The first major secessionist movement in American history depended on many things for its success, not the least of which was an unemployed, twice-married tax collector from Thetford, England who had dropped out of school at age 12 to apprentice in his father’s stay-making business. As an adult he stumbled through various unsuccessful occupations while building a reputation as a beer hall debater.
At 37, broke and already close to the end of his life given the statistics for that period, he took a coach to London where he had a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was so impressed with his intellect he wrote him a letter of recommendation and urged him to take it to Philadelphia where he might find employment as a tutor.
Typhus almost killed him on the voyage over, but after a lengthy convalescence he found work as editor of a new magazine, publishing his first article on January 24, 1775. Foreign vices, he wrote, engaging his poetic flair, should they survive the voyage from Europe,
either expire on their arrival, or linger away in an incurable consumption. There is a happy something in the climate of America, which disarms them of all their power both of infection and attraction.
As one biographer has noted, “This was the beginning of [his] long love affair with America.”
More articles, often of an incendiary nature, tripled the number of subscribers. Later that year Franklin returned to Philadelphia and asked him to write a history of the colonies’ conflict with the Mother Country. Since he had once again lost his job over a salary dispute he decided to accept Franklin’s offer.
The 77-page pamphlet he published anonymously changed world history.
It argued persuasively that the choice for Americans was independence or slavery, that King George, far from deserving unconditional loyalty, was in truth “the Royal Brute of Great Britain” and the one chiefly responsible for the oppressive measures imposed on the colonists. [Mises article]
Published on January 10, 1776 and priced at an affordable two shillings, it sold 120,000 copies in three months, reaching tradesmen and statesmen alike. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard Bailyn has written,
A group of influential and articulate leaders, especially those from Massachusetts, were convinced that only independence from England could properly serve American needs, and Benjamin Franklin . . . had reached the same conclusion and had found like-minded people in Philadelphia. But that was not the common opinion of the Congress, and it was not the general view of the population at large. Not a single colony had instructed its delegates to work for independence . . . All the most powerful unspoken assumptions of the time -- indeed, common sense -- ran counter to the notion of independence. [Bernard Bailyn, pp. 68-69, emphasis in original]
His pamphlet overturned those unspoken assumptions. After July 4th colonists understood what the war was about.
But it wasn't going well at all. After suffering heavy losses in New York, Washington retreated across New Jersey and crossed the Delaware River, settling in outside Philadelphia. By mid-December many soldiers had only one goal, staying alive until their period of enlistment was up at the end of the month. Morale was low, and desertions were rising. Well-aware of the colonists’ condition, British General Sir William Howe ordered his troops into winter quarters, creating outposts from New York to Burlington, New Jersey.
A desperate Washington turned to the Thetford native, who was serving as an aide-de-camp, and asked him for help.
Shortly before Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night for an early morning attack on a Hessian garrison at Trenton, he penned the first of a series of essays known as “The American Crisis.” It is said that Washington ordered the essay read to his demoralized and ill-clad troops during a sleet-storm before making the crossing. The essay, immortalized in American history with its opening words — These are the times that try men’s souls — may have inspired the men or not, but it did boost the spirits of patriot civilians when they heard news of the Americans’ decisive victory. [Mises article]
After the war he returned to England to find a builder for an iron bridge he had designed. Though he was by then a celebrity and participating in the “pomp and show” of Europe, he had strong longings for his adopted country thousands of miles away.
In a letter to his newly-married friend, Kitty Nicholson Few, in January 1789, he anguished over the future of the country he had helped create that had undergone a nationalist-led coup d’etat in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.
A thousand years hence (for I must indulge in a few thoughts), perhaps in less, America may be what England now is! The innocence of her character that won the hearts of all nations in her favor may sound like a romance, and her inimitable virtue as if it had never been. The ruins of that liberty which thousands bled for, or suffered to obtain, may just furnish materials for a village tale or extort a sigh from rustic sensibility, while the fashionable of that day, enveloped in dissipation, shall deride the principle and deny the fact.
Those last words — “shall deride the principle and deny the fact” — do we not hear them every day, in one form or another, from anyone with a public voice? Have we not surrendered to an elite that wanted a more “energetic” government funded by an “elastic” currency? Have we become “what England now is,” which he described as “the greatest perfection of fraud and corruption that ever took place since governments began”? I leave that for you to decide.
Happy birthday, Thomas Paine. And thanks for the country.
For a dramatization of his role in the American Revolution, see this.