Also known as
Thomas Paine Day
annually on January 29th
Freethinkers Day, also known as Thomas Paine Day, celebrates the life and work of Thomas Paine, who was born on today's date in 1737. The day not only educates the public about Paine's work but also about freethinking, a concept that his work was often imbued with, which rejects arbitrary authority and puts reason and logic before faith. The holiday began being observed in the 1990s, when The Truth Seeker magazine started holding the day on Paine's birthday, in an effort to educate the public of his importance to the history of freedom and liberty. They said the day could be celebrated by giving and displaying a white rose with thorns, which symbolizes beauty, purity, and fragility, but also danger, on account of the thorn. The Thomas Paine Foundation also began celebrating Paine's birthday in the 1990s, although they proclaimed a separate holiday, Thomas Paine Day, to take place on June 8, the anniversary of his death.
Thomas Paine was a freethinker whose works inspired people to fight for social, political, and economic advancement. He was an early proponent for universal human rights and for the end of slavery. Writing during the Age of Enlightenment, some of his books, pamphlets, and essays helped establish a philosophical foundation for the American Revolution. His most widely known works include Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason.
Paine was born in Thetford, England, to a Quaker father and Anglican mother. He apprenticed his father at an early age and was not very successful at his subsequent jobs. For example, his stay rope making business failed. He also faced hardship when his wife and baby passed away during childbirth.
In 1768, Paine began working as an excise officer on the Sussex coast. He published his first political work four years later, a 21-page article titled "The Case of the Officers of Excise," which defended higher pay for excise officers. He handed out 4,000 copies to citizens and to members of Parliament. He was fired from the excise office in the spring of 1774, but met Benjamin Franklin soon afterward, who advised him to move to America.
The shores of the American colonies first came into Thomas Paine's view on November 30, 1774. It was here that his fate shifted: he would go on to play a role in both the American and French revolutions. He began helping edit Pennsylvania Magazine in January of the following year, and then started publishing anonymously or under pseudonyms such as "Amicus" and "Atlanticus." He criticized Quakers for pacifism, and he endorsed something similar to Social Security. He wrote an essay titled "African Slavery in America," where he condemned the African slave trade, signing it as "Justice and Humanity."
He began calling for a revolt from and freedom from Britain and laid out his ideas in Common Sense, a 50-page pamphlet published during the Revolution, on January 10, 1776. This "republican pamphlet," the first pamphlet advocating for American independence, was successful right away: some sources say 150,000 copies were sold by the end of the year, while others say 500,000 were sold in just a few months. It made the claim that a representative government is superior to a monarchy or other governments based on aristocracy or heredity. It asserted that in order for the colonies to survive they had to break away from Britain and that it was the best time to do so. This was Paine's most influential piece, and it moved public opinion in the direction that independence was necessary. Colonists had largely been undecided on the issue, and Paine's call for revolt from British rule initiated debate, and got them to discuss it in the streets.
Paine served in the Revolutionary War under General Nathaneal Greene, becoming his personal assistant. He published 16 papers titled The American Crisis between December 1776 and 1783. The first one began with the line "These are the times that try men's souls." George Washington had this one read to his troops at Valley Forge, at a time when they were down, in order to try to lift them up and inspire them to victory.
In 1777, Congress named Paine to be secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. He was removed from the committee in 1779 after he quoted from secret documents and revealed secret negotiations with France. He then became a clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. He started a drive for supplies for troops and authored "Public Good" in 1780, which called for the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with a "continental constitution" that would provide for a stronger central government.
In April 1787, Paine headed back to England, where he heard about the burgeoning revolutionary movement taking place in France, and resolved to support it. Between March 1791 and February 1792, he published various editions of Rights of Man, in which he defended the French Revolution, in response to Edmund Burke's 1790 attack on it. Rights of Man was more than just a call for revolution: it was also critical of aristocratic society and Europe's inheritance laws. England banned the book and indicted Paine for treason in the summer of 1792, but he was on his way to France at the time, to oversee a French translation of the book.
Instead of calling for the execution of King Louis XVI, Paine called for his banishment. After the radicals and Robespierre took power of France, Paine was sent to prison and was almost executed himself. He remained in prison from Dec 28, 1793, through November 4, 1794. During this time, the first part of The Age of Reason was published. This three-part book explored religion and its place in society. It took a deist position, being critical of institutionalized religion and Christian theology. The second and third parts of the book were published after Paine was released from prison. Once again, Paine found one of his works being banned in Britain.
After his release from prison, Paine stayed in France until President Thomas Jefferson invited him to the United States, where he arrived in 1802 or 1803. His status as an important figure of the Revolution had diminished, and it wasn't until over a century later that he was once again remembered for his contributions, and that his reputation improved. One reason that his stature had fallen in his own time was he was critical of the widely-popular George Washington, publishing the "Letter to George Washington," which attacked the former President, accusing him of fraud and corruption.
Thomas Paine passed away in New York City on June 8, 1809. There were only a handful of mourners at his funeral, and he was buried on his property in New Rochelle. About a decade later, his remains were stolen by William Cobbett, a radical newspaperman who planned to give them a proper burial in England. Cobbett said he wanted to display Paine's bones in order to raise money for a memorial, but the bones ended up in Cobbett's cellar until his death. They then became lost after estate auctioneers refused to sell them.
A shift in public perception of Paine's importance began in January 1937, when the Times of London called him the "English Voltaire." He eventually became remembered as a seminal player in the American Revolution. In 2001, New Rochelle began an effort to try to regain Paine's remains and give him a proper burial. It is still not known where his remains are, although The Thomas Paine National Historical Association claims to have possession of fragments of his brain and locks of his hair. Regardless of where Paine's bones are located, his legacy remains intact. On Freethinkers Day, we remember his importance to history, as well as his contributions to freethought—from his views on revolution in Common Sense and Rights of Man, to his thoughts on religion in The Age of Reason.
How to Observe Freethinkers Day
Here are some ideas on how to spend the day:
- Read Common Sense, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason, or one of Thomas Paine's other works.
- Display or give someone a white rose with thorns.
- Read a book on the subject of freethought.
- Read The Truth Seeker magazine.
- Become involved with the Thomas Paine Foundation/Memorial Committee or the Thomas Paine National Historical Association.
- Visit the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum and the Thomas Paine Monument in New Rochelle, New York.