Five fun facts about Thomas Paine, firebrand of the American War of Independence
1. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense remains one of the bestselling books in American publishing history. In 1776 alone it is thought to have sold in excess of 100,000 copies. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense argued for independence for America, and when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he drew heavily on Paine’s work (Paine was also the first person to use the phrase ‘United States of America’). John Adams would later say, ‘Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.’
2. He wrote the first volume of The Age of Reason in prison without the aid of books (or even a copy of the Bible), critiquing the Old Testament from memory. The Age of Reason (1794) appears to be the first place that the phrase ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ appears, albeit not in so many words – a phrase which Napoleon (who according to some accounts slept with a copy of Paine’s Rights of Man under his pillow) would later popularise.
3. Paine narrowly escaped execution. As we discuss in our book of literary and historical curiosities, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, Paine fell foul of the French revolutionaries and was imprisoned in 1793 during the Reign of Terror. (It was while he was in prison that he would write The Age of Reason.) In the house where he was imprisoned, every day the gaolers would go around chalking the doors of those who had been condemned to die later that day, and the day came when it was Paine’s turn. However, since he was suffering from a fever, the guards had agreed to keep his door open to allow fresh air into his cell. As a result, the door was chalked – but on the inside. When it was later closed, the guards on duty at that time missed the chalk cross that had been marked on Paine’s cell door. He had narrowly escaped the guillotine.
4. Only six people attended his funeral when he died in 1809. Many had abandoned him as an ‘atheist’ for his ridicule of the Bible and organised religion. To this day, nobody knows where Tom Paine’s bones lie, since it was rumoured they were removed from his grave in the States and returned to England. He remains a much more valued figure in America than he ever has been in his home country.
5. He has remained a controversial figure, even in his hometown. In 1964 the mayor of Thetford in Norfolk (Paine’s hometown) said he would only approve a statue of Paine if it was stamped with the words ‘convicted traitor’. However, the statue was erected – without the unflattering label, and with Paine holding his book, Rights of Man, upside down (supposedly to get local people talking about Paine and his work). But his legacy is to have been an important driving force behind the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, a pioneer of Biblical criticism in the Age of Enlightenment, and an influential champion of what we now call ‘human rights’. As Paine himself put it in a letter to George Washington in 1789, ‘A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose.’
If you enjoyed these interesting Thomas Paine facts, we’ve also compiled some curious facts about Jane Austen, some interesting Wordsworth facts, and some interesting information about Sir Walter Scott.
Image: Thomas Paine statue, Thetford, by Andrewself, 2008; Wikimedia Commons.