Today is the birthday of one of our most important and all too often overlooked founding fathers, Thomas Paine. He was born on Jan. 29, 1737. Paine was a truly remarkable man who had a major role in both the American and French revolutions. His pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, was the spark that ignited the revolutionary fires in the American colonies. It was the best-selling work of the entire 1700s in America with some 500,000 copies sold.
Paine also wrote the famous Crisis pamphlets to boost morale for the revolutionary war, the first of which begins:
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
Paine also wrote The Rights of Man, a book that defended the French revolution and answered Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The publication of that book led to his being tried in England, in absentia, for sedition (as though his role in the American revolution had not already made him seditious in the eyes of King George).
He was named to the National Convention of France in 1792, but he quickly fell out of favor with Robespierre and the Jacobins after he argued against executing Louis XVI. In 1793, he was expelled from the National Assembly, arrested and imprisoned. It was in prison in France that he began writing The Age of Reason, an attack on Christianity and the validity of the Bible that all but destroyed his reputation in America as well.
Thomas Paine was a tireless advocate of liberty and one of our most brilliant thinkers. He leaves behind a legacy of standing up to tyranny and risking his life to do so. He should be celebrated far more than he is.