Thomas Paine’s Unceremonious Ending and Enduring Legacy

Portrait of Thomas Paine

Not every hero from history has a glorious end where they are remembered fondly and held up for the contributions they made to history. Sadly, this was the case with Thomas Paine. Despite his importance to American history, and indeed, human history as a whole, his later years in life were marred by imprisonment, betrayal, and poverty. Nevertheless, we recount his importance here in our modern day and shall never forget the efforts he made which brought about a freer human civilization. Still, it is humbling to look back on how one of the most important figures in human history was reportedly tossed as a casualty of diplomacy and madness.

Statue of Thomas Paine
A statue of Thomas Paine in Thetford, U.K.

Thomas Paine left the United States and returned to his homeland of England in 1787. He felt compelled to leave after several misfortunes had befallen him. Firstly, he was removed from his post as Secretary to the Committee on Foreign Affairs when he had to quote from secret documents in order to expose Silas Deane – a member of the Congress who was using his position to profit personally off dealings with the French. Even though Paine uncovered the corruption of Deane, he was forced to resign for revealing the secret documents. As he had donated all of his wealth in the United States to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, he was desperate for employment.

Paine managed to find a job as a clerk in the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, donating much of his earnings to support the troops and also eventually writing “Public Good,” another of his famous works in which he sought to appeal to the newly formed United States to work together as one nation. He had made a great deal of sales with his literary works, but he always zealously sought to donate his profits and put the money he made back into increasing the circulation of his works. He successfully managed to appeal to Congress – endorsed by George Washington – to gain some land in New Rochelle where he devised plans for a new kind of bridge.

In 1787, Paine left the Americas and returned to his homeland of England. His goal was to make his plans for a new kind of bridge a reality. However, Paine became enraptured with tales of the French Revolution, prompting him to publish “Rights of Man” in response to Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Paine eventually traveled to France and was welcomed with open arms due to his antiroyalty rhetoric. However, when Paine saw the events of the Reign of Terror with his own eyes, he spoke out. Paine was against the death penalty in all circumstances and was critical of the mass executions underway in France. The country was bathed in blood as indiscriminate violence took hold and innocents were slaughtered in record numbers for espousing any views perceived as favorable to the monarchy, or at least insufficiently in favor of the revolution. Paine began espousing his views against the mass violence which would form some of the basis of his stance in “Age of Reason.” As a result, Paine was charged with treason in absentia on December 26, 1793. Two days later, French police arrested Paine and threw him in prison to await execution without due process.

The guillotine was widely used to conduct mass executions during the French Revolution

Paine’s cell was described as a dark and wet hole with little to no light. He was locked up with many others awaiting execution by guillotine. During his time in his cell, he managed to continue working on “Age of Reason.” He also tried to appeal to his friend George Washington to help get him out of prison. However, Washington was unable to assist Paine. It is unclear if Washington wished he could help Paine or not, but Paine certainly felt abandoned. His inspiring literary works about the importance of revolution against tyrannical forces had become problematic for the stability of the new United States, and Washington was forced to publicly distance himself from Paine. As such, Washington could offer no help to his friend who had helped him motivate a nation to action and likely saved the future of the United States from the grip of demoralization early in the American Revolution.

George Washington
George Washington was described as a friend of Thomas Paine

Whatever George Washington really felt about Thomas Paine’s situation, he felt he could not help Paine without compromising the United States. This led Paine to feel betrayed, angry, and alone. He consigned himself to his fate and fell ill while awaiting execution. While Paine must have felt absolutely miserable at this time, his illness apparently led the guards of his prison to leave his cell door open to increase airflow and help him get better. When the time came for his execution, the inside of his cell door was marked, and eventually closed. When the executioners came to round up the prisoners marked for death that day, the chalk marking on Paine’s cell was hidden on the inside of the door, and they walked on past.

Eventually, James Monroe learned of Thomas Paine’s location in a French prison. Monroe was sympathetic to Paine, as both were known to be associates and friends with Thomas Jefferson. After the Reign of Terror ended, Monroe found the forgotten Paine still sick and dying in his cell. Monroe rescued Paine and brought the dying man to his family. After the Monroe’s nursed Paine back to good health, he eventually returned to the United States in 1802. Sadly, he returned to the land he helped free to find himself shunned, impoverished, and all but forgotten in the U.S. as he was in a French prison cell.

Paine eventually died alone in New York City seven years later with few to mourn his loss. He had fallen into a battle with alcoholism near the end of his life. Many considered him an “infidel” and a “heretic” for his criticisms of organized religion, as well as the distancing of the United States from his revolutionary rhetoric. Reportedly, only 6 people attended his funeral.

Today, Thomas Paine is remembered as one of Humanity’s greatest thought leaders who helped our species onto a brighter path with his literary works. He inspired many in his time to stand up for freedom, liberty, and justice. While circumstances led the actors of his day to use him as a scapegoat at times, his contributions to the ideas we have today are much appreciated. History will always look favorably upon those who championed freedom and liberty eventually, as all authoritarian regimes fall sooner or later. Nevertheless, Thomas Paine could have been more responsible with his money and abstained from always donating all of it, leaving himself in desperate situations where he had to plead to others for help. While it was very noble of Paine to always donate all of his money, it is wise to secure our own masks before assisting others.

As I have mentioned before, I am inspired by the life and works of Thomas Paine. It saddens me to learn about how his life took such tragic turns, especially near the end. It is ever more saddening to think of how Paine felt abandoned and betrayed by those he trusted, and rightfully so. This is especially upsetting as I am not sure how George Washington felt about the situation. I do not know if Washington wished to help Paine but could not for political reasons, or if Washington had really abandoned his friendship with Paine. If the latter were the case – as Paine believed – then were they ever really friends to begin with? I do not know, as I can only imagine how difficult decisions must be for those in positions such as these two figures from history. Still, the legacy left behind by Paine is one that inspires me to this day, and I choose to focus on what I can learn from his greatest accomplishments as well as his moments of misfortune.

What do you think of Thomas Paine and his many literary works? Which one of his works is your favorite and why? Feel free to share you thoughts!

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Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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