Although he has been called “The Father of the American Revolution,” Thomas Paine was perhaps the most unlikely man in the world to carry the torch of American independence.
An Englishman who was once employed by the same king he grew to despise, Paine had been a failure in almost every aspect of life. His first wife died in labor, and his short-lived marriage to his second wife ended in separation within just three years. His attempt to petition Parliament for better compensation and working conditions for himself and his fellow tax collectors fell on deaf ears, and he accumulated immense personal debt. Bouncing frequently between professions and failing businesses, he struggled to find his way in life.
That was, of course, until he picked up the pen.
As I point out in my book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, Paine was a true enigma of his time, and the story of his life reads much like an unpredictable and elaborate novel.
From meager beginnings as a working-class laborer, he became well-regarded among the world’s intellectual giants in both America and Europe. As an incendiary pamphleteer, he made friends with some of the most important people of his era – only to die broken, unpopular, and friendless. A one-time tax collector of the British crown, he achieved fame mostly through his persuasive ambush on Parliament for levying taxes against the American colonies.
Paine’s first published essay was a gigantic flop, but his most famous works, including Common Sense, were best-sellers that captivated the minds of nearly every literate American and European.
In many ways, Paine was an enigma. He chastised hereditary monarchy in no uncertain terms, but desperately pleaded for the life of the deposed King Louis XVI at the height of the French Revolution. His friends perceived him as a brilliant purveyor of wisdom, while his enemies condemned him as a heretical charlatan.
His words served as catalysts for two revolutions on the world stage, yet he came from a tiny, unremarkable village. Through it all, he was the most notorious radical of his age.