The Pink Triangle Trust

Introducing the Humanist Tradition

Leaflet number 4: The Adventures of Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was the most remarkable political writer and radical thinker of the late 18th century; producing a series of influential pamphlets and books advocating political and social change which championed the rights of the common man. He played a prominent part in both the American and French Revolutions, although he was eventually outlawed in Britain, mainly because of his views on religion and the abolition of the monarchy.

He had a great influence on later generations of people in the Humanist tradition, particularly through the two-volume biography of him of 1892 by Moncure Conway, after whom Conway Hall Humanist Centre in London is named.

Thomas Paine coined what is, perhaps, the best short definition of Humanism:

“My country is the world,
my religion is to do good”.

However, in The Age of Reason he says “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life”. He also says, “My own mind is my own church”. He saw god in nature but in no book or other ‘revelation’. He specifically says in The Age of Reason that he disbelieves that the Bible and the Koran are ‘the word of God’. So, Thomas Paine was neither an agnostic, nor an atheist, but a deist. Such a viewpoint essentially says that a god created the universe at the beginning of things and left the great world-machine to work out its own self-evolution according to natural law.

His viewpoint fails to explain how a god can consist of perfect goodness but create an imperfect universe, or why a universe needs a beginning but a god does not. What part of an individual can live after death he leaves vague too.

Followers of Epicurus saw these difficulties three hundred years BCE and provided answers.

An Adventurous Life Begins in Thetford, Norfolk

Thomas Paine’s parents moved to Whitehart Street, Thetford, in 1736 where his father set up as a staymaker (making women’s corsets). It was there on 29th January 1737 that Thomas was born; probably in one of the buildings now incorporated in the Thomas Paine Hotel.

He received an education at the Grammar School until the age of 13. Thetford in those days was a ‘rotten borough’, and the corruption in local politics may have influenced his ideas. On leaving school he was apprenticed in his father’s trade.

At the age of 16 he attempted to run away to sea on a privateer, The Terrible. His father rescued him from the ship whose captain was ominously named Death.

In 1756, when war was declared with France, he signed aboard another privateer, The King of Prussia, but the experience excised the call of the sea from his life.


In 1757 he moved to London, where he attended philosophical lectures, and became acquainted with Dr Bevis, of the Royal Society. Perhaps through Dr Bevis, he first used a telescope and saw, as he describes in The Age of Reason, “those many suns which must surely have attendant planets supporting life”.

Kent and Sussex

Two years later he opened a shop in Sandwich, Kent, and married Mary Lambert, but she died the following year. Her father was an exciseman and he entered the profession, holding several posts before settling in Lewes, Sussex. There he joined the Headstrong Club to discuss politics and philosophy.

His second marriage, in 1771, ended after four years when a separation was agreed. The publication in 1772 of his first pamphlet The Case Of The Officers Of Excise, a plea for better salaries, cost him his job. He had also become a partner with his mother-in-law in a business, but this failed in April 1774, and he was forced to sell his furniture and other possessions.

He again went to London, where the American statesman Benjamin Franklin was at that time. Franklin armed him with a letter of introduction, with which, in September, he set sail for the New World.


This adventure did not start well. On board ship an epidemic broke out and he was ill for six weeks after his arrival.

In 1775 he became editor of a new publication, The Pennsylvania Magazine, contributing articles on new inventions and such topics as the abolition of slavery (the Emancipation Act, 1833 led to the gradual release of all slaves in the British Empire by 1840), women’s rights (British women got equal voting rights in 1928), abolishing cruelty to animals and the evils of duelling – all expressed in the direct language of ordinary people. He also advocated international copyright.

He became convinced of the need for complete American independence from Britain, and set out his ideas in January 1776 in his famous pamphlet Common Sense, published anonymously as ‘Written by an Englishman’. It was the first open call for independence. For six years he kept up rebel morale with leaflets in the American Crisis series, the first of which began with the famous words: “These are the times that try men’s souls”. Later he coined the phrase ‘United States of America’, and many of his ideas were incorporated in the Declaration of Independence. He went to France, returning in 1781 after a hazardous journey, with a large loan to help Washington’s army.

He then turned his attention to his scientific ideas and devised a smokeless candle, and suggested improvements to the new steam-powered boats. His particular interest, however, was bridge design.

England and France

In 1787, he again set sail for Europe – hoping to find markets for his bridge design – but the short stay he planned lasted fifteen years! While in England he published in 1791 the first part of his book Rights of Man. In the preface he stated: “I have seen enough of the miseries of war to wish it might never more have existence in the world, and that some other mode might be found out to settle the differences that should occasionally arise in the neighbourhood of Nations”.

In June 1792, the British government issued a trial summons against him for seditious writings. He attended court, but the trial was postponed until December. He left for France on 12 September. He was tried in his absence, found guilty and outlawed from returning to England.

He had been made an honorary citizen of revolutionary France in August, and on arrival at Calais was given a hero’s welcome.

He made an unsuccessful appeal to save the life of the French king, and said: “My language has always been that of liberty and humanity, and I know that nothing so exalts a nation as the union of these two principles, under all circumstances”. In 1793 he became a victim of ‘The Terror’ himself, and was imprisoned. He only narrowly escaped the guillotine.

He eventually returned to America in 1802 and died there in 1809.

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Created : Sunday, 1998-03-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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