Read an Excerpt
From Joyce Appleby’s Introduction to Common Sense and Other Writings
Thomas Paine, one of America’s most illustrious immigrants, arrived in Philadelphia at the end of 1774 with high hopes, no money, and a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Like many who had already decamped from Great Britain to the colonies, Paine left behind him a record of failure with frequent job switches, multiple bankruptcies, and two marriages ending in death and separation. At age thirty-seven, he was an obscure figure, no different in his outward aspect from the hundreds of men and women who sailed into Philadelphia every year. But Paine brought with him powerful talents and a forceful personality. Quickly he secured a writing job and gained access to the liveliest political circles in the colonies’ preeminent city. The publication of Common Sense (1776) fourteen months later turned him into a celebrity. During the next two decades, Paine inspired his admirers and vexed his critics with the publication of Rights of Man (1791–1792), The Age of Reason (1794), and Agrarian Justice (1797).
The port city where Paine disembarked had far fewer people than London, but it radiated prosperity. Within the previous two decades a building boom had doubled the number of houses. It abounded with petty enterprises, wide open to all comers with a dynamism not to be found in all of Great Britain. The presence of enslaved men and women shocked Paine, but the numerous servants, day laborers, and apprentices signaled to him the success of this busy hub in Britain’s far-flung commerce. The English Quaker leader and founder of the Pennsylvania colony William Penn had laid out his green country town in a grid pattern situated between the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers. A century of sustained development had filled in the space with wharves, warehouses, and workshops where artisans, their family members, and servants crowded into the upper floors. New town houses attested to the wealth of some merchants and crown officials who distinguished themselves from others with their elegant dress, handsome carriages, and liveried servants. Yet political participation had broadened widely in the 1750s and ’60s. And if Benjamin Franklin’s career can serve as a gauge, ambition had few checks when mixed with determination, talent, and the capacity for hard work.
The self-made man who moved smartly from apprentice to journeyman to master and possibly beyond to become an entrepreneur, like Franklin, held up a model for Paine. The animation and intelligence he exuded undoubtedly account for the fact that Franklin, then in England serving as a colonial agent, gave Paine a letter of introduction to his son-in-law, in which he wrote that Paine was “an ingenious worthy young man” suitable for employment as “a clerk or school teacher.”1 Franklin and Paine, both sons of artisans and apprenticed in their early teens, had many things in common: a keen interest in the new science, zeal to work for the betterment of society, and a fine writing style. Yet they differed in one striking characteristic: Franklin strove to fit into the social order, while Paine raged at its injustices. Franklin had arrived in Philadelphia from Boston a generation earlier and had worked tirelessly to find a niche for himself as a printer and shopkeeper. Franklin was an assiduous self-improver who acquired the personal habits that would appeal to others, particularly his social superiors. He too brought letters of introduction that he used to cultivate patrons. His only challenge to the inherited, serried ranks that organized families in the Anglo-American world was to outshine everyone else in knowledge, enterprise, and political connections.
The contrast only became more apparent as time passed. Paine failed in business. He did not establish a family, and he remained indifferent to the refined tastes that conferred respectability. He was as voracious a reader as Franklin, self-taught as well in natural philosophy, mathematics, and mechanics, but the driving spirits of Franklin and Paine pointed them in opposite directions. Paine had none of Franklin’s equanimity. Perhaps there was a time when he would have gladly fit in, but the hardships he encountered as a corsetmaker, seaman, collector of the excise, and sometime tutor predisposed him to rage at the privileges and preferential treatment accorded the great men he saw all around him in England. Paine galvanized his considerable talents to tear down the walls that the upper class had raised against ordinary persons. One might have expected the self-made man of the New World to become the agent for radical change, but it was the outcast from the Old World who saw in his adopted home the chance “to build the world anew.”