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Common Sense : Biography

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Thomas Paine was born on February 9, 1737, in Thetford, Norfolk, England, to Joseph Paine and Frances Cocke. His father was a Quaker and a stay-maker (the thick ropes on ships). Paine attended Thetford Grammar School and then was apprenticed to his father's stay-making business at the age of thirteen. Paine had a strong connection with shipping and the sea, which explains his plea for building a strong American navy in “Common Sense.” He married Mary Lambert in 1759 while opening a stay-making shop in Sandwich, Kent, but she died in childbirth, and the business closed. He became an Excise officer in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and when dismissed, again became a stay-maker. In 1767, he went to London as a schoolteacher. In 1768, he became involved in politics in Lewes, Sussex, as an Excise officer and member of the town governing body. He married Esther Ollive in 1771. He began publishing political articles to raise the pay of excise officers. When his tobacco business failed, he went into debt, and he barely avoided debtor's prison. It was said that he was ruined due to political pressure.

In 1774, he moved to London where he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who suggested Paine move to colonial America and gave him a letter of introduction. In Philadelphia, he became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775. He was an able editor and like Franklin, an inventor. In 1787, he designed the Schuylkill River Bridge in Philadelphia. In 1796, he copied that design for the Sunderland Bridge over the Wear River in Wearmouth, England. He had patents for iron bridges, a smokeless candle, and worked on developing steam engines.

On January 10, 1776, Paine published his famous pamphlet, “Common Sense” anonymously, calling for American separation from England. It became a best-seller. Paine's The American Crisis series of pamphlets in 1776 inspired the Americans in their fight. He praised those who fought for their country and shamed those who wanted to stay home: “These are the times that try men's souls,” he wrote, and George Washington had the pamphlets read aloud to his soldiers.

Paine became involved with American foreign affairs, helping in the negotiations with France for aid. He made friends in Paris and organized the Bank of North America to raise the money for the American army. He was rewarded by the U.S. Congress with money and an estate. In 1787, Paine was back in London, engrossed with the beginnings of the French Revolution that ignited in 1789. He visited France in 1790 and wrote the influential The Rights of Man in 1791 to support the French. His Rights of Man, Part II (1792) gave detailed ideas of a representative government and social measures to relieve poverty through taxes.

Paine returned to the United Sates in 1802 by the invitation of Thomas Jefferson. By this time, however, he was unpopular in America for his radical politics and his attack on religion. His book on deism, The Age of Reason, in three parts(1794, 1795, and 1807), challenges the legitimacy of the Bible, Christianity, and all churches. Paine outlived his fame and popularity. He retired to his farm at New Rochelle, New York, with Marguerite Brazier, the French wife of Nicholas Bonneville, the radical journalist with whom he had stayed in Paris, and her three children. She cared for him until his death on June 8, 1809, in New York City, and he left his estate to her.

Paine's writings for democratic justice have left a lasting political legacy for the world. His last pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795), for instance, developed the argument for a universal old-age pension, recognized by the U.S. Social Security Administration as the first proposal for the current social security system.




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