English born, Thomas Paine (1737) was a visionary intellectual who supported victimised people and actively participated in their struggle for their fundamental rights by traversing the borders of nationhood, country and religion. His active role and participation in the American and the French revolutions shows his commitment to the cause of the people.
In 1774, when Thomas Paine reached America, 13 colonies were fighting a war against British colonisation and exploitation. However, a large number of people were hesitant to fight against the mother country. They were loyal to the king and interested in a political compromise rather than separation and independence. Hence these loyalists became a great hurdle in the united struggle against Britain.
In 1776, his famous pamphlet, Common Sense was published, denouncing the institution of kingship and the rule of royal dynasty while promoting republicanism and separation from Britain. He condemned the royalty, its illegitimacy and illegality. He convinced the people of America to renounce their loyalty to British rule and strive for independence. He argued that the institution of kingship was not only a degenerate idea, it also exploited the resources of the country and deprived people of their rights. The pamphlet instantly became popular and was widely read by every section of society. It convinced people to rely on their own resources for their development instead of the mother country to provide help and existence. He pleaded to the people to resist colonial rule.
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” This simple quote by Thomas Paine not only describes the beginnings of the American Revolution, but also his life
In 1789, the French Revolution broke out, mobilising radical intellectuals throughout Europe. They hoped that following in the footsteps of France, they would transform their societies from ancient regimes to modernity. Edmund Burke (d.1797), denounced the French Revolution in his book Reflections on the French Revolution. He argued that the revolution annihilated centuries-old French institutions and traditions and plunged the country into disorder and chaos. Paine refuted Edmund Burke in his response as The Rights of Man in 1791, supporting and justifying the revolution which recognised the fundamental rights of the people.
The publication of the book created unrest among Britain’s ruling classes because revolutionary ideas threatened to disturb the society. Therefore the British government took action against Thomas Paine and he was tried on charges of sedition. He fled from England to France where the revolution was at its peak and joined the National Convention. In 1793, he was imprisoned in France for not endorsing the execution of Louis XVI. During his imprisonment, he wrote and distributed The Age of Reason which later became one of his most famous works. He narrowly escaped execution and was freed from prison in 1794 due to the efforts of James Monroe, then US minister to France.
After being actively involved in the French Revolution, Paine returned from France to America in 1802 on the invitation of Thomas Jefferson only to discover that his contributions to the American Revolution had been eradicated due to his religious views.
The political scenario in America had changed completely. After independence, neither was slavery abolished nor were women given the right to vote, nor did the common people enjoy the fruits of liberty. This time Paine was not welcomed in view of his religious and political ideas. For the rest of his life, he lived in poverty and when he died in 1807, only six people attended his funeral. His death passed unnoticed in American society to whose freedom he contributed intellectually and politically.
Sometime revolutionaries and radical intellectuals pass through stages of fame to anonymity. Political leaders exploit their views and once they gain power, they set aside the intellectuals who supported them in times of crises. Radical ideas that they once appreciated, later become irrelevant to them. Nevertheless, history preserves the legacy of Thomas Paine to enlighten future generations to learn the lesson of how an intellectual sacrificed his life for the cause of the downtrodden and deprived.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 13th, 2016