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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Paine (1737–1809)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WHETHER, as he himself believed, his services to the cause of American independence deserved to be mentioned with those of Washington and Jefferson, or not, the pamphlets of Thomas Paine were doubtless in their time “half-battles.” Clear, logical, homely, by turns warning, appealing, or commanding, now sharply satirical, now humorous, now pathetic, always desperately in earnest, always written in admirably simple English, they constituted their author, in the judgment of many, the foremost pamphleteer of the eighteenth century. In the phrase of Matthew Arnold, he saw things steadily and saw them whole, whenever he was able to see them at all,—which, with his myopic vision, was by no means always. Before his day, moreover, pamphlets and open letters had been for the classes. Atticus, Brutus, Civitas, Cato, Phil-anglus, when they appeared in print, wore mask and buskins, and addressed themselves to gentlemen who knew their classics, and who expected academic speech. Paine addressed the masses as he would have talked to them in the street. His turn for phrases was notable. “Our trade will always be a protection.” “Neutrality is a safer convoy than a man-of-war.” “It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she can never do while by her dependence on Britain she is made the make-weight in the scale of European politics.” “Nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration of independence.” “This proceeding may at first appear strange and difficult. A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” All these sentences, and many even better, he wrote six months before the 4th of July, 1776, while many genuine patriots still trembled at the thought of separation from the mother country.  1
  The imported citizen who showed such perspicacity and courage was at this time thirty-nine years of age, and had been for two years assistant editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, at a salary of £50 a year. Born in Norfolkshire, the son of an English staymaker, a Quaker, and poor, he had been by turns a staymaker, a sailor, an exciseman, a tobacconist, and an usher in a school at £25 a year, when he determined to emigrate and to establish a girls’ school in Philadelphia. On a fortunate day in the summer of 1774, at the London house of his friend David Williams,—the radical who, with himself, was presently to receive the honor of French citizenship,—the humble usher met the “ingenious Dr. Franklin,” who took a great liking to him, advised him as to his future career, and wrote him cordial letters of introduction to friends in Philadelphia. That he was a very likable man, both at this time and later in life, is shown, among other evidence, by a familiar letter to Goldsmith, desiring “the honor of his company at the tavern for an hour or two, to partake of a bottle of wine”; by the prediction of the brilliant Horne Tooke that whoever should be at a certain dinner party, Paine would be sure to say the best things said; and by the friendships which he made so easily. In middle age, at least, he was fastidious in his dress, inclined to elegance in his manners, and attractive in looks.  2
  In 1775, a paper of his against slavery brought him the kindly regard of many distinguished Americans, and the friendship of Franklin was an invaluable guarantee. In January 1776 appeared anonymously Paine’s first pamphlet, ‘Common Sense.’ It was variously ascribed to Franklin and the two Adamses; and when the irascible John went to France, he found himself, to his chagrin, introduced as “the famous Adams, author of ‘Common Sense.’” “The success it met with,” wrote the author, “was beyond anything since the invention of printing. I gave the copyright up to every State in the Union, and the demand ran to not less than a hundred thousand copies.” In his opinion the Declaration of Independence followed “as soon as ‘Common Sense’ could spread through such an extensive country.” Nearly a year later came the first number of The Crisis, beginning “These are the times that try men’s souls,”—a number which, read as a gospel in America, was condemned to be burned by the hangman in England. Later issues followed, some a few paragraphs in length, some many pages, printed wherever there was a printing-press, often on brown paper in the scarcity of white, and distributed to every enlisted man and every village politician.  3
