By Den Ardinger 32° KCCH
Thirty-nine years before the Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia, Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, England. Unknown to anyone at the time was the influence he would have on world events and political thought in the years to come. His pen and his ability to express his thoughts clearly reshaped the destiny of the world.
Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737. He was the son of a tenant farmer, Joseph Paine, and his wife, Frances Cocke. He attended grammar school for five years from 1744 to 49 and then became an apprentice to his father making stays (an obsolete term for being a specialized tailor). In time he became a master staymaker and had his own shop in Sandwich, Kent.
On September 27, 1759, he married Mary Lambert, but she and the baby died in childbirth in 1760. During this time his business collapsed also. To make ends meet he then held various government positions while working as a staymaker in between.
In 1768 he moved to Lewes in Sussex. This town was known as a hotbed of political thought against the government, and it was here that he became involved in political matters. From 1772 to 1773 he joined with government excise officers to plead to Parliament for better wages and working conditions. Here he wrote his first political work, “The Case of the Officers of Excise” and helped distribute the 4,000 printed copies.
Once again in debt and to avoid prison, he sold all his personal belongings and moved to London on April 14, 1774. It was in London that he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin who was then in the city opposing the Stamp Act and the Townsend Acts for the colonies. With the help of Franklin, he immigrated to Philadelphia in October 1774 only months before hostilities began between the thirteen American colonies and their British sovereign.
In March 1775 he became editor of the “Pennsylvania Magazine” and took to the job with great enthusiasm. The readership greatly expanded as he introduced inflammatory political ideas into circulation including those attacking slavery.
It was at this time Paine wrote one of the most important documents of the period, “Common Sense”, which was published January 10, 1776. In this widely read 47-page pamphlet, he attacked the monarchy and made the case for independence. One hundred thousand copies were initially printed and distributed and during the war five hundred thousand copies were published. The pamphlet was often read aloud to the public and was widely discussed. Although written “by an Englishman” the true authorship quickly became known. It explained complex ideas in easily understood terms that were already widely popular.
Late in 1776, Paine wrote a series titled “The American Crisis” which George Washington had read aloud to his men. It stirred the spirit as it began, “These are the times that try men’s souls…”
Throughout the war, Paine held various positions always pushing for independence and the rights of the common man. In 1781 he married Elizabeth Olive, but they separated three years later. In 1783 he bought a house in Bordentown City, New Jersey and lived here off and on until his death.
After America achieved independence, Paine turned his aim toward France and was widely influential in the French Revolution. In 1791 he published his “Rights of Man” with nearly a million copies sold. He was made an honorary French citizen along with other American leaders.
After this time, however, his enemies list had grown larger than ever, and he claimed that governments were conspiring against him. He narrowly escaped execution in France in 1794. His talents were turned against George Washington who he felt let him down and from then on, he led a life isolated from “proper society”.
Thomas Paine’s relationship to Freemasonry is not clearly understood. There is no record of him being connected with any particular lodge, but after his return from France he wrote “An Essay on the Origin of Free-Masonry” from 1803 to 1805. An entry in the “Congressional Record” in 1956 states he was a Freemason along with Patrick Henry, James Otis and John Paul Jones. The issue has also been discussed in detail in “Journal of the American Revolution” in November 2016 with detailed inconclusive discussions on whether he was or wasn’t initiated.
Paine died June 8, 1809, in Greenwich Village, New York City. His obituary in the “American Magazine” read simply, “”He had lived long, did some good, and much harm”. Only six people attended his funeral.
Thomas Paine, more than a man, and a Mason at heart.