Meet Thomas Paine
The Life and Times that Tried His Soul
by Judah Freed
THOMAS PAINE (1737-1809), English writer and social activist, is best known for his popular essay, Common Sense, the pivotal historic call for American independence and democracy.
Driven by his own longing for freedom and justice, Paine’s thinking was deeply influenced by English and French writers like Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and others in the movement today called the Enlightenment.
Thomas Paine published Common Sense in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776. More than 125,000 copies of the pamphlet sold in the first three months, and 500,000 copies sold during Paine’s lifetime. With only 2.5 million people then living in the 13 colonies, this means about 20 percent of the colonists bought a copy (Paine donated his income to the Continental Army).
Inspired by his essay, the American colonists rallied behind the struggling rebellion and transformed it into a revolution, thereby creating the world’s first modern republic. Without Common Sense to sway public opinion, most historians now agree, the American revolution would have failed from lack of popular support. Said 18th century poet and diplomat Joel Barlow, “Washington’s sword would have been wielded in vain had it not been supported by the pen of Paine.”
During the war, Paine wrote The Crisis series to sustain public support for independence. After the war, he went to France to witness their revolution, defending its ideals in The Rights of Man. Honored at first, he later was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror. While in prison, he began to write The Age of Reason, a critique of religion that yielded a violent public backlash in America.
Returning to the United States in 1801, finding himself an outcast, he died eight years later in poverty and obscurity. Thomas Paine changed our world for the better. On his shoulders others stand.
Born 29 January 1737 in Thetford, England, Thomas Paine was the son of a Quaker stay maker unhappily wed to an Anglican attorney’s daughter. After grammar school, young Tom apprenticed at age 13 into his father’s occupation. Stay-making was hard work and paid little. The youth felt doomed to poverty.
I believe that neither Paine’s father nor his apprenticed son were “corset makers,” as biographies of Thomas Paine have mistakenly said. Thetford’s main industry was supporting the sailing trade, so the “stays” they made likely were the hefty rope rigging on sailing vessels that secure the masts to the hull, usually fore-and-aft along the centerline of the vessel. Rope stays also control the angle of the sails to tack or jibe in the wind. Claiming Based on my research, saying that Paine made women’s undergarments is one of the many lies later told to denigrate him.
When war with between England and France broke out in 1756, Paine left home at age 19 for a brief career on the open sea as a privateer. His ship engaged in some battles, but it’s unknown whether he ever killed anyone.
Paine did not abide by his father’s Quaker doctrines of absolute non-resistance to force, so he never declared himself a member of the Society of Friends. His pious aunt failed in persuading him to side with the Anglicans. The young man was too curious to take any dictums for granted.
Despite being barely educated in youth (his grammar was never perfect), Paine loved ideas, absorbing eclectic authors. His Quaker training, for instance, inspired his views on the sanctity of the “inner citadel of consciousness.”
While he was apprenticed in his father’s low-paying trade of making rope stays for ships, Paine devoted his free time to abstract learning, spending his spare cash on books, lectures and scientific apparatus. A voracious reader, he worked his way into science and mathematics, developing his own “mechanical contrivances” of various kinds. He also began to attend meetings of scientists and inventors, though which he’d meet many of the brightest minds of his age.
Historians note how Paine’s self-directed learning patterns immersed him in the ideas and issues of his age without his intelligence being filtered or routed by the rigors of a “classical education.” He could think outside the box.
Paine was intrigued by the philosophes, the French social thinkers and encyclopedae publishers who favored scientific reasoning over irrational religious dogma. They asserted that the human mind is great, capable of knowing anything through diligent research. They saw the cosmos as the creation of one rational God who set the universe in motion with natural laws, like winding up a precision clockwork, who then turned humanity loose to govern their human free will with moral self rule.
The Enlightenment, as historians named it, swept through 18th century intellectual culture much like the peace movement swept through the youth culture in the 1960s, much like global thinking is sweeping though society today.
Many of these spiritual but non-religious freethinkers called themselves “deists.” A deist is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “One who believes in the existence of a God or supreme being but who denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason.”
