On this day in history : 18th December 1782 – Thomas Paine, radical political writer, is tried in his absence for treason – for publishing ‘The Rights of Man’ – in which he called for the abolition of the British Monarchy….and gave support for the French Revolution….

Thomas Paine – by Laurent Dabos – Public domain

Born in Thetford, Norfolk in 1737, Paine started his adult life as a corset maker and as a school teacher…. On becoming an excise officer he was compelled to write a 21 page booklet demanding better working conditions and pay for his co-workers….

In 1774, whilst in London, he happened to meet one of the founding fathers of the US, Benjamin Franklin – who advised him to go to America…. He did so in the November of 1774 – at a time when American revolutionaries were beginning to take steps to break away from Britain…. Paine joined the revolution – and in 1776 he published ‘Common Sense’ – a short pamphlet – but one that gained him the name ‘The Father of the American Revolution’…. ‘Common Sense’ played an important role in persuading colonists to fight for independence from Britain…. By the end of 1776 – 150,000 copies had sold – a considerable number for the time – and was so influential that John Adams, the USA’s second president, declared “without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain”….

‘Common Sense’, published 1776 – Public domain

Paine had returned to London by 1787 – and when the French Revolution began in 1789 he took a strong interest in it….and in 1790 he travelled to France…. At the same time Irish writer, political theorist and philosopher, Edmund Burke, published his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’….which was highly critical of the French Revolution…. His publication sold 30,000 copies; in retaliation Paine responded with a 90,000 word book ~ ‘Rights of Man’, attacking the concept of monarchies and traditional social institutions…. It immediately became a success with democrats, reformers, Protestant dissenters and skilled workers alike – and the book sold nearly a million copies….

Thomas Paine, author of ‘The Rights of Man’ – from John Baxter’s ‘Impartial History of England’, 1796 – Das48 CC BY-SA 4.0

Naturally the government were none too happy with Paine and did their best to discredit him…. However, undeterred, he published the second part of his ‘The Rights of Man’ in February 1792…. This time it was marketed at a reduced price to ensure it reached as many people as possible….

Paine was hounded out of Britain by those opposing his view – and an indictment for ‘seditious libel’ was raised against him and his publishers…. Paine was ‘tried in absentia’ and found guilty of treason….a crime punishable by death at the time…. However, in recognition of the effect ‘The Rights of Man’ had on the ‘Cause’ of the French Revolution, Paine was granted an honorary French citizenship….

Things didn’t all go in his favour though…. At one point Paine was mistaken for an aristocrat – and narrowly escaped execution…. Again, in 1793, he was accused of treason – because of his opposition to the death penalty – he was arrested and imprisoned in Luxembourg…. He put this time to good use though – by beginning work on his next book ‘The Age of Reason’ – a work of three parts – questioning religion, which was to discredit him in the US, making him a hated man….

Thomas Paine by Matthew Pratt – circa 1785 – 1795 – Public domain

Paine was released from prison in 1794….and in 1802 he returned to America – where he was welcomed by President Thomas Jefferson, whom he had met in France…. However, American newspapers still damned him and he was loathed by many….

Paine died on the 8th of June 1809 whilst in New York – and he was buried on his own property in New Rochelle, with little ceremony….

In 1819 his remains were stolen….by radical writer and journalist William Cobbett – who brought them back to England…. Apparently the aim was of giving Paine a more fitting burial…. In order to raise money for a memorial, Cobbett planned to display the bones….he even made jewellery from hair removed from the skull, which he intended to sell…. Cobbett spent some time in Newgate Prison, for a libellous case, involving the flogging of local militiamen in Ely…and the bones ended up in his cellar…. Although rumours surface from time to time, nobody actually knows where the remains of Thomas Paine are today….

Oil painting by Laurent Dabos circa 1791 – Public domain

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