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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Thomas Paine
(Jan. 27, 1737–June 8, 1809)

(6 June 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 39, 6 June 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Only six people followed Tom Paine to his grave. For years he had been living the life of a social outcast, shunned by all respectable people, feeding on bread and rum.

The Revolution of 1776 was, you see, long past. The set, comfortable merchants, who had earned dollars as well as freedom as a result of the Revolution, no longer had any use for the fiery propagandist of rebellion, the revolutionary journalist whose writings fell like a whip lash across the body of English tyranny. If the truth be known, some had indeed never quite approved of the man.

Speaks a Rebel’s Cry

Tom Paine hadn’t come to the American colonies until 1774, a man of thirty-seven years. The son of a small English farmer and corset maker, he hadn’t had much schooling. What learning he had, and it was enough to make him one of the most enlightened men of his day, he had picked up by reading in the hours after work – as corset maker, tax collector, teacher. He came here with an introduction from Benjamin Franklin, himself by no means, a “respectable” man, who had been impressed by the vigor and merit of Paine’s views.

A showdown was fast approaching between English rule and the American need to expand industrially and commercially independent of artificial restraints. The spirit of rebellion was in the air. Paine took hold of that spirit and fanned it into a burning flame, above all in a simple pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January 1776.

“A King is a political superfluity,” he wrote.

Men must be loyal only to a society of their own creation, and not a government forced on them. The colonists must rise. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Within three months 120,000 copies of this pamphlet were sold, an extraordinary publishing feat for those days.

Paine wasn’t content to be only an agitator. Continuing his role as propagandist of the Revolution, he joined the army and plunged into the fighting. His tracts were required reading in all troop barracks. And in the barracks, the day’s fighting done, he put his pen to the service of the Revolution. “These are times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”

The revolution ended victoriously. In 1787 Paine sailed for England, partly to market a bridge he had invented, more to spread his revolutionary labors. There he hurled a defense of the French Revolution, The Rights of Man, at the smug heads of British conservatism. The British censors howled in bitter agony. They sued him for libel. They threatened him with jail. Chased out of the country, he went to France where the revolutionists greeted him with welcome arms, elected him to the National Convention.

Here however Paine failed to perceive the full depth and needs of the revolution. Friendly with the moderate elements, he found himself at loggerheads with the left, which was pushing the revolution ahead relentlessly, uncompromisingly. For protesting the execution of the King, Paine was for a time kept in prison. Released, he lived several years in France, at odds with the growing reaction.

Unmasked Hypocrisy of Religion

Finally, in 1802, and much to the disgust of the American conservatives, Paine returned to America. He had meanwhile written his denunciation and expose of organized religion. Paine’s Age of Reason ripped the hypocrisy and falsehood off the church, and its instrument, “the bible of a thousand and one contradictions.” The hypocrites and conservatives, satisfied with the freedom they (not the masses) had won, bellowed furiously, asked for his hide, spread the vilest slanders against him.

Denied even the privilege of voting in the nation he had helped create by the fire of his arguments, Paine lived a retired and hounded life in New Rochelle and New York City. He who had turned the proceeds of his writings over to the Revolution, was denied a small pittance by the product of the Revolution and condemned to poverty.

Though limited by the understanding and knowledge of his time, Paine had struck a rebel’s blow at social despotism. Not even his adoption, by the Communist Party along with the other and less revolutionary heroes of American history, can dim the glory of this social rebel.

Paine was buried in a corner of his New Rochelle farm – consecrated cemetery ground being denied. Twenty years after, William Cobbett dug up the remains and carried them to England to give them impressive burial. Something happened to the scheme. His bones disappeared. Paine had no nation; he was buried in none.

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Last updated: 17 January 2016