Essential Books on Thomas Paine
There are countless books on Thomas Paine, and it comes with good reason, he was the English political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary that authored Common Sense and The American Crisis, two of the most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution. Paine’s works helped inspire the Patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain, as well as reflect Enlightenment-era ideals of transnational human rights.
“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Thomas Paine.
Despite his being a founder of both the United States and the French Republic, the creator of the phrase “United States of America,” and the author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine is the least well-known of America’s founding fathers. This edifying biography by Craig Nelson traces Paine’s path from his years as a London mechanic, through his emergence as the voice of revolutionary fervor on two continents, to his final days in the throes of dementia. By acquainting us as never before with this complex and combative genius, Nelson rescues a giant from obscurity – and gives us a fascinating work of history.
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye
Paine was one of the most remarkable political writers of the modern world and the greatest radical of a radical age. Through writings like Common Sense – and words such as “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and “These are the times that try men’s souls” – he not only turned America’s colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war but, as Kaye demonstrates, articulated an American identity charged with exceptional purpose and promise.
Beginning with Paine’s life and ideas and following their vigorous influence through to our own day, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America reveals how, while the powers that be repeatedly sought to suppress, defame, and most recently co-opt Paine’s memory, generations of radical and liberal Americans turned to Paine for inspiration as they endeavored to expand American freedom, equality, and democracy.
Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence by Harlow Giles Unger
Thomas Paine’s words were like no others in history: they leaped off the page, inspiring readers to change their lives, their governments, their kings, and even their gods. In an age when spoken and written words were the only forms of communication, Paine’s aroused men to action like no one else.
The most widely read political writer of his generation, he proved to be more than a century ahead of his time, conceiving and demanding unheard-of social reforms that are now integral elements of modern republican societies. Among them were government subsidies for the poor, universal housing and education, pre- and post-natal care for women, and universal social security. An Englishman who emigrated to the American colonies, he formed close friendships with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and his ideas helped shape the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
However, the world turned against Paine in his later years. While his earlier works, Common Sense and Rights of Man, attacked the political and social status quo here on earth, The Age of Reason attacked the status quo of the hereafter. Former friends shunned him, and the man America had hailed as the muse of the American Revolution died alone and forgotten.
Packed with action and intrigue, soldiers and spies, politics and perfidy, this necessary addition to the ever-budding index of books on Thomas Paine offers a much-needed new look at a defining figure.
Common Sense by Thomas Paine
Published anonymously on January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine’s legendary work made the case for American independence.
An immediate sensation across the thirteen colonies, Common Sense extolled Paine’s belief that government should be simple and represent the will of the people, acting not as an oppressor but as a body to protect society. His clear and persuasive argument appealed to the common people, impressing on them the importance of secession from Great Britain. Six months after Common Sense was published, independence was declared, and the American Revolution was born.
Infamous Scribblers by Eric Burns
Infamous Scribblers is a perceptive and witty exploration of the most volatile period in the history of the American press. News correspondent and renowned media historian Eric Burns tells of Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Sam Adams – the leading journalists among the Founding Fathers; of George Washington and John Adams, the leading disdainers of journalists; and Thomas Jefferson, the leading manipulator of journalists.
These men and the writers who abused and praised them in print (there was, at the time, no job description of “journalist”) included the incendiary James Franklin, Ben’s brother and one of the first muckrakers; the high-minded Thomas Paine; the hatchet man James Callender, and a rebellious crowd of propagandists, pamphleteers, and publishers.
It was Washington who gave this book its title. He once wrote of his dismay at being “buffited in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.” The journalism of the era was often partisan, fabricated, overheated, scandalous, sensationalistic and sometimes stirring, brilliant, and indispensable. Despite its flaws – even because of some of them – the participants hashed out publicly the issues that would lead America to declare its independence and, after the war, to determine what sort of nation it would be.
