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by William H. Benson

April 12, 2012

     In the spring of 1774, Tom Paine’s life hit a low point. On April 8 his supervisor fired him from his job in Lewes, England as an excise-man, working for the British government collecting customs and excises on imports. When his creditors heard that Tom was suddenly unemployed, they demanded that he pay all that he owed them and do so now. With little choice he liquidated his personal belongings at an auction on April 14, a “public sign of bankruptcy.”

     Then, on June 4, he and his wife Elizabeth agreed to separate, and neither of them would ever explain what had gone awry in their marriage. Tom said, “It is nobody’s business but my own; I had cause for it, but I will name it to no one.” He was thirty-seven, but she was only in her twenties. Never again would they see or speak to each other.

     Divorce was out of the question. The English laws then did not permit speedy divorces, in that it required an Act of Parliament, a virtual impossibility. Without a divorce decree, neither could remarry.

     Historians agree that they were badly mismatched. After three years of marriage, their “mutual illusions were destroyed.” He was finally catching a vision of what he wanted to do with his life—write political pamphlets and social commentaries. Because politics so excited him and the greater world beyond the borders of Lewes beckoned him, “he had little time for domesticity.”   

     Tom and Elizabeth had quarreled for obvious reasons. He was gone to London for months at a time. When he was at home, he devoted his nights to arguing politics with his friends over drinks at the White Hart pub. He barely made enough money to feed and clothe himself with nothing left over for his wife. In marrying Tom, Elizabeth “had expected to gain his strength, status, affection, and earning power,” and he had failed her on all counts, leaving her utterly disappointed.

     A day or two after the separation, Tom fled Lewes, landed in London where he met Benjamin Franklin, who told him he must go to Philadelphia and find his opportunity there. On November 30, a ship sailed into Philadelphia’s port carrying Tom Paine, who arrived penniless, in poor health, without family, friends, or job. No one would expect much of Tom Paine, and in that they were wrong.

     Thirteen months later, on January 10, 1776, Tom published Common Sense, a runaway best-seller in the colonies, and suddenly people on both sides of the Atlantic were asking, “Who is Tom Paine?” In that book he insisted that the thirteen colonies should come together, declare their independence, and forge a new country and a new government, one absent a monarch. A year and a half later, the Continental Congress did exactly as Tom Paine suggested.

     Elizabeth also fled Lewes, mainly out of humiliation, and she found refuge in her brother’s house in a nearby town where she made dresses. Without husband, children, or economic status, she could not have experienced any sense of fulfillment. Life and social customs can be very cruel to those who fail early in life, both then and today, and in losing her husband, she felt society’s worst form of exclusion.

     Much has been written the past few weeks about the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on the night of April 14-15, 1912, about how the ship could not turn itself quickly enough to avoid the ice hidden under the sea’s surface, about how the band members continued playing waltzes until they too went down with the ship, and about how men deferred seats on the lifeboats to the women and children. Passengers were either martyrs or survivors in all of two hours, forty minutes.

     Ships, marriages, businesses, careers—each face icebergs that appear suddenly and unexpectedly, ready to rip and tear holes in our foundations, sinking our best inventions. Whenever a disaster approaches, we have options: we can push others aside to secure a spot for ourselves on a lifeboat, or we can do a noble thing, defer our spot to others, and stay on board until the ship sinks.

     Some will say, “This boat is sinking, and I am out of here!” Other will stick with it. Some will swim to safety and survive such a catastrophe, but many will not. For them it means bankruptcy, foreclosure, a public auction, separation or divorce.

     Maritime custom dictates that on a sinking ship women and children are preserved first, but in a failed marriage, it is often the women and the children who feel most afflicted because their means for providing food and clothing and shelter, their breadwinner, has departed. Life can be hard for the countless Elizabeth Paine’s of the world, for to survive they must struggle alone. Elizabeth never remarried, and neither did Tom.