May 21, 2006September 1, 2006Meeting Report

June 2, 2006

Don Havis

Thomas Paine: Freethinker Extraordinaire


Don HavisWe'd heard good things about Don Havis' presentation on Thomas Paine. We were not disappointed.

Don provided a fascinating trip from Paine's boyhood in Norfolk, England, where he was the son of a Quaker corset maker, to his death in the United States, where he had gone from something of a hero to a pariah.

The following is condensed and paraphrased from a summary Don provided of Eric Foner's book, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, published in 1976.

Paine started out in his father's trade, following which he became an excise tax collector, a position from which he was ultimately fired for his activism on behalf of his fellow tax collectors. He formed a hatred of the monarchy and for governments that, like the monarchy, were based on hereditary privilege. (One branch of the government was the House of Lords, in which, at that time, all the members who were not bishops held their seat on the basis of heredity.)

He was lucky enough to meet Benjamin Franklin, who advised him to emigrate to the colonies, specifically America, going as far as to give him a couple of letters of recommendation, as someone with "potential." As Paine had failed at everything he’d done up to that time, Franklin could hardly recommend him on the basis of his experience.

In 1774, Paine arrived in Philadelphia, where he rapidly became politically active, publishing his first pamphlet, Common Sense, which advocated independence from the British crown. That pamphlet revealed Payne's views on at least three important issues—the superiority of a republic over a monarchy, equality of rights for all citizens, and the significance, for the whole world, of the American Revolution. Amazingly, he sold 150,000 copies of his pamphlet, an extraordinary number for the time—1776. That success can probably be attributed to his use of plain English, used in a commonsense manner, recognizing that his readership was unfamiliar with legal precedents, classical learning and complex rhetoric.

Over the next few years, Payne dedicated himself to the support of the struggle for independence, producing his famous Crisis papers (of which the opening sentence is the famous "These are the times that try men’s souls").

In 1787, he returned to England and entered the debate that started with the French Revolution, defending it, in Rights of Man, against the attacks of Edmund Burke. Rights envisioned a republican state as a promoter of social welfare, with progressive taxation, retirement benefits, and public employment. It was even more successful than his earlier Common Sense and transformed English radicalism, linking demands for political reform with a social program for the lower classes. Unfortunately, his advocacy of the end of the British monarchy led to a charge of seditious libel, so he fled to France, becoming one of a few foreigners elected to the National Convention.

While there, he opposed the execution of the king, alienating him from the Jacobins. When that group came to power, they put Paine in prison, from which he was released in 1794. It was after his release that he produced his greatest pamphlet, The Age of Reason, and Agrarian Justice, which called for land reform.

The Age of Reason was an exposition of deism, which attacked the basic principles of Christianity. He made the mistake of returning to America in 1802, where he came under constant attack by evangelical Christians for his support of deism. He died not long after and, in spite of the fact that he had inspired millions with his writings, his funeral was attended by only six mourners.

Report prepared by Bill Potts

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