As Americans celebrate Independence Day today, it is worth remembering that the United States owes much to a man who once collected taxes in Brighton. If it wasn’t for Thomas Paine’s literary efforts, America may well never have achieved independence.
Born in Thetford in 1737, Paine lived in nearby Lewes from 1768 until 1774. He arrived in the town having been appointed the local exciseman, a government official responsible for collecting duties and preventing smuggling. Although based in Lewes, Paine was responsible for an area that stretched as far west as the increasingly fashionable town of Brighton. Like most towns and villages on the 18th century Sussex coast, smugglers were active in Brighton, and Paine would certainly have spent some time in the town.
It was in Lewes that Paine first became politically active. A prominent member of the Headstrong Club, a local debating society, his earliest writings probably appeared as letters published in the local newspaper, the Sussex Weekly Advertiser. Paine’s authorship of any of these letters is impossible to prove, as most of these were published under pen names. But he was clearly identified as the author of The Case of the Officers of Excise in 1772, a short pamphlet appealing for better pay and conditions for excisemen. The pamphlet led to Paine being sacked from his post the following year. Forced into bankruptcy, and divorced from his wife, Paine left Lewes in early 1774. On the advice of Benjamin Franklin, who lived in London at the time, he set sail for America.
Paine found work as a journalist, and became the co-editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Just a few months after his arrival, American discontent with British rule had turned into armed rebellion, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. But even though many Americans were in open conflict with the British, there was no consensus among the rebels on what form of settlement they wished to achieve. Paine’s intervention proved decisive.
In January 1776 Paine wrote and published Common Sense. A biting attack on the British monarchy, and an eloquent argument in favour of republican government, it proved a publishing sensation. It hardened public support for independence from Britain, and even though roughly a third of Americans would remain loyal to the British until the end of the war, it paved the way for the Declaration of Independence later that year.
During the War of Independence, Paine served in a variety of mostly civilian roles. Perhaps most notably, he wrote a series of articles entitled The American Crisis. During the more desperate years of the war, when the Americans suffered repeated military reversals, Paine’s writings were used to bolster morale. George Washington is known to have read passages from The American Crisis to his troops.
American independence was finally secured by Washington’s victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. While many of Paine’s contemporaries settled down to the business of establishing a new government for the country, Paine continued to pursue an extraordinary and disruptive career. He returned to England in 1787, and proved more troublesome to the British government than ever. In 1791-2 he published the Rights of Man, a stinging attack on British monarchical rule. Charged with ‘seditious libel’ by the government, and fearing for his life, Paine fled the country in 1792.
He took up residence in France, a country in the course of its own revolution. In recognition of his writings he was awarded honorary French citizenship and became a representative of Pas-de-Calais in the new National Convention. Although his spoken French was poor, Paine made important contributions to several debates, and argued against the execution of Louis XVI during the French king’s trial by the Convention. His intervention was unsuccessful, and almost proved fatal for Paine too: his defence of the king raised the suspicions of Robespierre and his allies. Paine was imprisoned in 1793, during the Reign of Terror, and only narrowly escaped execution.
Following his release, Paine remained in France for several years. Disenchanted by the failures of the French Revolution, he longed to return to America. But many of Paine’s old allies did not wish him to return. A divisive figure at the best of times, Paine had alienated many of his former supporters with another book, the two parts of the Age of Reason. An attack on organised religion, the book was published at a time when America was undergoing a great Christian revival. He was only permitted to return to America when his old friend Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801. Granted a smallholding in New York, he spent his final years in relative isolation, and was scorned by most prominent Americans. He died in 1809.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer
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