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Throughout the duration of the war, Paine was responsible for publishing a series of propaganda pieces which were published in the Crisis. In these, he often addressed the British Crown and warned of the Americans' united spirit: "In all the wars which you have formerly been concerned in you had only armies to contend with; in this case, you have both an army and a country to combat with," (Paine, Crisis 68). During this time he was also appointed to the position of secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs in 1777. Paine was partially responsible for securing supplying deals with France for the benefit of the American war effort. Yet overall, his role in the war was that of an essayist, in the aim of promoting American morale by artfully composing works that reminded the individual colonist of the ideals for which he or she fought and sacrificed. In this role, he attained significant acclaim and made a name for himself among commoner and elite political theorists alike.
The general philosophical movement within which Paine found himself in the late eighteenth century originated in the earlier English Revolution; but Paine was partially responsible for bringing the original ideals of John Locke and Rousseau into the context of the American and French Revolutions. From the seventeenth century on, Western societies increasingly began to question the legitimacy of the divine rule held by monarchs. In England this trend was seeded by the seemingly unjustifiable wars and taxes under King John, and became fully fledged following Henry VIII's utter overhaul of the English Church for purely personal aims. France, on the other hand, lacked the same tradition of limited government that their northern neighbors extolled, but seriously began to embrace radical notions of freedom and revolution as economic crises magnified the excesses and injustices of the noble class. In the American colonies, analogous inequities and encroachments upon freedom caused not only a movement away from the king who was deemed responsible, but a reincarnation of the forms of democracy birthed in ancient Greece and practiced in early Rome. The common notion to emerge from all three revolutions was that a collective government of representatives could more effectively address the needs of a society, and that these communal needs were philosophically more valuable than the singular ambitions of a monarch. Although, the eventual outcomes of the three struggles seem to illustrate the two most probable products of revolution, they all reveal the fact that quickly became apparent to all rulers in the west: that no government can stand without the support of the people.
Paine's involvement in these movements originated with his experience in America during the revolution. At the conclusion of the war, Paine argued in favor of the Pennsylvania constitution, and because of his actions, he was appointed to the position of clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. This job allowed him to put together legislation that supported his most deeply held beliefs about mankind and the morally just functioning of government. Essentially, he pushed for the gradual emancipation of all slaves within Pennsylvania, as well as for the equal rights of women under the Pennsylvania constitution. At the same time, he argued in favor of the centralization of the American government, in the hopes of forming a powerful, cohesive federal government, rather than a mere collection of independent states. It was this vision, combined with his opposition of slavery that caused Paine to oppose the expansion of Virginia's territories into the West.
Still, political essay-writing, policy formation and philosophy were not Thomas Paine's only activities in the years immediately following the war. He dabbled in engineering as well. Paine designed a bridge he planned to have built across the Schuylkill River; when funds for this project began to fall low, he traveled to France to seek additional aid, but found himself in the middle of what was becoming the French Revolution. The monarchs of France had enjoyed near absolute power for nearly a century when Louis XVI came to power; Louis XIV had declared his divine right as ruler of France in 1715. Additionally, the aristocracy and clergy had positioned themselves such that their privileged place under the King was difficult to unseat. The result was that the economic depravity that should have affected the entire nation fell almost completely upon the commoners. The only means the government could offer to check the King's power was through the Estates General which was divided into three sections: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commoners. Not surprisingly, as hardships fell unduly upon the members of the third estate they began to question the reasoning behind only possessing a third of the vote, and yet, representing almost the entirety of France. Although Louis XVI was willing to make some concessions to the common people, the fundamental structure of the government could not compensate for the changes that were necessary; revolution was the only answer. The years that the royal family had spent solidifying their position in society and the government ultimately backfired because it made them so impenetrable through conventional means that reforms from within could not soften their solid stance. Robespierre and other political leaders looked to the American form of Democracy as inspiration for what they could accomplish for the people of France.
Within this setting, Paine was inspired by the emerging political thought he encountered, and attempted to spread the theories of the revolution to England. He entered the fray of the pamphlet war in England, which had been initiated by Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine's answer to this was his famous essay the Rights of Man. This work praised and encouraged the activities of the French revolution; it also called for the English people to force a reorganization of aristocratic power on its own. Paine hoped that the seeds of revolution in France would eventually spread throughout the European world. However, the English government, in reaction to these developments, severely tightened their treason laws. This made many political essayists and speakers outlaws in the eyes of the crown. Paine was forced to flee to France, but was still found guilty by the English courts, and sentenced to exile. Mobs burned him in effigy, and viewed him as a traitor to his people.
Yet once he was back in France, Paine again lent his services to the revolutionaries. By virtue of his fame, he found himself a delegate in the new French Republic, and despite his inability to speak French, became a member of the Committee of Nine, which was charged with the task of putting together the French Constitution. He also put forward a famous defense of King Louis XVI's life, again, based upon the conception that human beings possess a basic right to their lives. Also, Paine contended that the philosophical truths upon which the French and American Revolutions were founded upon idea that could be arrived at through rational thought processes. Accordingly, Paine believed that an exiled King Louis would eventually be capable of fully comprehending the unjustifiable character of his previous rule.
After only a year of direct involvement in the French Revolution, events in Paine's life took a decisive turn for the worse. In 1793, France and England went to war; at this point, foreigners, particularly Englishmen, were seen as enemies by many of the French revolutionaries. As a result, Paine was arrested and imprisoned in Luxemburg. In a prison cell he stayed for over ten months. During this period Paine spent almost his entire sentence writing one of his most brilliant, though certainly his most controversial pieces of philosophy: The Age of Reason. This essay was an aggressive attack against institutionalized religion in all of its forms. Within it, Paine argued against the Catholic Church and the Church of England upon the grounds that they serve as tools of mass oppression, when the true path to God, in his eyes, was philosophical reasoning. By creating these institutions, he contended, the populous was afforded the luxury of not having to critically examine what God may truly be, but at the expense of their individuality and freedom.
Not surprisingly, Paine was criticized harshly once he was eventually released from prison and published the Age of Reason. He also lost most of his support from the predominantly protestant culture in the Americas. Paine also criticized George Washington in a letter which was also published. Thus, when he finally returned to the United States in 1802, he was hated by many of the same people who had sung his praises in the years prior. Among the leaders of the American Revolution, only Thomas Jefferson ever reconciled with Paine in his later years. Even in the end, Jefferson expressed great admiration for Common Sense: "Although Jefferson probably arrived at the same conclusions independently, he expresses complete endorsement of Paine's views, and seems to have valued them as highly as those of any of his contemporaries," (Wiltse 56). Ultimately, despite his fantastic career and…[continue]
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