Notes for Thomas Paine

Pivotal moments in the book/questions:

Thomas Paine was one of the most influential men of the revolution – John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.… I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or its affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine,” America’s John Adams asserted. “Call it then the Age of Paine.” Why has he been marginalized in the telling of history?
Paine is largely unknown for his other "accomplishments" including the invention of the iron single-span bridge, which was the basis for a design that later revolutionized bridgemaking. His activities after the war, especially in France, but also in Britain, led to other revolutions against hereditary monarchy. He was a key player in France's national assembly, vying against Robespierre, who eventually ordered him arrested, and later issued a decree for his execution.
Paine lived by principles – donating all of the proceeds from his popular literature to the war effort – unlike many of the other founders who profited in some way or another from the war effort.
What made Paine unique from the other founding thinkers/writers was how accessible his writing was to the common man – including soldiers, who took up arms and braved the freezing cold of the Delaware on the eve of the battle of Trenton, inspired by the words that Washington had ordered his officers to read aloud.
Did Paine go too far in advocating self-government? France, he later realized, didn't have the innate characteristics that America possessed that made her capable of responsible self-governance. In his zeal for revolution, Paine was partly responsible for the bloodshed that almost led to his own beheading.
Paine was the first to criticize monarchy in the way that he did – not even Locke or Rousseau had dared to challenge Divine Right of Kings in the same way.
Was Paine a socialist? Unger hints at this – saying that he argued for universal education and health care, along with a very strong central government, national bank, nationalization of lands, etc. This made him many enemies out of his old friends.

Title: Historian and best-selling author


Related Shows:


A former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Harlow Giles Unger is a veteran journalist, broadcaster, educator, and historian.

He is the author of 27 books, including 10 biographies of the Founding Fathers—among them, Patrick Henry (Lion of Liberty); James Monroe (The Last Founding Father); the award winning Lafayette; and The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life.

Cited by Florence King of the National Review as “America’s most readable historian,” he has appeared on the History Channel and C-SPAN’s Book Notesand spoken many times at Mount Vernon, Valley Forge, Yorktown, Williamsburg and historic sites in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC.

Mr. Unger is a graduate of Yale University and has a Master of Arts from California State University. He spent many years as a foreign correspondent and American Affairs analyst for The New York Herald Tribune Overseas News Service, The Times and The Sunday Times (London), and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and he is a former associate professor of English and journalism.

He is author of many books on American education as well as American history, including the popular" "But What if I Don't Want to Go to Collge? A Guide to Success Through Alternative Education, and the award-winning, three volume Encyclopedia of American Education, a standard reference in academic and reference libraries.

After many years in France, Mr. Unger now lives in the United States and is an avid downhill skier and horseman.


A fine biography of one of America’s greatest polemicists. Thomas Paine (1736-1809) was a poor, self-educated craftsman and writer born in Britain, writes prolific historian Unger (Doctor Benjamin Rush: The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation, 2018, etc.), former distinguished fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Paine arrived in America in 1774 with letters of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin and found a job as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. When his pamphlet Common Sense appeared in January 1776 as the Revolution was underway, it went viral, perhaps “the greatest publishing success of the 18th century and, in many ways, the most important publishing event since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses that provoked the Reformation.” Unlike typical prolix 18th-century writing, it’s an easy read even today, and its fiery denunciation of Britain made Paine, Unger maintains, the second most popular Revolutionary figure. Americans also devoured The American Crisis, 16 inspirational pamphlets published between 1776 and 1783. Thrilled with the French Revolution, Paine also wrote Rights of Man, another fierce polemic that delighted American supporters of the Revolution (the Democrats) but not those opposed (Federalists). Traveling to France, he fell afoul of Robespierre; imprisoned in 1793, he barely escaped the guillotine. In prison, he began writing The Age of Reason, which praised Jesus’ teaching but criticized organized religions and described the Bible as a collection of myths. Educated Enlightenment figures such as Jefferson and Franklin held similar beliefs, but unlike other religious writing, Paine’s prose was crystal-clear and his book cheap. The masses snapped it up and were outraged. Reviled for atheism and shunned by the establishment, he died in obscurity, from which he is only now emerging. Historians, Unger included, now consider Paine as central to the Revolution as Washington and Jefferson, but The Age of Reason killed his chance of entering semidivinity as a Founding Father in the popular mind.This vivid, insightful account gives Paine his due, but he remains an outlier to our founders.


Good short summary of the book:

If monarchy were truly a divine institution, surely God wouldn’t have so often given mankind “an ass for a lion.” Any American who favored reconciliation, he insisted, has “the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant.”
Paine has never been admitted into the Founders’ pantheon. Mr. Unger, a prolific historian of the early Republic, offers a passionate brief for Paine’s legacy as the “Father of all Founding Fathers” but also, unwittingly, an argument for Paine’s status as a wrecking ball rather than an architect.
By the late 1780s, he had diverted his talents from advancing revolutionary politics to designing bridges. It was to promote a bridge design that he returned to Europe in 1787, stumbling again into world-historical events. “A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose,” Paine soon wrote happily to Washington.
“Rights of Man,” Paine’s defense of the French Revolution, was an even greater success than his American pamphlet. More elaborate than “Common Sense,” “Rights of Man” was a brilliant attack on heredity privilege, though vague and blithely utopian about the challenges of building stable institutions on democratic foundations.
Paine had been hurt at not being chosen as a delegate to America’s Constitutional Convention, but the French elected him to the National Assembly in 1792, despite his incomprehension of their language. It was a high point of Paine’s public career. The fall was dizzyingly swift. Within a year he was imprisoned as an enemy of the revolution, and only blind luck— Robespierre fell from power just before his orders condemning Paine were carried out—kept him from the guillotine.

The reviewer criticizes Unger for being too biased in favor of Paine, and downplaying some of his vices, while heavily criticizing those like JEfferson:

It truly soars in recounting that bleak winter of 1776, when the polemicist who only knew how to attack inspired an army that had only known how to retreat.

Was Paine a socialist?

"Unger shows that even before the success of Common Sense and Rights of Man, the controversial pamphleteer was rather ahead of the times in arguing for the abolition of slavery and equality for women, and his influence gathered the attention of Benjamin Rush whom would praise his enlightened ideals and push Paine to the headlines of the Revolution:

'Thus, Morris’s vision of the government and individual liberties in an independent America differed widely from Paine’s. Both favored a strong central government, but Morris believed in restricting voting rights to male property owners, with unlimited terms for the President, lifetime appointments to the US Senate, and unfettered capitalism. Paine’s vision ensured equality of all men—and women—in all respects, including universal suffrage, universal public education, universal health care, social security, and almost all the individual benefits promised by twentieth-century socialism.'"

Podcasts and Videos

National Archives talk
Lapham's Quarterly