The Great Debate by Yuval Levin
In The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the roots of the left/right political divide in America by examining the views of the men who best represented each side at its origin: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Striving to forge a new political path in the tumultuous age of the American and French revolutions, these two ideological titans sparred over moral and philosophical questions about the nature of political life and the best approach to social change: radical and swift, or gradual and incremental. The division they articulated continues to shape our political life today.
Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens
Thomas Paine was one of the greatest advocates of freedom in history, and his Declaration of the Rights of Man, first published in 1791, is the key to his reputation. Inspired by his outrage at Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, Paine’s text is a passionate defense of man’s inalienable rights. Since its publication, Rights of Man has been celebrated, criticized, maligned, suppressed, and co-opted.
But in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, the polemicist and commentator Christopher Hitchens, “at his characteristically incisive best,” marvels at its forethought and revels in its contentiousness (The Times, London). Hitchens is a political descendant of the great pamphleteer, “a Tom Paine for our troubled times” (The Independent, London). In this “engaging account of Paine’s life and times [that is] well worth reading” he demonstrates how Paine’s book forms the philosophical cornerstone of the United States, and how, “in a time when both rights and reason are under attack,” Thomas Paine’s life and writing “will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend” (New Statesman).
The Church of Saint Thomas Paine by Leigh Eric Schmidt
In this gem among books on Thomas Paine, Leigh Eric Schmidt tells the surprising story of how freethinking liberals in nineteenth-century America promoted a secular religion of humanity centered on the deistic revolutionary Thomas Paine and how their descendants eventually became embroiled in the culture wars of the late twentieth century.
After Paine’s remains were stolen from his grave in New Rochelle, New York, and shipped to England in 1819, the reverence of his American disciples took a material turn in a long search for his relics. Paine’s birthday was always a red-letter day for these believers in democratic cosmopolitanism and philanthropic benevolence, but they expanded their program to include a broader array of rites and ceremonies, particularly funerals free of Christian supervision. They also worked to establish their own churches and congregations in which to practice their religion of secularism.
All of these activities raised serious questions about the very definition of religion and whether it included nontheistic fellowships and humanistic associations – a dispute that erupted again in the second half of the twentieth century. As right-wing Christians came to see secular humanism as the most dangerous religion imaginable, small communities of religious humanists, the heirs of Paine’s followers, were swept up in new battles about religion’s public contours and secularism’s moral perils.
The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
The Age of Reason is an influential work by Thomas Paine that follows in the tradition of eighteenth-century British deism, and challenges institutionalized religion and the legitimacy of the Bible. It presents common deistic arguments; for example, it highlights what Paine saw as corruption in the Christian Church and criticizes the church’s efforts to acquire political power.
Paine advocates reason in the place of revelation, leading him to reject miracles and to view the Bible as “an ordinary piece of literature rather than as a divinely inspired text.” It promotes natural religion and argues for the existence of a creator-God.
The Age of Reason is divided into three sections. In Part I, Paine outlines his major arguments and personal creed. In Parts II and III he analyzes specific portions of the Bible in order to demonstrate that it is not the revealed word of God. Most of Paine’s arguments had long been available to the educated elite, but by presenting them in an engaging and irreverent style, he made deism appealing and accessible to a mass audience.
Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man argues that human rights are inherent. As such, they cannot be conferred on citizens by their governments because to do so would mean that these rights can be revoked by that same government. Paine further suggests that government is responsible for protecting the rights of men, and therefore, the interests of governments and citizens are united. Within this context, Paine argues that revolution is acceptable when the rights of men are not respected or defended by their governments.
Originally published in two volumes in 1791 and 1792, Paine’s discourse reflected on the French Revolution, and positioned the uprising as an attack against a corrupt governing system, rather than a personal attack on the king himself. As a result of his arguments in favor of revolution and social welfare, Thomas Paine was tried and convicted of seditious libel against the Crown of England, and sentenced, in absentia, to hanging. Resident in France at the time of his British trial, Paine never returned to England.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Thomas Paine, check out our list of The 10 Best Books on Benjamin Franklin!