Thomas Paine’s Return to America


Many people know Paine as the author of Common Sense, The Crisis, and The Rights of Man. Fewer know him as an unapologetic opponent of slavery, paper money, and aristocratic privilege. Fewer still know he spent considerable time in both England and France – escaping death sentences in both countries – and finally returned to America in 1802.

As I point out in my book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, Paine left France in a dejected state. Despite his drive to see France exude the same republican principles that America had, his vision was subverted on two major occasions, first by the Jacobins, who sought to punish alleged counterrevolutionary dissidents more than they sought to promote individual liberty, and second by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose personal ambitions for power displaced any semblance of representative government. By the end of his days in Paris, he was utterly disenchanted by the trajectory of the French Revolution and saw promise in a return to America.

By his own account, the factor that most convinced him to return to American soil was the triumph of Thomas Jefferson in the bitter United States presidential election of 1800, which pitted the Virginian statesman against his Federalist nemesis, John Adams. When news of Jefferson’s victory reached Paine in France, the writer was filled with a renewed sense of vigor and hope. “There has been no circumstance, with respect to America, since the times of her revolution,” Paine wrote to the presidential victor, “that has given more general joy.”

A firestorm of controversy greeted Paine’s return. The Age of Reason had made Paine a pariah in the middle of the Second Great Awakening, a continent-spanning Protestant religious revival in North America. Even though he had played such a crucial role in the actualization of American independence, the news that he had been seen dining with the president at the presidential mansion, and “was seen walking arm in arm with him in the street any fine afternoon,” was a minor scandal. Indeed, his presence as a lightning rod was immediately clear.

The Baltimore Republican, or The Anti-Democrat called the scribe a “loathsome reptile,” and Philadelphia’s Port Folio skewered him as “a drunken atheist, and the scavenger of action.” To his greatest foes, he was now a “lilly-livered sinical rogue,” a “demi-human archbeast,” and “an object of disgust, of abhorrence, of absolute loathing to every decent man except the President of the United States.”

The Gazette of the United States, and Daily Advertiser branded him “the infamous scavenger of all the filth which could be raked from the dirty paths which have been hitherto trodden by all the revilers of Christianity,” and another article from the same publication expressed that American agriculture would benefit from Paine’s return, should he be turned into manure.

Even as some of the president’s closest advisors urged him to keep the divisive figure at arm’s length, Jefferson remained on friendly terms with Paine throughout his presidency. In 1806, the essayist even offered his services to Jefferson to represent the administration as a diplomat in the case of a European peace agreement.

“I do this because I do not think there is a person in the United States that can render so much service on the business that will come on as myself,” he wrote, highlighting his experience in “the greater matters that now occupy” European politics. As he figured, Emperor Napoleon would soon march into Vienna, proclaim an end to continental hostilities, offer generous olive branches to his occupied kingdoms, and open trade on the high seas.

My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, explains why Jefferson declined Paine’s earnest offer to represent his administration overseas. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!

Dave Benner
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