“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

The cause of freedom is often a winding and dangerous one, especially if you are a late 18th Century radical swept up in the French Revolution. Thomas Paine lay deftly ill in a French prison in 1793. Yet illness was the least of his worries. As he slipped in and out of consciousness, he was unaware that he had been marked for execution that night. Like many unfornutate souls in the cell blocks around him, he had a late night appointment with the ‘the national razor’.

Composition by Twistification

Thomas Payne had called out for sensibility and restraint while at the French National Convention, but the reign of terror began to grow and swallow up any traces of moderation. Paine called for a just and humane treatment of the deposed King Louis XVI. Needless to say, this was an unpopular stance. Seen as an outsider, Paine collected dangerous enemies.

I can only imagine the mixed feelings Paine felt toward the former French monarch. King Louis XVI represented the very core of what free people fought to overcome, yet was personally responsible for funding and supporting the American cause. Without French military and monetary support (a support that bankrupted the nation and greased the gears of revolution), the new experiment in freedom and democracy would of never taken hold.

The details are unknown, but Payne’s cellmates came to his rescue that night. They asked the guards to open the cell door to let in air for the ailing man. The open door concealed the mark that signaled the executioners to exterminate the occupants of the cell. Payne managed to keep his head until the end of the reign of terror. He left the prison a changed man. Paine was a man who championed the noble cause of freedom and equality for all men, yet became an eye witness of a society who turned its freedom into something terrible and dark.

Payne rarely gets his due. His pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ galvanized the American People and ranks in importance along side Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. Both were critical events that stabilized and lifted weak and crumbling American morale.

But there are reasons Paine gets lost in the shuffle of American heroes. Like all, he had his faults and opinions, but unlike them, he tended to let those opinions be known in printed form.  He committed two cardinal sins that essentially ruined him in the eyes of the American public. He criticized Christianity-and almost just as damming-he criticized George Washington. Payne blamed Washington for leaving him in that cell. Washington’s motives were not known at the time however. There was a chance that he never knew of Payne’s peril, or that he DID know and believed that the walls French prison were the best way to protect oneself against French mobs.

I recommend the book ‘Thomas Paine’ Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations by Craig Nelson.  Nelson does a wonderful job of telling Paine’s fascinating and tragic story. He also uncovers the power and influence of Paines’ writing had on the workers movement of the 19th century. I’ve become attached to this radical who in many ways was well ahead of his time. For example, he was an abolitionist and friend of Benjamin Franklin and the first to propose a minimum wage.

Additional note: steer away from ‘Thomas Paine and the Promise of America‘ by Harvey J. Kaye. It is dryly written and not nearly as comprehensive as Craig Nelson’s work.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from the remarkable Mr. Paine:
“The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure is.”
-Common Sense, 1776