Desists in England and the Americas ofter were freemasons or members of other pro-democracy secret societies. Some deists in the American colonies actively participated in the “committees of correspondences” and anti-monarchial resistance groups, such as the Sons of Liberty.
Deism in England was not widely welcomed by the church or the state, but the ideas appealed to Thomas Paine, who was in tune with the spirit of his times.
High ideas do not feed, clothe or house the body, Paine soon realized. From 1757 to 1774, Paine successively worked in various towns as an excise tax assessor, school teacher, and again as an excise man, with side ventures as a tobacconist and grocer.
Paine’s career as a tax assessor is noteworthy. He initially lost his excise job after admittedly stamping goods as examined that he’d not inspected. After a stint at teaching, he apologized, suffered chastisement and gained re-admission as an excise officer. However, Paine subsequently was dismissed for returning late from a leave of absence.
Was Paine’s dismissal based on trumped up charges? Perhaps. Paine was seen as a troublemaker after lobbying Parliament to increase the wages for all excise men. His 1772 brief, The Case of the Officers of Excise, exhibited early the logic and clear writing that would appear in his later works.
As for his personal life, Paine married twice, both of his marriages childless.
On 27 September 1759 in Sandwich, he married Mary Lambert, who died. On 26 March 1771, while stationed as an excise man at Lewes, he married Elizabeth Ollive. After he was fired, the couple legally separated in 1774, citing temperamental differences. His separation without a divorce later would be used by his political foes to discredit him.
Cut off from income, sinking deeper in debt, Paine declared bankruptcy. Surviving letters indicate he keenly felt a wide gap between his bright abilities and his dark circumstances. Loneliness surely plagued him, but life without a mate give Paine the liberty to pursue his destiny.
Nothing now bound Thomas Paine to England.
Out of work and out of love, Paine looked westward to America.
To succeed in the new world, he needed a sponsor. Paine had met Benjamin Franklin in London while lobbying for the excise men, says one account, or perhaps they met at scientific society meetings. However they met, Franklin was impressed enough to write a reserved letter of introduction to his friends in Philadelphia, asking them to help this “ingenious, worthy young man.”
In October 1774, at age 37, Paine sailed from England and landed in Philadelphia on November 30. Franklin’s letters led to work in journalism as an editor and contributor to Robert Aitken’s Pennsylvania Magazine, a relationship that endured for years until they parted angrily over a pay dispute.
For Pennsylvania, Paine specialized in the latest inventions and new technologies, yet he covered diverse subjects. Social issues interested him the most. Paine first called for the humane treatment of animals then he urged equal civil rights for women (but not yet suffrage). In an article published on March 8, 1775, he advocated the abolition of slavery. On April 14, 1775, he helped found one of the first abolitionist societies in America.
Encouraged by Ben Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush to voice the emerging sentiments about the rebellion against the king that had begun on April 19, 1775, before at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Heeding their call, in late 1775 Paine began writing Common Sense.
Published anonymously in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, Common Sense was divided into four sections. Part I examined the nature of civil government to exposed absurdities and perils in English democracy. Part II refuted the divine rights of kings and hereditary succession. Part III argued against colonists reconciling with the English king, saying a distant island should not rule a continent. Part IV offered rational hope and a viable plan for the Americans to win their revolutionary war of independence.
Paine’s called for an immediate declaration of independence from the British crown as a timely, practical measure that would unite the colonies, secure French and Spanish military and economic aid, and fulfill America’s moral duty as a nation of free people. Once the war was won, he laid out a plan for wring a constitution for the new country, creating a government without any king in charge.
Paine convincingly argued that if the colonies would liberate themselves from the crown and declare a free republic under natural law, reflecting nature’s God, America’s shining example would enlighten the world.
Historians note that the “founding fathers” closely followed Paine’s blueprint. Independence was declared by the Continental Congress less than seven months later on July 4, 1776. Help from Spain and especially France was crucial for the final victory in 1781, after which a constitution for the new republic was drafted by 1787 with the new democratically elected government seated in 1789.
