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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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He immediately and passionately supported the Revolution, so when he read Edmund Burke's 1790 attack on it, he was inspired to write the book Rights of Man (1791) in a scathing response. The tract moved beyond supporting the French Revolution to discussing the basic reasons for discontent in European society, railing against a monarchic society,
and finally calling for a "bloody revolution." The British government banned the book and Paine was indicted for treason, although he was already on his way to France when the decree went out and avoided prosecution. (He was later named an honorary citizen of France.)
While rallying for the revolution, Paine also supported efforts to save the life of deposed King Louis XVI (instead favoring banishment), so when the radicals under Robespierre took power, Paine was sent to prison—from December 28, 1793 to November 4, 1794—where he narrowly escaped execution. In 1794, while Paine was imprisoned, the first part of his The Age of Reason (The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology iin full) was published. The book criticizes institutionalized religion for perceived corruption and political ambition, while challenging the validity of the Bible. The book was controversial, as was everything that Paine wrote, and the British government prosecuted anyone who tried to publish or distribute it. After his 1794 release from prison, Paine stayed in France, releasing the second and third parts of The Age of Reason before returning to the United States at President Jefferson's invitation.
Paine returned to the United States in 1802 or 1803, only to find that his revolutionary work, influence and reputation had mostly been forgotten, leaving only his status as a world-class rabble-rouser intact.
Paine died in June 1809, and to drive home the point of his tarnished image, the New York Citizen printed the following line in Paine's obituary: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." For more than a century following his death, this was the historical verdict handed down upon the legacy of Thomas Paine. Finally, in January 1937, the Times of London turned the tide, referring to him as the "English Voltaire"— a view that has prevailed ever since, with Thomas Paine now regarded as a seminal figure of the American Revolution.
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