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Hello I'm Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was one of Norfolk’s greatest sons. Born in Thetford in 1737, Paine, by the power of his writings, became a leading figure in both the American struggle for Independence and French Revolution. Norwich contained a large number of those who sympathised with the French revolutionaries who would meet in the Maids Head and toast the deeds of Tom Paine. Paine’s writings eventually led to his downfall. He was outlawed, exiled and there were over 300 occasions when his effigy was publicly burnt.

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My story

My father was a stay maker (corsets) and a Quaker.The Quaker belief that all men and women are equal in the sight of God had a great influence on my thinking. I was aware of the hangings and other severe punishments meted out to the poor in Thetford, for often relatively minor misdemeanours. 


I was fortunate to attend Thetford Grammar School where I not only developed a thirst for learning but also an ambition to see the New World and go to sea. 


On leaving school and after several years apprenticed to my father as a stay maker, I ran away to sea. My first escape was unsuccessful and my father brought me home before the ship sailed. However, I eventually obtained my parents’ blessing and  enlisted with the privateer The King of Prussia for a 6 month period, experiencing several sea battles and gaining a good share of the ship’s bounty. When I disembarked in London, I was able to spend my time studying the ideas of the Enlightenment. When my money ran out I set up in Kent as a stay maker and married. 


Tragically my beloved wife died in childbirth and on the advice of my father in law, I joined the Customs and Excise Service in Lincolnshire. I was dismissed from this most difficult and dangerous occupation but had my post reinstated, this time in Lewes, Sussex. 

In Lewes I was able to further develop my thinking and communication skills at weekly debates at the Headstrong Club in Lewes. I was asked to petition the Crown on behalf of the Customs Officers for better pay and conditions. The petition was ignored and with the help of my friend Benjamin Franklin, I set sail for America.  


I wrote my first pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ in response to the hesitation to seek independence shown by the settlers in America. The pamphlet was very widely read and  hugely influential and it later earned me the sobriquet as ‘The Godfather of the American Revolution’. I had in fact also coined the term the United States. 


I was aware that many of my audience couldn’t read so I developed a concise, highly accessible style of writing which when read out, as it often was to eager audiences, was highly effective. I later put these skills to good use with my pamphlets “Crises”, written to bolster the courage of the young American army in the face of superior British troops and German mercenaries.


Following the eventual success of the War of Independence, I returned to England, just as the French Revolution was taking shape. Edmund Burke had spoken out against the French, arguing that they had no right to overthrow their rulers. I replied with what some have argued was my greatest piece of work ‘The Rights of Man’ which sold nearly a million copies. 


I argued that all men always had the right to push for freedom and fair government. I also proposed ideas to support the welfare of the poor. In the febrile nature of the times, my enemies amongst the ruling classes, fearing an English revolution, put a price on my head. With the help of my friend, the poet William Blake, I escaped to a hero’s welcome in Paris.


I became an influential figure in the French Revolution. However, as the mood of the mob soon turned violent, I spoke out in opposition and was subsequently imprisoned.  In prison, I wrote ‘The Age of Reason’. This publication challenged many orthodox religious ideas and allowed my enemies to unjustly label me as an atheist. From this time onwards, I suffered further hatred.


Narrowly avoiding the guillotine, I was eventually rescued by my friends in America where I returned for the last time.Concerned about how the people of this new nation might be supported, I produced a paper 'Agrarian Justice' with ideas far ahead of its time about pensions and welfare. I also campaigned against slavery throughout my time in America.


There was time for one last great contribution.  I advised Jefferson to purchase Louisiana from a near bankrupt French government. This bargain purchase more than doubled the land mass of the new nation of America and in many ways secured the remarkable future for this country that was to follow. 


Paine died in La Rochelle, New York, friendless and in poverty. Considering his humble Norfolk origins, his life had been truly remarkable and his challenge to our rulers is as powerful today as it was in the 18th century.

From Common Sense:

''When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its Constitution and its Government.'' 
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