Back in 1776, however, Paine likely discussed the ideas in Common Sense with others, but the writing was his own, published at his own risk through the good graces of printer R. Bell on Third Street. After word spread that Thomas Paine had authored Common Sense, the second edition published on February 14 bore his byline. Aitken also published an edition of the pamphlet, which is why many thousands of copies were printed quickly and distributed widely.
Priced at two shillings ($10 today), the 47-page pamphlet sold 125,000 copies in three months, reaching almost 500,000 lifetime sales. The 13 colonies then held about 2.5 million people, so the essay’s “market penetration” is impressive. It was a case of the right book at the right time. Paine donated most of his proceeds to the rebel army.
Not everyone fell in love with Paine’s ideas, though. Attacked by monarchy loyalists like William Smith, Paine anonymously defended himself and his essay under the name of “Forester” in Pennsylvania Magazine. The collected “Forester Letters” offer a rare look into Paine’s reasoning and zeal.
PAs war heated up, Paine enlisted in the American army before its retreat across New Jersey, serving as an aide to a general under George Washington. As the war dragged on, public support faded while the dwindling rebel troops froze in Valley Forge. The Revolution might not last through the winter.
Visiting Valley Forge, Paine sat alone in the cold, leaning over a drumhead (according to the legend), writing the first in a series of essays called, The American Crisis. He began with the immortal words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” First published on December 18, 1776, in the Pennsylvania Magazine, the essay was republished four days later as a pamphlet.
Paine’s second pamphlet was read aloud before every army campfire and beside the hearth in many homes. The pamphlet again galvanized public support for the Revolution. A series of eleven more Crisis papers (plus four special editions) were published during the war. Topics ranged from stopping the Tories helping the British to the need for federal and state taxes to fund the war effort.
Paine was rewarded for his literary efforts. In April 1777, Congress appointed him as secretary of its foreign affairs committee, which included Indian Affairs. Some have criticized his role in the western frontier policy toward Native Americans, which largely sided with the English in trade for promises of territorial security.
In the Beaumarchais war supplies scandal, Paine sabotaged his secure government job by publishing confidential documents that apparently proved France had supplied American rebels despite its accord with England. Historians have since contended these documents were misleading, that Paine was hoping to induce the French into helping the American war effort by making it appear like they already were helping.
Regardless of his motives, Paine was forced to resign his post by political pressure. Some assert Paine was next hired by the French at £1000 per year to write anonymous articles favoring France in American newspapers. The evidence for this is sketchy, but if true, the job did not last long.
In November 1779. Pennsylvania appointed Paine as clerk of the state assembly. He contributed $500 of his $1700 annual salary to a fund for relieving Washington’s weary army. In 1780, to oppose Virginia’s claims on western lands, he wrote and published the pamphlet, Public Good, expanding on the themes in Common Sense.
Paine gave up the clerk’s job in 1781 to join John Laurens on a trip to France to raise more military support funds, returning with much-needed army stores. Paine was not paid for foreign service, but his expenses for travel were covered.
When independence and peace was won in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Thomas Paine again was a poor man. Compensating a hero of the Revolution, the Continental Congress voted to give Paine £3000 as thanks, Pennsylvania gave him £500. New York gave him a confiscated Tory farm in New Rochelle.
Yet Paine was not a farmer. Once again he was looking for his place in the world.
Paine returned to England in 1887 to seek investors for constructing a prototype iron bridge, his own invention. His bridge eventually did get built, but the entrepreneur lost money in the process.
Common Sense standing up (and his bridge not falling down) helped Paine enter “polite society.” His proximity to Washington lent him caché, and Paine soon was caught up in European intrigues.
Paine was in Yorkshire, speaking about recent advances in modern technology, when French masses stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He visited Paris in late 1789 to see the new regime for himself, returning to London with a buoyant feeling of hope for French democracy. The next three years was a tale of travel between the two cities of London and Paris.
Paine viewed himself as an agent for world revolution. He spoke and debated in parlors and in print with opinion leaders like Burke, Fox, or Condorcet. They argued over the virtues and the vices of the French and American revolutions. They argued over monarchies. They asked if humanity is capable of self rule. Did such exalted sociality seem heady for a pauper’s son?
