He was born in 1737, and his quaker father was able to send him to Thetford Grammar School. His turn of phrase that made him such a popular pamphleteer in America must have been nurtured there. Thetford is an historic town; the first reference we have to it is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and dates from the year 870, before Norwich even existed. It was the see of the bishops of East Anglia at the time of William the Conqueror. Thetford Grammar School is possibly the oldest school in the country, going back some 1400 years.
Thetford and Norwich held the two Assize Courts in Norfolk, where the most serious cases were tried. Thomas Paine grew up in the shadow of Gallows Hill, something which undoubtedly led to his lifelong opposition to the death penalty. He voted against the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a member of the National Convention. As a result he himself came with a whisker of being executed during the Terror.
His schooling ended when he was twelve, when he was apprenticed to his father as a corset maker. He left home as a young man and spent a year or so working in the Norfolk town of Diss. Although he lacked experience as a sailor he went to sea as a crewman aboard a privateer at the age of nineteen. The voyage was a success and his share of the booty netted him a small fortune. This gave him the means to further his education in an informal way in the lecture halls and coffee shops of London.
He married, but his first wife died in giving birth and the child also perished. A second marriage ended apparently without ever being consummated. By his late 30s his life appeared to be going nowhere. He was living at Lewes in Sussex when he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, the American philosopher, diplomat and inventor. This meeting changed his life. He decide to take ship to Pennsylvania where his lively mind soon threw him into the burgeoning intellectual life of the Colony. He became a popular journalist.
His was the major influence in the wording of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. With peace declare and the British acceptance of American independence in 1783 he was able to return to England. He had been completely unknown when he left these shores, but he certainly was not upon his return. His ability to put across his democratic sentiments in an unmistakable way earned him many friends among the common people and enemies in the establishment.
The developing situation across the channel in France presented Thomas Paine with the opportunity to attempt to put his mark on another revolution. Although ignorant of the French language he was elected the National Convention. In the Terror he was very nearly sent to the Guillotine. His uncompromising dedication to the truth as he saw it earned him enemies wherever he went. A brief period of peace in 1802 enabled him to return to the United States; he was unable to return to England having been convicted of seditious libel in absentia.
He was a free-thinker in advance of his time. His views on religion were very controversial during his lifetime, but they now seem rather moderate in our own more agnostic age. “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” He was a Deist, not an atheist, and believed in one God.
His call for free and universal education, old age pensions and family allowances – the Welfare State in fact – took well over a century to come about, and then only in parts of the developed world. His opposition to slavery did not bear fruit in the United States until more than fifty year after his death; his opposition to the death penalty is still only very partially reflected in legislatures around the world. Naturally he was opposed to any form of monarchy. In many ways he reminds me of Jeremy Corbyn. It is true that Tom Paine did not advocate the nationalisation of railways like Corbyn, but only because railways had not been invented; had they been I’m sure he would have wanted them in public ownership. Come to that, so do I.