the rich, coupled with a strong loyalty to England — which it sought to emulate in all its corrupt glory — had been thrown out in favor of one promising to be bound by the “chains of the Constitution.” The Democratic-Republicans (or simply the Republicans, as Jefferson’s party was called) sought to disentangle government from people’s lives, both within the country and abroad.

Paine had been staying in France since his release from prison in late 1794 and had been frustrated in his wish to return to America by the possibility of capture by British warships. The English had convicted him in absentia of seditious libel for Rights of Man, Part the Second and other political writings, and they were determined to intercept and hang him if he ever set sail again. When England and France signed the Treaty of Amiens on March 25, 1802, inaugurating a year’s respite from war, it was once again safe for Paine to be at sea, and he left Le Havre on September 1.

Contrary to Federalist rumors that Jefferson wanted Paine back in the states to help defend his administration from Federalist attacks, Paine himself apparently saw his return as a well-earned retirement opportunity.2He had turned 65 in 1802 and still suffered lingering bouts of pain and fever from his ten-month incarceration under Robespierre.3As the 18th century’s most influential political pamphleteer, Paine’s reputation was born with the American Revolution he was largely responsible for creating, and he wanted to spend his last years among people with whom he shared a passion for liberty.

But there was never to be any lasting peace for a firebrand like Paine, whose immense popularity with commoners made life uncomfortable for politicians, priests, and pundits everywhere.

The Struggle to Find Home

Paine grew up in mid-18th century England under “a criminal code that would hang a ten-year-old boy for stealing a penknife or permit women to be stoned to death in the pillory.”4The thatched cottage in Thetford, where he was born in 1737, stood near one of the execution sites, a wind-swept hill known locally as the Wilderness. There, each spring, convicted peasants were hung with great ceremony under the direction of a pompous hypocrite from Cambridge known as the Lord Chief Justice.

Murder among the poor was uncommon; the offenses usually involved crimes against property, such as stealing a bushel of wheat or purchasing a stolen horse. The courts viewed the well-to-do quite differently. Even in cases of homicide, they were often acquitted or given nominal sentences.5 One of Paine’s first written works was a poem satirizing the decision of a Sussex court to hang a dog named Porter because its owner had voted for a member of Parliament the judges didn’t like.6

Enclosure laws had long since driven small farmers off their land and into the cities, where the more-adaptable ones became factory workers.7Others turned to begging, thievery, or worse, all of which Paine witnessed in the first half of his life.

The son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, Paine attended school until he was 12, never learned Latin or any language other than English, worked at various odd jobs in his youth, was married twice, and finally during a period of utter despair met Benjamin Franklin in London, who was so impressed with Paine’s intellectual fire that he recommended Paine seek deliverance in the American colonies.

Paine had recently been dismissed as a tax collector, for leaving his post for three months to petition Parliament for better pay for his fellow excise officers. The loss of his job led to the breakup of his second marriage. At 37, with little left to lose, Paine took Franklin’s letter of recommendation to Philadelphia in late 1774 and found work writing for and editing a new magazine.

His first published article, “The Magazine in America,” appeared on January 24, 1775, and included a special tribute. Foreign vices, he wrote, engaging his poetic flair, should they survive the voyage from Europe,

either expire on their arrival, or linger away in an incurable consumption. There is a happy something in the climate of America, which disarms them of all their power both of infection and attraction.8

As Paine biographer Jack Fruchtman, Jr. observes, “This was the beginning of Paine’s long love affair with America.”9

“Other than the Bible, The Rights of Man outsold all other books in English history.”

On March 8, 1775 Paine published “African Slavery in America,” in which he not only condemned slavery (“Certainly one may, with as much reason and decency, plead for murder, robbery, lewdness, and barbarity, as for this practice”) but offered his thoughts on how to abolish it humanely. In a much shorter piece (“A Serious Thought”), published on October 18, Paine again expressed his hatred of slavery along with the manner in which so-called Christians treated American Indians, and concluded that

When I reflect on these [injustices], I hesitate not for a moment to believe that the Almighty will finally separate America from Britain. Call it independence or what you will, if it is the cause of God and humanity it will go on.10


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