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Last updated:08 June 2015

Thomas Paine and 'Rights of Man'

Thomas Paine, a staymaker's son, was born in 1737 in the small country town of Thetford in Norfolk. He attended the local school until he was twelve and left to become his father's apprentice. The probability of him becoming anything other than a country tradesman seemed minimal.

Thomas PaineAt nineteen, however, with his apprenticeship over, he ran away to London to begin an eventful life full, equally, of fame and notoriety. He escaped death several times including once as an English sailor, once as an American soldier and once, narrowly dodging the guillotine, as an elected Deputy to the French National Convention.

His radical ideas about freedom, justice, equality, republicanism and the importance of reason were expressed in the plainest of language and published in the cheapest possible editions to reach ordinary people. All of his three major publications - Common Sense (1776), Rights of Man (1791-2) and Age of Reason (1794-5) - became immediate best sellers.

When the first edition of Rights of Man, the most incendiary of his books, was first sold in 1791 it cost three shillings. It drew very little response from the political authorities because only the wealthy could afford it. When he brought out a cheap sixpenny edition, however, he was prosecuted and a Royal Proclamation condemning the book was issued. The Attorney General condemned it as ‘thrust into the hands of subjects of every description, even children's sweetmeats being wrapped in it'.

Far ahead of his time, Paine wrote against slavery and poverty and in favour of Amerindian freedom, an old age pension, family allowances, maternity benefits and free education. His ideas were a source of inspiration across two continents two hundred years ago and are still an inspiration today.

Click here for details of resources about Paine which you can read in the Library, and for links to films in which schools take a contemporary look at his ideas.