Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1736, in Thetford, “an important market town and coach stage-post” in rural Norfolk, England. He was the son of Joseph Pain and Frances Cocke Pain; his father was a Quaker corset maker and his mother was Anglican. Thomas changed his family name to Paine before immigrating to America in 1774.
Even though there was no compulsory education, Thomas attended Thetford Grammar School (1744-49). He became an apprentice to his father at age thirteen and served briefly as a privateer in the military in his late adolescence. He returned to Great Britain in 1759; there he became a master stay-maker and opened his own shop in Sandwich, Kent.
Thomas Paine married Mary Lambert on September 27, 1759. Shortly afterwards, his business collapsed and Mary became pregnant. The couple moved to Margate; Mary went into early labor and both mother and baby died.
Paine returned to Thetford in July 1761 where he worked as a supernumerary officer, an excise officer, a stay-maker, and a school teacher. He obtained a position in Lewes in Sussex on February 19, 1768. Lewes was “a town with a tradition of opposition to the monarchy and pro-republican sentiments going back to the revolutionary decades of the 17th century. Here he lived above the fifteenth-century Bull House, the tobacco shop of Samuel Ollive and Esther Ollive.” He married Elizabeth Ollive, his landlord’s daughter, on March 26, 1771, at age 34. He became active in civic matters in Lewes.
From 1772 to 1773, Paine worked for better pay and working conditions published his first political work in the summer of 1772. He spent the winter distributing 4,000 copies of The Case of the Officers of Excise. He was fired as an excise officer in the spring of 1774, and his tobacco shop failed. He sold his household goods on April 14 to pay his debts and avoid debtor’s prison.
On June 4, 1774, Paine separated from Elizabeth and moved to London where he met Benjamin Franklin who had read his written work. Franklin suggested that he immigrate to America and gave him a letter of recommendation. Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774 and barely survived the trip across the Atlantic. The ship had bad water supplies and five passengers died of typhoid fever. Paine was too sick to leave the ship when it arrived in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin’s doctor met the ship to welcome Paine to America and had him carried off the ship. Paine recovered his health six weeks later and became a citizen of Pennsylvania “by taking the oath of allegiance at a very early period.”
Paine became the editor of Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775. The next year he published his own pamphlet entitled Common Sense. It was a brilliant summary of the patriots’ cause of liberty and was written in plain but powerful language. It listed all the arguments for why the colonists should be independent from Great Britain and convinced many colonists of the need to break from their parent company. Approximately 500,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold, “making it the best-selling American book.”
In December 1776, Thomas Paine wrote the first of a series of essays entitled the Crisis papers. His first essay contained his immortal words: “These are the times that try men’s souls…. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” General George Washington was so taken by the essay that he ordered it read aloud to each regiment and detachment during the winter of 1776-1777. His words helped to relieve the despondency of the dispirited Continental Army. After peace was declared, Congress paid him $3,000, and the State of New York gave him a large farm in Westchester County.
Thomas Paine went to France where he wrote a pamphlet calling for the abolition of royalty. In 1791 he published Rights of Man in English; it ridiculed hereditary government and caused great sensation. In 1794 and 1795 he published Age of Reason, which advocated for the return to clear thinking and plain living.
Paine continued to be impulsive and self-willed; he also had few personal friends. He returned to America in 1802 or 1803 upon the invitation of Thomas Jefferson. He died at the age of 72 on the morning of June 8, 1809, at 59 Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, without any children or any relatives in America. His body was taken to New Rochelle. Since the Quakers denied his burial in their cemetery, his remains were buried under a walnut tree on his farm. His bones were dug up in 1819 by William Cobbett to be taken to England and given a “heroic reburial on his native soil.” The bones were among Cobbett’s belongs when he died more than twenty years later. There is no record of where the bones are now.