In response to Burke condemning the French Revolution, Paine wrote and published his first full-length book, The Rights of Man. (He simultaneously republished the pamphlet Common Sense). Part I of The Rights of Man appeared in 1791 with Part II in 1792.
Guided by ideals more than by facts on the ground (such as Madame Guillotine and “The Terror” under Robespierre), Paine declared in his book that governments exist to guard the natural rights of people unable to ensure their rights without that government’s help. The four inalienable rights he named are Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance to Oppression.
In Part I of The Rights of Man, Paine argued for the ideal of a republic governed under a constitution with a bill of rights, elected leaders serving limited terms, and a judiciary accountable to the general public. He urged equal suffrage for all men, but not yet for all women. (Paine did support women’s equality in other respects.)
In Part II, Paine called for the end of social divisions by virtue of birth, rank, economics or religion. He suggested specific social legislation for removing class inequities.
Paine wanted The Rights of Man to inspire in England the same revolutionary thirst for independence from the monarchy as Common Sense had inspired in America. Despite 200,000 copies sold by 1793, later passing 500,000 (making The Rights of Man the single most successful “bestseller” of the 18th century), Paine’s treatise did not have the desired effect. The British monarchy persists.
The Rights of Man was suppressed in England by the Tory government of William Pitt, who wanted to get his hands on the author, still a British citizen. Fortunately, Paine had been safe in France since August 1792. Pitt nevertheless had Paine tried in absentia before loyalists, who convicted him of treason. England outlawed its native son in December 1792, a curse never since removed, not even today.
In revolutionary France, Thomas Paine earlier had joined with Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and select other Americans being declared as French citizens by the Assembly. In September 1792, four French departments elected “Citizen Paine” to the Convention, where he sat for the Pas de Calais district.
Paine soon allied with the dominant Girondist party of educated, prosperous, moderate republicans who spoke English. Paine did not speak French, so his speeches were read by translators lacking his flair for words.
Rendered ineffective in the Assembly, Paine’s temperament strained his relations. Among his close friends stood the Marquis de Condorcet along with Nicolas de Bonneville, a freemason joining Paine in the Craft. Paine wrote about freemasonry favoring democracy while separating church and state.
Draconian Jacobite radicals under Robespierre had seized power early in the French revolution. Moderate Girondists split off and asserted restraint. Girondists fell from power by trying to avoid the beheading of King Louis XVI.
At the climactic trial, Paine recommended imprisoning the king until war with England was over, then banishing him for life. Paine was forgiven as a humanitarian Quaker who, of course, was opposed to the death penalty.
After Louis’ head fell into a basket, a mob under Jean Paul Marat on June 2, 1793, circled the French National Convention, demanding swift surrender of 29 Girondists. When Charlette Corday murdered Marat, more waves of executions followed. Outside Paris, Girondists joined the royalists in a revolt that was brutally crushed by the Jacobites.
Paine ceased attending the Assembly when the Girondists party fell. Retreating with friends to rural Faubourg St. Denis, he dwelt there in peace. But then the Assembly stripped away his French citizenship, which deprived him of membership in the Convention, which erased his legal immunity.
A French law allowed citizens of nations at war with France to be arrested. Since France was at war with England, outlawed Englishman Thomas Paine was arrested in December 1793 by the Jacobins behind the Reign of Terror. The man who inspired the American revolution that had inspired the France Revolution was imprisoned without trial in France for the crime of being British.
Scheduled for execution, Paine was saved by a fluke of fate (or divine intervention).
Paine fell ill in Luxembourg prison, according to apocryphal reports, and a doctor was visiting him in his cell when guards passed to mark with chalk the doors of those slated to die the next day on the busy guillotine. Since Paine’s cell door was open, the harried guard placed the chalk mark on the inside panel of the door. With the door closed after the doctor’s left, the execution mark was hidden from sight.
The next morning, other guards bypassed his cell when collecting that day’s harvest of death, so Paine survived. Somehow, the mistake was overlooked (theories abound about how or why), and Paine’s accuser, Robespierre, seemed content with letting Paine endure the pain of imprisonment.
