by William H. Benson
July 3, 2003
Thomas Paine has never received a place equal among the other Revolutionary leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, even though Paine’s assistance may have made the difference in the War for Independence.
But Paine had some serious detractions. He was filthy. He bathed infrequently and as a result smelled badly. Most days food stains covered his shirts. His clothes were cheap-looking and out of style. He drank heavily all of his adult life.
Besides being physically repulsive, he was usually penniless and often failed to pay his bills. He refused to accept any royalties for his written works, such as Common Sense and The American Crisis, but then after the war he begged Congress for a house and land, which Congress grudgingly gave him. But all of his adult life he moved from one room to another, dependent upon the generosity of others, who ended up often evicting him, causing a big fight. Visitors found his room always dirty.
He married twice when still a young man in England. He buried his first wife just months after their wedding, and his second wife he abandoned when he came to America. He never pursued a divorce from her and never remarried, preferring young French harlots.
The British despised him during the Revolutionary War, and then later convicted him of treason when he tried to foment a Revolution against the King in Britain. He encouraged the French Revolution which threw out their King, but then the Reign of Terror swept him up and tossed him into prison, where he narrowly missed facing the guillotine.
Once released from prison he finished his The Age of Reason, a diatribe against Christian beliefs, pointed and blunt. Whatever fame he had enjoyed as a writer during the war he lost due to this work which detailed his deistic beliefs. A hundred years later Theodore Roosevelt referred to Thomas Paine as “that dirty little atheist,” which he was not, but is still misunderstood today.
Still in France Paine wrote a vicious letter to President George Washington, accusing him of trying to become a King in America as well as deliberately keeping Paine locked in a French prison, both untrue accusations. Paine went so far as to have the letter printed in a Philadelphia newspaper. Washington wisely shrunk back in a reserved and dignified silence, preferring not to get into a public fight with a former friend.
In casual conversations, usually at a tavern, he came across as a know-it-all, who would not listen to others opinions. People soon learned to steer around Thomas Paine.
On a more positive note, Thomas believed in revolution, because as he saw it, the status quo was always wrong. As for government, he believed that people should rule themselves because the idea of a monarchy was an injustice. Also, he hated the slave trade in the colonies, and pushed a law through Pennsylvania’s Assembly outlawing it there. He favored a social welfare system with care for the poor and the elderly, but above all he believed in independence for the thirteen colonies. “There is something absurd,” Paine wrote, “in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”
Paine’s personal habits, his behavior, his attitude, and his bearing all combined to prevent him from ever achieving anything more than that of a controversial and indeed influential writer who stirred up his readers with novel ideas. One reads his biographies and is struck less by the genius of his thoughts and words than by the missed opportunities. He could have remained in America after the war and helped with the new government, serving as President, or Vice-President, or as a Secretary in the Cabinet. Instead he chose to live fifteen years in France where he did not ever learn to speak French.
Is Thomas Paine a Founding Father? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. One could say that in 1776 it took all kinds of characters to stand up to the British. It took the likes of an oddball like Thomas Paine who wrote, “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.”