Thomas Paine: From Pirate To Revolutionary

Depending on whether you reckon by the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar, Thomas Paine was born late in January or early in February of 1737, in Thetford, England, a small town about eighty-five miles north-northeast of London. His father, Joseph Paine, was a corset maker and a Quaker. His mother, Frances, was the daughter of a local attorney and a member of the Church of England.

Young Thomas attended the Thetford Grammar School until he was twelve years old; then he went to work as an apprentice to his father, learning the corset-making trade, which he quickly learned to loathe. Within a couple of years, he had begun running away from home, searching frantically for some way to escape corset making.

Maybe he could go to sea?

Thomas Paine
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Paine

At sixteen, in 1753, he brought it off. He shipped out on a privateer — a private warship authorized by the English government to attack and loot commercial vessels sailing under the flag of any nation with whom England was legally at war. England was then at war with France in North America in the conflict Americans know as the French and Indian War, which would evolve in a couple of years into the Seven Years’ War, a truly worldwide war that included battles in such far-flung places as Europe, Africa, India, South America, and the Philippines as well as North America.

All the major European powers of the period participated in the Seven Years’ War. More than a million people lost their lives in it. And the map of the world underwent major changes as a result. Canada passed from France to England. Florida passed from Spain to England.

But when Thomas Paine signed on as a crewman on a privateer in 1753, all this was in the future. For the next few years, he and his fellow crewmen concentrated on robbing whatever French commercial vessels they could locate. And they seem to have done pretty well for themselves. The costs of commissioning privateers were borne by private investors, who hoped to make a profit from the value of the goods seized by their crewmembers. Politicians liked them, too. They argued that privateering was less destructive and wasteful than conventional warfare, since the privateer’s goal was to capture ships rather than sink them. Also, and more to the point, privateering was a way of mobilizing armed ships and sailors without spending public money or commissioning naval officers.

Craig Nelson, author of the 2006 book Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, told WNYC interviewer Leonard Lopate in 2007 that Thomas Paine’s brief career as a privateer was a definite financial success.

When Paine was a young man, he made a lot of money during the Seven Years’ War working as a pirate. And he took two years off and really educated himself in the ideas of the Enlightenment, primarily the theories of Isaac Newton. And this self-education (which also Benjamin Franklin and George Washington did) is really what made him a figure of his time. He was able to impress very successful, very famous men — starting with Franklin, most importantly.

Thomas Paine – Dabbling in Ideas

In the early years, he failed at everything he tried.

Paine’s meeting with Franklin was still some years in the future, however. For now, he had his education to get on with. He moved to London and spent his two years hanging around bookshops and discussing ideas with the often rather widely read and knowledgeable types he met in such places — something that became a lifelong habit for him. In 1759, at the age of twenty-two, he married a servant girl.

By then, his two years as a full-time student behind him, he had gone back to corset making. It was work he knew. It enabled him to pay the bills. But he didn’t like it any better than he had as a teenager. After his wife and their infant child both died less than a year after his marriage, he began struggling once more to put corset making behind him. He tried working as a cobbler, a cabinetmaker, a schoolteacher. He failed at everything he tried.

He wasn’t as expert a worker in leather or wood as he was at making corsets, much as he hated it. And since his work wasn’t so expert in those trades, his inability to get along with people raised further problems for him. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore put it recently in an article on Paine in the New Yorker, “Even at his best, Paine was rough and unpolished.” He was plainspoken, direct, tactless, blunt. People might put up with that from a man whose work was of the very highest quality. But they wouldn’t put up with it from a man whose work was only average. Nor were headmasters and fellow teachers too keen on it. As Craig Nelson put it in that 2007 interview on WNYC,

He made a lot of people mad. He was something of a hard-nosed kind of guy, when it came to philosophical purity, so he made a lot of enemies.

Paine was plainspoken, tactless, blunt, but he was also insightful, even brilliant.

And so it was that in 1762, at twenty-five, Paine turned to thievery once again, this time as a tax collector for the English government. To his credit, he hated that occupation at least as much as he hated sewing whale bones into corsets, and fortunately an opportunity to escape another despised line of work soon presented itself. He was living in London, in a boardinghouse operated by an elderly tobacconist who owned and managed his own tobacco shop. The tobacconist, whose health was not good, died. Paine married the man’s daughter and took over the tobacco shop. But his new career was short-lived. He lost the shop and had to go back to tax collecting and corset making.

Thomas Paine – Coming to America

By the summer of 1774, he had had enough. He was thirty-seven years old and poor as the proverbial church mouse. He had been forced to sell almost everything he owned to pay his debts. He and his second wife had split up and gone their separate ways. He had no prospects but more corset making and more tax collecting. Willing to try almost anything else, he presented himself to Benjamin Franklin, who was living in London at that time as a sort of lobbyist or diplomat seeking to influence English policies that affected the colony of Pennsylvania. Paine talked with the sixty-eight-year-old Franklin and made a major impression on him. As I say, Paine was plainspoken, tactless, blunt, but he was also insightful, even brilliant. He asked Franklin for a letter of recommendation to someone in the American colonies who might provide him with work of some sort. Then he packed up what few possessions he could still call his own and boarded a ship for America.

The voyage over did not go well. According to Jill Lepore, Paine had “sickened with typhus during the journey.” He

arrived in Philadelphia in December, 1774, so weak that he had to

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