Paine suspected he was denounced at the secret behest of the American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, a Tory who’d voiced personal offense at Paine’s “bohemian” ways. What’s documented is that Paine applied for legal protection as an American citizen. The French foreign minister received a letter from Morris denying any and all responsibility for Paine since he had became a French citizen.
Morris wrote to Jefferson, then U.S. Secretary of State, that even if America acknowledged Paine as a citizen, he still was liable under French law for acts done in France. Paine was safer sitting quietly in jail, Morris argued, rather than risking the guillotine in a boisterous public trial.
Many enemies of the Revolution never went to trial, Paine among them. Locked in Luxembourg prison, he eventually persuaded his jailers to provide pen, ink and paper. He wrote there a portion of The Age of Reason. One can imagine that his mood was bitter as a “prisoner of conscience,” and this feelings likely affected the tone of his writing.
The final downfall of Robespierre in November 1794 saved the Girondists from annihilation. Washington’s recently appointed minister to France, James Monroe, at long last could claim Paine as an American citizen, demanding his freedom.
After nearly a year in a cold and infested prison, Paine at age 57 emerged weak from illness. He again was penniless. Monroe sheltered Paine while his health returned, but he would never recover his full vigor.
French citizenship was restored to Paine along with a seat in the Convention in July 1995. He rose in the French Assembly to declare his enduring faith in the Rights of Man.
Living thereafter in or near Paris with moderate republican friends, Paine dedicated his free energy to organizing a society he called the “Theophilanthropists,” devoted to supplanting Christian faith with an orderly deist sense of the universe.
Writing remained Paine’s primary source of livelihood. He published Dissertation on First Principles of Government in 1795, then Agrarian Justice in 1797. Between these two, he published his Letter to George Washington, blaming Morris for plotting his imprisonment. The harsh claim of conspiracy severely damaged Paine’s public reputation in America.
Meanwhile, Paine completed and published his critique of religion, The Age of Reason, with part I in 1794 and part II in 1796. “I believe in one God, and no more,” he begins, “and I hope for happiness beyond this life.”
Please recognize that Paine was a deist, never an atheist, as many modern skeptics and freethinkers mistakenly claim.
The Age of Reason plainly offers Paine’s metaphysical spiritual beliefs. God is the First Cause and Designer of the universe. God is knowable through the sciences and through mathematics, through human reason and natural intelligence.
Knowing God directly through the heart and transcendent spirit also interested Paine, but as a man of the mind, any certainty about God had to came through his use of reason.
Christians do not attempt to know God in a reasonable way, Paine wrote. The Bible is rife with glaring inconsistencies, subject to many differing interpretations, and therefore fallible. He compared the mythology of the Trinity with the paternity of Zeus, still a provocative analogy.
Having dispensed with Christianity, Paine spoke again about his deist God as the power and the wisdom anyone can witness directly in nature. He wrote that God is evident “in the immensity of the creation, …in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible is governed.”
The Age of Reason was welcomed in Europe as an intriguing philosophical treatise, but i the book’s reception in American was far less friendly, much to Paine’s sorrow and regret.
The first copy of The Age of Reason to arrive in America for U.S. publication was lent to Thomas Jefferson for a first reading. In returning the book to the printer, Jefferson scribbled a genial personal note to offset the tome’s “dryness,” he later said.
In his note, he remarked that the essay was useful as an antidote for “political heresies” of the time. The quip by deist Republican Jefferson of Virginia was a slam aimed at his chief political rival, the Unitarian Federalist John Adams of Massachusetts.
Without the consent of either Paine or Jefferson, the printer published the note as a preface. The unsanctioned action was costly, and it inadvertently changed the remainder of Paine’s life, perhaps the course of history.
Federalists vented their outrage at Jefferson’s preface in Paine’s new book. John Quincy Adams, writing as “Publicola” within the Columbian Sentinel, condemned Paine for his religious principles, then blasted rival Jefferson for his indiscretion in the “preface.”
