In London in September 1774, mathematician George Lewis Scott of the Royal Society and Commissioner of the Excise introduced Dr. Benjamin Franklin to a 37-year-old rabble-rouser named Thomas Paine, whose political hectoring had put him at odds with the Crown and cost him his employment as an excise officer. After hearing Paine out, Franklin suggested he move to America.
It was like handing Michael Jordan his first basketball.
Armed with a letter of recommendation from Franklin, Paine headed to America -- and nearly died on the way. The ship suffered an outbreak of typhoid fever -- the result of contaminated water. As fate would have it, Franklin's physician greeted Paine upon his arrival and after six weeks of recovery, Paine was off to pursue his destiny: Guiding the American Revolution. He would within a year of his arrival pen the most popular and most important title in American history, "Common Sense," a pamphlet that sold out 100,000 copies in its first month in a nation of 2 million free men and women.
His words ring true today, nearly 240 years later: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”
And this: “From the errors of other nations, let us learn wisdom.”
And this: “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have the right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever, and tho' himself might deserve some decent degree of honors of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”
A growing number of Americans wanted independence. Paine succeeded in framing what that freedom would be. In many ways, the Declaration of Independence is a re-write of "Common Sense" a mere six months after its publication. Not only would the new nation be rid of England, but it would rid itself of the monarchy.
Unlike Washington, Jefferson, Hancock and so many others, Paine was not born wealthy or middle class. His father made stays for ships, a trade he reluctantly passed along to his son. Paine decided to try a life at sea. When that did not pan out, he began his own business and married. his wife became pregnant, but their child was premature and both she and the baby died. His business collapsed. He became a temporary office worker, then a schoolteacher. A second marriage failed. By the time he met Franklin, Paine was broke, unemployable because of his politics, and headed for debtor's prison. Commissioner Scott likely introduced him to Franklin hoping to solve the problem.
But failure is a great teacher and made Paine realize that a new nation could -- and should -- be "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," as Lincoln so eloquently put it.
"Common Sense" did not appear out of the blue. Dr. Benjamin Rush, an enthusiastic supporter of the American Revolution and a signer of the "Declaration of Independence," edited the work and suggested Robert Bell as the printer. Paine put no byline on it, and had a falling out with Bell who dared add the words "written by an Englishman" in the second printing of the work. Paine took no royalties, assigning them to finance the Continental Army. When other printers complained, he gave up the copyright. That is how much he believed in the cause.
He followed up his work with a series of propaganda pamphlets called "The American Crisis," The first one, published on December 19, 1776, began, "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 his country but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
General Washington had the pamphlet read aloud to his troops. A week after publication, Washington and 2,400 Patriots crossed the Delaware and won the Battle of Trenton.
But Paine was a restless and occasionally reckless man. The Continental Congress hired him in 1777 only to fire him two years later for divulging that Congress was secretly negotiating with France to enter the war. The General Assembly of Pennsylvania hired him as its clerk, and he began raising money from the public in England and France to support the American militia.
After the American Revolution succeeded, he returned to England in 1787, writing, "The Rights Of Man." He joined the French Revolution, and was elected to its national assembly even though he spoke no French. But his political fortunes were soon reversed. He landed in prison, where he wrote his tribute to the Age of Enlightenment, called, "The Age of Reason." This led to his downfall as people assumed he was an atheist. He was a Deist. In 1802, he returned to America, where President Jefferson greeted the 65-year-old Paine warmly. But alcoholism, unemployment and his religious beliefs did him in. he died in New York City on June 8, 1809, a pauper. Only six people attended his funeral.
But his ideas would live on in Jefferson, Lincoln and others he inspired, including Thomas Edison, who wrote, "It was, indeed, a revelation to me to read that great thinker's views on political and theological subjects. Paine educated me, then, about many matters of which I had never before thought. I remember, very vividly, the flash of enlightenment that shone from Paine's writings, and I recall thinking, at that time, 'What a pity these works are not today the schoolbooks for all children!' My interest in Paine was not satisfied by my first reading of his works. I went back to them time and again, just as I have done since my boyhood days."
Perhaps the best tribute to Paine -- indeed all our Founding Fathers -- is to live free, and protect liberty from those who wish to trade it for lentil soup and bread.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.