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The authorities in power in England during Thomas Paine’s lifetime saw him as an agent provocateur who used his seditious eloquence to support the emancipation of slaves and women, the demands of working people, and the rebels of the French and American Revolutions. History, on the other hand, has come to regard him as the figure who gave political cogency to the liberating ideas of the Enlightenment. His great pamphlets, Rights of Man and Common Sense, are now recognized for what they are–classic arguments in defense of the individual’s right to assert his or her freedom in the face of tyranny.
About the Author
Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England, in 1737, the son of a staymaker. He had little schooling and worked at a number of jobs, including tax collector, a position he lost for agitating for an increase in excisemen’s pay. Persuaded by Benjamin Franklin, he emigrated to America in 1774. In 1776 he began his American Crisis series of thirteen pamphlets, and also published the incalculably influential Common Sense, which established Paine not only as a truly revolutionary thinker, but as the American Revolution’s fiercest political theorist. In 1787 Paine returned to Europe, where he became involved in revolutionary politics. In England his books were burned by the public hangman. Escaping to France, Paine took part in drafting the French constitution and voted against the king’s execution. He was imprisoned for a year and narrowly missed execution himself. In 1802 he returned to America and lived in New York State, poor, ill and largely despised for his extremism and so-called atheism (he was in fact a deist). Thomas Paine died in 1809. His body was exhumed by William Cobbett, and the remains were taken to England for a memorial burial. Unfortunately, the remains were subsequently lost.