Embolded by the public fervor against Jefferson and related issues, real or exagerated, John Adams was elected the second U.S. President in 1796. He signed the four Alien and Sedition acts in 1798 (eerily akin to the Patriot Acts today), which allowed the Adams administration to censor the press and jail anyone who criticized the Adams government.
Adams and the Federalists aimed to repress the Republican party of Jefferson, and Paine came under their fire, too. Some historians contend Adams had long harbored a deep resentment against Paine for his success with Common Sense. Adams apparently resented the fact that an uneducated (self-educated) “commoner” could dramatically shift public opinion in 1776 while Harvard-educated Adams had never gained any popularity from his own writings about “independency.”
Despite the political repression, Jefferson narrowly won the caustic 1800 election to become the third U.S. President. President Jefferson then offered Thomas Paine free passage home on a navy ship. Paine declined, but the offer roused his interest. Returning on a private ship, the Maryland, he landed a second time in America in October 1801. He’d later rue his return.
A Federalist mob met Paine at the docks, cursing his name.
Never an easy personality to love, now Paine faced real hatred. Paine’s Letter to Washington and the firestorm over the unauthorized preface for The Age of Reason converged to alienate most of his prior allies and patrons in the young nation.
Now a reviled figure, Paine was taunted in the streets, pelted with rocks by children. He was rejected from debates between Federalists and Republicans over centralized versus. decentralized national government. Henry Adams wrote that Paine now was “regarded by respectable society, both Federalist and Republican, as a person to be avoided, a person to be feared.”
At age 64, the dejected political outcast retired alone to New Rochelle, where poor health and scant finances kept him homebound. He later lived on a modest property he’d bought in nearby Bordentown.
Paine wrote very little. For company, he associated with such New York radicals as Elihu Palmer and the “Columbian Illuminati.”
Relief did not come until Madame Marguerite de Bonneville and her three children were stranded in America because Napoleon refused to let her husband, Nicolas de Bonneville, leave France. Paine supported them from the little he had, as if glad to show another the kindness not shown to him.
Hints of any romance between Paine and Madame de Bonneville are unsubstantiated, and a tryst is doubtful, given Paine’s age, poor health and loyalty to his friend. Nevertheless, bonds of real sympathetic friendship are documented.
Stories of Paine eventually turning into a tavern drunk are best left to the time travel investigators. There are accounts of a rum bottle at his elbow in greeting his few visitors at home, but letters from these visitors report that Paine always argued the issues of the day with mental vigor.
According to a biographer at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, the assertions of drunkenness by Paine’s detractors were distortions of his modest social drinking of alcohol in an age when water often was foul or poisonous. The accusation is the old ad hominem fallacy, attacking the messenger to avoid hearing his message.
What matters is that Paine was vilified, and his final years were the worst of the hard times that tried his soul.
An American Death
After his return to America in 1801, Paine spent his waning few years in bleakness and declining health. One biographer thought Paine had arteriosclerosis of the brain, but we have no reliable way of knowing.
After a particularly bad spell in 1806, Paine wrote to friend Andrew Dean, “I have passed through an experiment of dying, and I find death has no terrors for me. …As I am now well enough to sit up some hours in the day, though not well enough to get up without help, I employ myself as I have always done, in endeavoring to bring man to the right use of the reason that God has given him, and to direct his mind immediately to his Creator, and not to fanciful secondary beings called mediators.”
Paine tried to earn an income by preparing to publish his collected works, hoping for a revival of his fortunes as he’d enjoyed in 1791. Lacking the vigor or stamina for the venture, however, he had to let the effort lapse.
In the summer of 1808, Paine moved from 309 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village (still a village then) into a first-floor room in the home of a Mr. Ryder on Herring Street, between Columbia and Reason streets (now at 59 Grove Street in Manhattan).
Paine’s rent was covered by a friend, Walter Morton, who also paid for house calls by Dr. James Manley, a Christian physician who kept his beliefs to himself, mostly.
For a pittance of support, Paine applied to Congress for some reimbursement as a government representative on the mission to Europe with Laurens, who’d died during the war.
