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Thomas Paine was an English American writer and pamphleteer whose "Common Sense" and other writings influenced the American Revolution, and helped pave the way for the Declaration of Independence.
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Thomas Paine was an influential 18th-century writer of essays and pamphlets. Among them were "The Age of Reason," regarding the place of religion in society; "Rights of Man," a piece defending the French Revolution; and "Common Sense," which was published during the American Revolution. "Common Sense," Paine's most influential piece, brought his ideas to a vast audience, swaying (the otherwise undecided) public opinion to the view that independence from the British was a necessity.
"Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true."
"An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot."
Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737, to a Quaker father and an Anglican mother. Paine received little formal education, but did learn to read, write and perform arithmetic. At the age of 13, he began working with his father as a corset maker, and he later worked as an officer of the excise, hunting smugglers, and collecting liquor and tobacco taxes. He did not excel at this job, nor at any other early job, and his life in England was, in fact, marked by repeated failures.
To compound his professional hardships, around 1760, Paine's wife and child both died in childbirth, and his business, that of making corsets, went under. In the summer of 1772, Paine published "The Case of the Officers of Excise," a 21-page article in defense of higher pay for excise officers. It was his first political work, and he spent that winter in London, handing out the 4,000 copies of the article to members of Parliament and other citizens. In spring of 1774, Paine was fired from the excise office, and began to see his outlook as bleak. Luckily, he soon met Benjamin Franklin, who advised him to move to America and provided him with letters of introduction to the newly formed nation.
Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774, taking up his first regular employment—helping to edit the Pennsylvania Magazine—in January 1775. At this time, Paine began writing in earnest, publishing several articles, anonymously or under pseudonyms. One of his early articles was a scathing condemnation of the African slave trade, called "African Slavery in America," which he signed under the name "Justice and Humanity." Paine's propagandist ideas were just coming together, and he couldn't have arrived in America at a better time to advance his general views and thoughts on revolution and injustice.
Paine had arrived in America as the conflict between the colonists and England had reached a fever pitch, although events had not yet become violent. Within five months of Paine's arrival, however, the precipitating event to his most famous work would occur. After the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), which were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War, Paine argued that America should not simply revolt against taxation, but demand independence from Great Britain entirely. He expanded this idea in a 50-page pamphlet called "Common Sense," which was printed on January 10, 1776.
Worded in a way that forces the reader to make an immediate choice, "Common Sense" presented the American colonists, who were generally still undecided, with a cogent argument for full-scale revolt and freedom from British rule.
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They are American icons—they're on our dollars and coins, they are the subject of our monuments, and we live our daily lives in the world their ideas helped create. America's "Founding Fathers" include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and of course, Benjamin Franklin. These men, together with several other key players of their time, structured the American democracy and left a legacy that has shaped the world. But beyond their legends, these men were human beings who led complex and fascinating lives. Learning their stories helps us better understand what made them tick, as well as their influence on our world today.
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