  In 1780 the country was virtually bankrupt, the army starving and mutinous, and Congress without money or credit. Paine, then clerk of the Assembly of Pennsylvania, wrote a fiery letter inclosing his whole salary, five hundred dollars, and urging the establishment of a volunteer relief fund. Three hundred thousand pounds (inflated Pennsylvania currency) was raised, and a relief bank founded, which presently, at the instance of Robert Morris, became the “Bank of North America.” The next year, Paine, as private secretary, accompanied Colonel Laurens to France to negotiate a loan with that King Louis, one of whose judges the ex-staymaker was presently to become! In 1783 Morris besought its author to resume the Crisis, and rouse reluctant patriotism to pay its debts and obey the orders of Congress. The second paper of the new series contained the famous passage: “We sometimes experience sensations to which language is not equal. The conception is too bulky to be born alive, and in the torture of thinking we stand dumb. Our feelings, imprisoned by their magnitude, find no way out; and in the struggle for expression every finger tries to be a tongue.” The last Crisis, published after the treaty of peace, is a noble and eloquent setting forth of the greatness of the American opportunity.  4
  For all this laborious and constant toil, Paine, holding the Quaker theory that the preacher must take no pay, received not a single penny. “I could never reconcile it to my principles,” he wrote, “to make any money by my politics or my religion.” “In a great affair, where the happiness of man is at stake, I love to work for nothing; and so fully am I under the influence of this principle that I should lose the spirit, the pleasure, and the pride of it, were I conscious that I looked for reward.” But after the war, Pennsylvania set apart £500 (currency) for his actual expenses; New Jersey gave him a small place at Bordentown; New York settled upon him a confiscated Tory farm at New Rochelle; and finally Congress voted him $3,000, most of which he had already spent in the service of the nation. From 1783 to 1787 Paine spent most of his time in Philadelphia, engaged in scientific pursuits, the avocation of the cultivated gentleman of his time. One of his experiments was literally to set the river on fire for the entertainment of General Washington, whose guest he was for some time at Rocky Creek, near Philadelphia. Among other contrivances he invented an iron bridge of a single arch, the idea being suggested to him by the mechanism of a spider’s web.  5
  To lay his model before the French Academy of Sciences, he sailed for Havre in 1787; and then began the stormy fifteen years of his life in England and France. Science he loved, but politics was his very life. He was well received in Paris; but Paris was already on the road to revolution. It had no time for the study of bridges, and he had no heart for anything but affairs. When the Bastille was taken, Lafayette sent the key to his “master,” Washington, through the hands of Paine, who wrote: “That the principles of America opened the Bastille is not to be doubted, and therefore the key comes to the right place.” He became once more a pamphleteer, and presently a member of the Assembly that condemned the King to death; a condemnation which he opposed with magnificent courage from the tribune itself, in the face of a furiously hostile audience, and against which he voted in a hopeless minority. Before long he himself became a ‘suspect’; and a prisoner for eleven months, to be released at last, broken in health, energy, and fortunes. Before these evil days, however,—from 1791 to 1793,—he had been busy in England rousing radical sentiment, working at first heartily with Burke, and after the publication of that statesman’s ‘Reflections,’ furiously against him. “Mr. Burke’s mind,” he wrote, “is above the homely sorrows of the vulgar. He can feel only for a king or for a queen. The countless victims of tyranny have no place in his sympathies. He is not afflicted with the reality of distress touching on his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.” Paine’s crowning offense at that time was the publication of ‘The Rights of Man’; for England stood in terror of the Revolution. The Church, the professions, trade, good society, alike condemned all who defended or even explained it; and as a dangerous agitator, but especially as a treasonable writer, Paine was presently outlawed by the government.  6
  From the time of his release from prison in ’94 to that of his return to the United States, on the invitation of Jefferson, in 1802, little is known of Paine’s life. He was very poor, his associates seem to have been unworthy of him, he was growing old, his health was wretched, and the habit of brooding over what he thought the injustice and ingratitude of the American people led him at times to drink more than was good for him. He still wrote,—papers on finance, ‘The Rights of Man,’ ‘Agrarian Justice,’ the last part of the ‘Age of Reason’ (the first book of which he had completed but not revised at the time of his arrest by the Committee of Public Safety: a work which gave him the reputation of a foe to Christianity),—but the old fire was burned out. His last seven years in America were most unhappy. Old friends fell away. The acerbity of his temper and the sensitiveness of his vanity kept new ones aloof. The bitterness of politics colored judgment, and he was accused of offenses he had never committed and of conduct impossible to him. An old man at seventy-two, he died broken with many griefs, to be remembered by a later age as “the great Commoner of Mankind.”  7
 
 
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