The Committee of Claims responded on February 1, 1809. They rejected the claim because Paine’s connection had been with Laurens only, and so his presence was unofficial. The decision to deny Paine was purely political, blocked by congressional Federalists.
Matthew Lyon (convicted under the Alien and Sedition laws) denounced the decision, calling Paine, “the one to whom this nation is indebted for its independence more than to any living being.” Such public support came too little and too late. The rejection was devastating, causing apoplexy in old Tom Paine.
Sensing his death approaching, before his lucidity fled, Paine had written his last will in January 1809, requesting burial in the Quaker cemetery, noting that if he was refused, he’d ask no other churches. Even before the event of his death, the Society of Friends declined his request.
Paine’s best alternative was a corner of the New Rochelle farm. Mrs. de Bonneville was given executrix instructions for his gravestone to state only, “Author of Common Sense.” That headstone later would be broken by vandals and the pieces stolen by souvenir hunters. That’s not all that would be taken.
Per his will, a brick wall twelve-feet square was to be erected around the grave site with four trees planted on each corner, two cypresses, two willows.
Paine’s last will further ordered the New Rochelle farm to be sold, with half the money going to a friend in London and the other half going to Nicolas and Marguerite de Bonneville “to be held in trust for their children, their education and maintenance.” Paine had a premonition that with the farm owned by strangers, his enemies would not let his remains rest in peace.
Paine’s health failed rapidly after Congress denied his claim. The rejection apparently deflated his will to live. Madame de Bonneville (working in New York as a French tutor) visited twice weekly. A gentle Quaker watchmaker, Willet Hicks, visited almost daily.
As news spread about Paine’s impending death, Christians came to plead with him to repent and save his eternal soul from damnation. In one case, Paine threatened to rise from his sickbed and throw his tormentors out the door.
Friends Albert Gallatin and wife reported Paine confiding to them that he regretted ever returning to America
In his final months, Paine grew bellicose if left alone for too long. The nurse hired by Mrs. de Bonneville, Mrs. Heddon, sat beside his bed near the end. Sometimes she read aloud from a Bible as he dozed off or stared silently into open air. Some days he did not speak at all.
Thomas Paine died in the Ryder home at age 72 on the morning of 8 June 1809. Stories of a deathbed repentance likely are Christian propaganda. Mrs. de Bonneville and a few friends (with two “negro” servants) placed the body in a horse cart and drove the 22 miles north to the Paine farm in New Rochelle.
She conducted there a short funeral, according to her papers. “Contemplating who it was, what man it was, that we were committing to an obscure grave on an open and disregarded bit of land, I could not help feeling most acutely. Before the earth was thrown down upon the coffin, I, placing myself at the east end of the grave, said to my son Benjamin, ‘stand you there, at the other end, as a witness for grateful America.’ Looking about me, and beholding the small group of spectators, I exclaimed, as the earth was tumbled onto the grave, ‘Oh! Mr. Paine! My son stands here in testimony of the gratitude of America, and I, for France!'” (Our tears are never too late.)
A decade later in 1819, one of Paine’s harshest critics from earlier years apparently felt moved to atone for his attacks. William Cobbett had Paine’s bones dug up from the New Rochelle farm and transported to England for reburial under a grand patriotic monument that Cobbett intended to construct there.
But the British government refused to grant permission for the structure. Paine was still an outlaw. Cobbett died in 1835 with the memorial never erected. A British probate court finally assigned the bones to a receiver. Apart from a jawbone, the fate of Thomas Paine’s mortal remains still remains a mystery to this day.
Yet more of Paine’s legacy has been lost than his bones. According to biographer Craig Nelson, as part of the scant inheritance Paine left to the de Bonnevilles, all of Paine’s surviving manuscripts and letters went to Benjamin de Bonneville. He stored these papers in a St. Louis barn that later was destroyed in a fire. Paine’s papers perished in the blaze.
All that survived was Paine’s published works plus those surviving letters and journals kept by others. From these elements historians have pieced together the story of his life.
More celebrated and widely read today than during his own lifetime, Thomas Paine demonstrated the power of words to change the world.
Shall we learn from his example?