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How Thomas Paine Kept His Head

Thomas Paine was once called “Missionary of revolution,” and that he was.  Paine was an author, pamphleteer, radical, inventor, intellectual, revolutionary, and one of the Founding Fathers.  In 1776 he published a pamphlet titled “Common Sense,” which stimulated colonial America’s independence from Great Britain. This writing is credited for driving “The American Revolution.”  It is amazing what a pen and some passion can do.

In 1789 he moved to France, and as fate had it, France was in the early stages of its own revolution.  Paine got seriously involved in this fight. In 1791 he wrote, “The Rights of Man,” where he supported the French Revolution and condemned its critics, specifically a British statesman, Edmund Burke who supported the American Revolution, but did not support the French Revolution. The pamphlet stepped on many toes, but did well when it was published in England despite that.  But the British government was out to get Paine. They chased him out of England and charged him with sedition and libel. In 1792 he answered to those charges as follows:

“If, to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy … to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libelous … let the name of libeler be engraved on my tomb”

Thomas Paine

Because he was a staunch supporter of The French Revolution, he was granted honorary French citizenship, and was elected to the French National Convention, this despite he didn’t speak French. The Girondists, a political faction, embraced Paine, and considered him an ally, whereas the Montagnards, another political faction saw him as the enemy.  Although he supported Frances’ fight for freedom, he was in a quandary so to speak.  We must remember that France aided the American Revolution, and now its people wanted their king dead. Death by guillotine! Paine was also very much against capital punishment.  He asked they not execute their king, but instead he should be exiled to America. By this time, it was the Montagards faction who was in power, and their dislike of Paine was stronger than ever, more so because of his stance on the King. They had Paine arrested and imprisoned in 1793. He tried hard to be released by demanding freedom because he was an American citizen. Much to Paine’s disappointment the American ambassador to France, Gouverneur Morris did not back up his claim. Paine felt abandoned by America, and especially by George Washington who also did not come to his rescue. He held a grudge against Washington for the rest of his life. I believe it was Paine’s writing of “The Age of Reason,” in which he criticized institutionalized religion, questioned the legitimacy of the Bible and called for “free rational inquiry” into all subjects, especially religion, may have had something to do with Paine being ostracized by America.

Paine was set to be executed, but escaped it by some freaky chance. “While in prison, Paine narrowly escaped execution. A guard walked through the prison placing a chalk mark on the doors of the prisoners who were due to be sent to the guillotine the next day. He placed a 4 on the door of Paine’s cell, but Paine’s door had been left open to let a breeze in, because Paine was seriously ill at the time. That night, his other three cell mates closed the door, thus hiding the mark inside the cell. The next day their cell was overlooked. “The Angel of Death” had passed over Paine. He kept his head and survived the few vital days needed to be spared by the fall of Robespierre (July 27, 1794)” ~Wikipedia  Paine was eventually released after the American minister, James Monroe, put pressure on the French government. Paine may not have believed in God, but I consider this divine intervention.

Paine returned to America unable to return to England, however, he lost his popularity among the masses. Paine died in 1809, and only 6 people attended his funeral, two of which were black. His obituary read: “He had lived long, did some good and much harm.”

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9 Comments to “How Thomas Paine Kept His Head”

  1. This isn’t really a comment,
    but did Thomas Paine fight in the Rev. War?


  2. Good question and one that I must research before I answer. I’ve always heard he spearheaded the Revolutionary War with his writing of “Common Sense.” I never heard that he actually fought in it

  3. Awoi according to an article in “American History,” Magazine June 2011 issue by William Hogeland, it states that in fact Thomas Paine signed on as an aide to General Nathanael Greene in the war. In November 1776, he, Greene, & George Washington watched from Ft. Lee New Jersey the British take over Fort Washington in Manhattan. They all thought it was the end. Paine was among the 5000 cold, and hungry soldiers who retreated to the Delaware. After that, Washington thought that Paine was better at the pen, than fighting. Hope this helps.


  5. Must do a little research on that one.

  6. Did the King George the Third hate Thomas Paine

  7. Don’t know this for sure, will have to research and get with you.

  8. He believed in God. He was a deist. Age of reason was so carefully refuted by Rev Richard Watson (in 10 fantastic letters) that he was shamed.

  9. Thomas Paine did fight some and seemingly never cowered from danger. While traveling by ship during the Revolution, Paine was involved in a battle where he had a sword fight with the captain of the other ship and obviously survived. So, apparently he was an able enough fighter. He probably learned some fighting skills as a young man during his short but successful career as a privateer.

    He was also far from being unfamiliar with suffering and death. He could see the gallows from his boyhood home and one of his childhood friends was hung. He personally knew about poverty, homelessness, hunger and sickness. He had seen with his own eyes the dregs of London, the bloody terror of the guillotine, and the fighting of the American Revolution.

    He was a man of both word and deed. His geatest talent may have been with a pen and the pen may be mightier than the sword, but when needed he also knew how to use a sword. It is hard to imagine many of the other founding fathers ever being in a sword fight and endlessly facing danger after danger, sometimes refusing to escape even when faced with likely death.

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