American Literature Thomas Paine
Scott Cleary
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0232


Thomas Paine (b. 1737–d. 1809) was born in Thetford, England. He apprenticed with his father as a staymaker, and later worked briefly as a privateer. Paine then had a tumultuous career as an excise officer, losing and subsequently regaining his job. That experience inspired Paine’s first self-proclaimed publication, Case of the Excise Officers (1772). However, increasing evidence suggests Paine actively participated in the Junius cabal, co-authoring numerous politically motivated newspaper articles throughout the 1760s. Carrying a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, Paine sailed for America in late 1774. By the start of 1775, Paine had become editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, where he remained until August. Common Sense, Paine’s most famous pamphlet, was published in January 1776 and persuasively argued for American independence from Britain. During the Revolutionary War, Paine was as an aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Green and also served as secretary to the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs. There, concerned about the possible corruption of congressional members, Paine leaked details of secret arms deals with France, and was expelled as secretary. Paine’s Crisis papers, modeled on a British essay series of the same name, became the premier chronicle of the Revolutionary War, spanning sixteen essays written and published between 1776 and 1783. After the war, Paine turned his attention to bridge-building and other scientific projects, which brought him to England and France. Paine lived in England at the outbreak of the French Revolution and moved to France to support the revolution and avoid persecution for Rights of Man (1791). Paine was allied to moderate Girondists, granted honorary French citizenship, and named as a representative to the National Convention. Paine could not, however, escape the Reign of Terror, and was imprisoned in the Luxembourg Prison from late 1793 through to the end of 1794. Paine’s French Revolutionary experiences produced many of his well-known works: Age of Reason (1794), Agrarian Justice (1796) and Letter to George Washington (1796). Paine’s reputation in America suffered because of these works, and he remained in exile until 1802. Unsurprisingly, Paine immediately re-entered the American political scene on his return and wrote a series of Letters to the Citizens of the United States (1802–1805). Paine moved frequently between his farm in New Rochelle, NY, his home in Bordentown, NJ, and dwellings in New York City during the final years of his life. He died in New York City and was buried on his farm in New Rochelle.

General Overviews

Claeys 1989 remains the standard work on Paine’s political career and offers penetrating historical insight into the three distinct geographical contexts of Paine’s political thought: British, American, and French. Aldridge 1984 explores and emphasizes the American contexts of Paine’s revolutionary politics and the effect they had on the subsequent formation of the United States. Foner 2004 roots Paine’s political views and success not on intellectual traditions but rather on his appeal to the laboring class of Philadelphia who were primed for the political message and economic potential of American independence. Lamb 2015 and Lounissi 2018 reorient the study of Paine to focus on his late-18th-century participation in both its most important emergent concept and its prominent revolution. Lamb 2015 situates Paine as an originator of the secular argument for rights, and his Rights of Man as a central work in secularizing the very notion of both social rights and the human. Lounissi 2018 is a meticulously researched dive into previously unknown French archival material, and takes Paine’s role in the French Revolution, and its moderate heart, seriously. Larkin 2006 considers the long 20th-century scholarship of Paine’s rhetoric, and offers Paine as both a founder of American literature by acknowledging Paine’s politics but not making it the central focus of the book. Putz and Adams 1989 is an indispensable tool in finding key terms and themes in Paine’s early American works, and examining how Paine verbally constructed his arguments, shaped his rhetoric, and designed his political philosophy. Caron 2016 connects Paine to the enduring popularity and legacy of Abraham Lincoln as well as his modern reassessment, but likewise frames Paine within the contemporary trends of American “nones” and a renewal of Paine’s free-thought ideas. Cleary and Stabell 2016 is a collection of essays offering a broad introduction to Paine in traditional fields like literature, history, and political science, while also offering new insights into Paine from the contemporary fields of computer science, data analysis, and author attribution.

  • Aldridge, A. Owen. Thomas Paine’s American Ideology. Wilmington: University of Delaware Press, 1984.

    A serious look at the American roots of Paine’s political thought. The book expertly weaves a number of narratives in revealing Paine’s American ideology: part political summary, part biography, part textual adventure. This most underappreciated of Paine scholars simultaneously reveals new pieces of Paine’s biography, unearths some of Paine’s contributions to the Pennsylvania Magazine, and makes Paine an indelible yet underappreciated figure in the formation of American political thinking.

  • Caron, Nathalie. “Lincoln, Paine and the American Free-Thought Tradition.” American Studies Journal 60 (2016).

    DOI: 10.18422/60-12

    A good, precise overview of the modern renewal of free thought as a specifically American phenomena. The article hangs its exploration of American free thought on two of American history’s most interesting, and sympathetically oppositional, figures: Lincoln, the beloved yet mysterious president whose own ideas about religion and secularism remain murky; and Paine, the mythological outsider who, though rejected in his own time, nonetheless speaks to contemporary American attitudes about religion.

  • Claeys, Gregory. Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought. New York: Routledge, 1989.

    Arguably the most important work on Paine in the last forty years. A masterful, magisterial examination of Paine’s political thinking, from the English roots of his anti-monarchical views, to the revolutionary roots of Common Sense in previous revolutionary literature, and the socialist hints in Paine’s later works during the French Revolution. Comprehensive without being impenetrable, this is the one indispensable work on Paine’s politics and political thinking.

  • Cleary, Scott, and Ivy Stabell, eds. New Directions in Thomas Paine Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    A product of the first International Conference of Thomas Paine Studies in 2012, this collection of essays suggests several new directions for the study of Thomas Paine. The book offers something for everybody interested in studying Thomas Paine, whether new to the man and his ideas, or familiar with even the most obscure Paine text.

  • Foner, Eric. Thomas Paine and Revolutionary America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    A reimagining of Paine not so much for his politics as for his popular appeal. Largely forsaking an intellectual history of Paine’s politics, Foner focuses on how Paine’s ideas were both rooted in and spoke to the largely laboring classes of Philadelphia. Instead of landed aristocrats, Paine’s appeal to workers, artisans, and other, less privileged classes guaranteed the popular success of his ideas.

  • Lamb, Robert. Thomas Paine and the Idea of Human Rights. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316227084

    A book that claims to look at Paine’s political writings for their philosophical content—and it delivers. Although focusing on how Paine’s nexus of political ideas eventually formulated a very modern idea of human rights, Lamb shows how Paine fashioned a unique notion of liberalism and contributed enduring concepts to our now familiar political vocabularies.

  • Larkin, Edward. Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    An important work considering seriously Paine as author rather than as political thinker. It is the first work to understand that Paine’s role as periodical editor was as crucial to his literary development as his title of revolutionary author. Larkin notes Paine’s role in creating a “literature of revolution” and, in so doing, carving out a space for an emergent national literature.

  • Lounissi, Carine. Thomas Paine and the French Revolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-75289-1

    The first significant look into Paine’s seminal role in the French Revolution. Meticulously researched and examining documents in French archives typically ignored or inaccessible to English-speaking readers, this book reveals that through newspapers, speeches, and other documents, Paine played a vital role in the formation of republican values and moderate politics prior to the Reign of Terror.

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

    A dense and necessary tool in any study of Thomas Paine. This concordance shows how Paine used language, and perhaps more importantly, by systematically presenting where Paine used certain words, and with what frequency he used them, the portrait of a political mind in development, and operating at its highest level, is evident.

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