In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thomas Paine

  • Introduction
  • Archival and Bibliographic Aids
  • Biographies
  • Influences on Paine’s Political Ideas
  • Scientific and Engineering Interests

Atlantic History Thomas Paine
Harry T. Dickinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0166


Thomas Paine (b. 1737–d. 1809) was born in Thetford, England, the son of Joseph Pain [sic], a Quaker stay-maker. Educated at the local grammar school, he was apprenticed to his father, but soon tried out several other occupations. By mid-1774 he was in financial difficulties and legally separated from his second wife. He took Benjamin Franklin’s advice to seek his fortune in Philadelphia, which he reached in November 1774. By early 1775 Paine was editing and contributing to the Pennsylvania Magazine. In January 1776 he produced a short, but immensely influential, pamphlet, Common Sense, which attacked George III and the British Constitution and encouraged the American colonies to seek their independence. During the War of Independence, he produced essays on the American Crisis, encouraging the colonists that ultimate victory could be theirs. He also wrote in support of Pennsylvania’s new constitution, served for a time as secretary to Congress’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, and even visited France to secure financial assistance for the American cause. After the war, Paine took an interest in scientific and engineering experiments and devised a single-span iron bridge. In 1787 he sailed to Europe to secure backing in either France or Britain to build such a bridge. In both France and Britain, he associated with men seeking political reforms and constitutional changes. In London he produced two widely distributed volumes of the Rights of Man (1791–1792) defending radical reform and advocating improvements in the welfare of the poor. Fearing arrest, he fled to France in September 1792. In France, Paine was elected as a deputy to the newly established National Convention. His pacific views led to his arrest in late December 1793. He narrowly avoided execution, but was finally released in 1795. Arrest and imprisonment did not prevent him producing his Age of Reason, in two parts. This attack on the Bible and the clergy was also widely distributed. After his release, Paine was no longer active in French politics, though he continued to produce political works. His Agrarian Justice (1796) advocated taxes on landed property to fund welfare benefits for the poor. He also wrote attacking the British financial system and castigating George Washington’s conduct. In 1802 Paine returned to America. Although welcomed by President Jefferson and more warmly by radical artisans in New York, he was bitterly attacked by many who deplored his religious and political views and denigrated his moral character. He engaged in a press war with his New York critics until shortly before his death in June 1809. He died neglected and largely friendless. He was denied burial in a churchyard and was interred on his farm in New Rochelle.

Archival and Bibliographic Aids

Many papers belonging to Paine were lost in a fire shortly after his death. Important sources on him can be found in the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, New York; in the Thomas Paine Collection at Thetford in Norfolk County Library, England; and in the Richard Gimbel Collection of Thomas Paine manuscripts possessed by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The Richard Gimbel Collection has an excellent collection of Paine manuscripts; copies of Paine’s works; and paintings, caricatures, poems, etc., about him. These are itemized in Gimbel 1961 and the catalogue of this material is reproduced in Stephans 1976. The Thomas Paine Collection at Thetford: An Analytical Catalogue (Mortlock 1979) also offers a huge list of manuscripts and of books by Paine and works on him. Gimbel 1956 is a superb catalogue of the editions and translations of Common Sense produced by that date. Aldridge 1975 discusses the quality and significance of works produced on Paine over a thirty-year period. Davis 1994 simply lists without comment the scholarly works on Paine produced from 1975 to 1993, while Wilson 1974 lists a great variety of other types of works on and about Paine over a much longer period. Small numbers of letters to or from Paine can be found in modern editions of the works and correspondence of leading contemporaries, such as those of Thomas Jefferson.

  • Aldridge, A. Owen. “Thomas Paine: A Survey of Research and Criticism since 1945.” British Studies Monitor 5.2 (1975): 3–27.

    An excellent discussion of books and articles about Paine published between 1945 and 1975.

  • Davis, Michael T. “A Bibliography of Writings on Thomas Paine, 1975–1993.” Bulletin of the Thomas Paine Society 2 (1994): 10–20.

    Simply lists works on Paine published during these years.

  • Gimbel, Richard, ed. Thomas Paine: A Bibliographic Check List of Common Sense with an Account of Its Publication. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956.

    Includes all known editions and translations at the time of printing.

  • Gimbel, Richard, ed. The Resurgence of Thomas Paine with the Catalogue of an Exhibition “Thomas Paine Fights for Freedom in Three Worlds.” Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1961.

    The first part is a very brief survey of Paine’s career, while the catalogue lists details of 151 separate works by Paine, 34 collected editions, 43 portraits, 70 caricatures, 60 tokens, and 67 miscellaneous items celebrating Paine’s career. This can also be found in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, new ser., 70 (1961): 397–492.

  • Mortlock, D. P., comp. The Thomas Paine Collection at Thetford: An Analytical Catalogue. Norwich, UK: Norfolk County Library, 1979.

    Lists 1,157 works and correspondence by and about Paine, including many copies of his printed works, plus biographies, poems, letters, periodical and newspaper articles, lectures, illustrations, etc., on his career.

  • Pütz, Manfred, and Jon-K. Adams, eds. A Concordance to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The American Crisis. New York: Garland, 1989.

    Shows how every word in Paine’s major American texts was employed by him to present his arguments.

  • Stephans, Hildegard, ed. Thomas Paine Collection of Richard Gimbel in the Library of the American Philosophical Society. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1976.

    Reproduces the catalogue card entries, reduced in size, to the largest collection of manuscript material on Paine.

  • Wilson, Jerome. “Thomas Paine in America: An Annotated Bibliography, 1900–1973.” Bulletin of Bibliography & Magazine Notes 31.4 (1974): 133–151.

    Adds to a short list of Paine’s works, a lengthy list of biographies, novels, plays, pamphlets, articles, book reviews, newspaper items, etc., on Paine and his career. See also p. 180.

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