Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine
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"We have it in our
power, to begin the
world anew..."
Thomas Paine inspired the American Revolution with a prose that spoke directly to the people. Common Sense was devoured and debated by Americans in taverns, reading clubs, parlors and street corners. The American Crisis, Number 1, the first in a series of essays meant to boost morale and exhort the revolution, has perhaps the most famous opening sentence in American literature: "These are the times that try men's souls."

For these works, Paine neither asked for nor received a dime in compensation. He donated all proceeds from the sale of these pamphlets to the revolutionary cause.

Like so many of the major figures of the Enlightenment, including Jefferson and Franklin, Paine had a wide-array of interests which including invention and engineering. His design for a single-arch iron bridge led him back to Europe after the Revolution, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to find backers for his plans.

In France, he was hailed by reformers for his work in the cause of the American Revolution. On a visit to Paris in 1789, he was presented with the key to the Bastille, which he was to pass on to President Washington.

Two years later, Paine published The Rights of Man, an answer to Edmund Burke's attack on the French Revolution. As a consequence, he was voted an honorary citizen of the French republic and returned from England to France in 1792.

There he was caught up in the events of "The Terror" and found himself arrested and imprisoned by French officials. He spent nearly a year in jail, where, despite entreaties, he received no help from officials in Washington, who denied Paine's claim to be an American citizen. Paine had become anathema to officials in the new republic, where his radical politics and views on religion, had become noxious to members of the Federalist party.

Paine remained in Europe after his release from prison until 1802, when he returned to the United States, a rapidly aging man, afflicted by the ravages of alcohol.

He died in New York in 1809. Ten years later, the English radical William Cobbett disinterred Paine's casket with the intention of reburying it in England as a symbol of democratic reform. Great Britain refused permission and somehow Paine's remains disappeared.