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Thomas Paine: Apostle of Liberty’

Harlow Giles Unger on “the Father to the Founding Fathers”

Bob Zadek
21 min readOct 12, 2021


It has become almost cliché to note that “the pen is mightier than sword.” Years before this aphorism entered the popular imagination, however, it was John Adams who exclaimed, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” Prior to the American Revolution, the sword tended to have the upper hand — with the strongest Kings and Tyrants justifying their power on the basis of force and divine right, not lofty principles like equality and liberty for all. Thomas Paine may not be enshrined in any monuments in Washington D.C., but the other more cherished founders saw the gifted pamphleteer as one of the key players in the American Revolution, and the subsequent upheaval of monarchies around the world.

In his recent biography of the “Apostle of Liberty,” historian Harlow Giles Ungers quotes John Adams again, asserting:

“I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or its affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. Call it then the Age of Paine.”

So how did this “father to the founding fathers” end up as a relatively obscure historical figure, known almost exclusively by his early pamphlet, “Common Sense”? Unger joined me to explore the full, fascinating story of Paine’s life, prolific writings, his travels, and his prominent role in the French Revolution.

Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence is the latest in the long line of Unger’s highly readable biographies of America’s founders. Much like the subject of his book, Unger writes in a way that is accessible to all audiences — from the uneducated layperson to the scholar of American history alike. Don’t miss the in-depth exploration of the man whose writings roused Washington’s soldiers to victory across the Delaware on Christmas morning.

Thomas Paine: More than a Name

Bob Zadek: This morning I’m happy to welcome back to the show one of my tutors, Harlow Unger — an accomplished American historian who has written 27 books, including 10 biographies of the Founding Fathers.

10 years ago, Harlow’s book on the Boston Tea Party caught my attention. I discovered my opinion of Sam Adams changed dramatically — maybe I cut him a little too much slack.

Even those of us who believe that we understand the lessons of the Founding Era have much to learn.

This morning, we are perhaps going to be adjusting our opinion of another very important member of the founding generation, Thomas Paine. Most of us know that a lot of people read his work, Common Sense, and that it had an effect upon the times of the American Revolutionary era.

To most, Paine is little more than a name.

He has not gotten the attention of many historians, yet his influence upon the revolutionary era was quite profound. And, he is just plain interesting. No one is better at conveying all that is interesting, and perhaps controversial, about the subject of a biography than Unger.

Harlow, thank you so much for your book this morning.

Paine — self-taught and uneducated — is best known for two books, one of which was incredibly controversial, and held in low regard among the public. What warrants our attention about Thomas Paine?

Harlow Giles Unger 06:25

Thomas Paine wrote two books, but one was at the end of his life, and the other was at his most productive years and made him one of the most popular figures in the Western world among ordinary people.

He was every man’s hero. A number of great writers — John Locke in England, plus John Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire in France — had written profound works that had aroused intellectuals and literate political leaders during the age of enlightenment, in which people began to realize that they had certain rights. As the Declaration of Independence had summed up, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But Thomas Paine was an ordinary fellow. He grew up in a working-class and he wrote for every man — literate or not, poor, rich, noble, or ignoble. He asked, why should someone rule over us simply because he is someone else’s child?

That was the first bubble he tried to burst: the idea of the divine right of kings. William the Conqueror, he said, was nothing more than a thug from France who sailed over to England and browbeat a bunch of laborers along the shore and said he’s going to be king. That was the first king. He made a deal with the Anglican Church, which was also seeking power in England. They created this idea of the divine right of kings. God appointed William king, and therefore his offspring were entitled to rule.

Tom Paine went the opposite direction. He called the notion absurd. It defied common sense, which became the title of his widely-read pamphlet. Common Sense firmed up in the minds of ordinary Americans as well as the more educated Americans why the Americans should seek independence from Britain. He subsequently added, “Why should people on a little tiny island across an ocean govern a huge continent?”

That too seemed absurd to him. These ideas really pulled Americans together at the beginning of the War of Independence, which had already started. Shots had been fired at Lexington. Patrick Henry had exploded the air with his famous speech, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, but the idea of independence did not capture the minds of all Americans. Most Americans were perfectly happy to work. First of all, most Americans did not own any land. They were perfectly happy to get a job and earn their bed and board.

The rich people, on the other hand, were quite up in arms about independence, because England was starting to tax them. That had not been the deal that England had made with the original settlers — “You go over to America, clear the wilderness, plant the things we need, ship them over here, and we’ll buy everything you ship over here. Everything we pay will be tax-free.”

After the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763, England was broke and needed money. They tried taxing their own farmers, but their farmers rebelled. There were farmer riots all across England. They stopped taxing their own farmers and decided to tax Americans who were paying no taxes. That’s when the rebellion began. The rebellion in America was first led by very wealthy people who were affected by the taxes. After all, the laborer wasn’t affected by the taxes. Taxes only affected the goods being shipped to England. Under the deal, Americans could not ship their goods anywhere else. They had to put their goods on British ships, and British ships carried their goods to England. That was the real thrust of the elite.

It was Thomas Paine who gave the American people other ideas that were eventually included in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. All men are created equal and that they are entitled to certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and as it was finally written, the pursuit of happiness. The original words in the rough draft were life, liberty, and property because the rough draft was made to rally the rich people. Most people did not own property. They changed the words to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to engage the common man in the fight for independence.

Bob Zadek 13:04

It’s not generally understood that at its inception there was clearly such a concept of the elites. The elites had the power, wealth, and the education. They were elites in every sense of the word. Bernard Bailyn wrote The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution on this subject.

At the origin of the revolution, it did not capture the common man, the Yeoman. The common men had come to America, and they were enjoying an enormous amount of freedom as compared to what they left behind. They were quite content. They considered themselves to be British citizens of England governed by the king, which was the natural order of things. They were unaffected by the taxation because as Harlow said, they weren’t taxed, so they couldn’t really get their arms around the need to break from England. They didn’t feel any of the negative aspects that others with wealth and power might have felt.

Harlow Giles Unger 14:43

There is another element. Skilled tradespeople like Paul Revere could earn their own living independently because they were craftsmen, but most workers who were employed were indentured workers. They weren’t thinking of independence on a national scale. They were, in effect, bought for a period of at least seven years by their employers. They were not independent in any sense of the word. They weren’t thinking outside the household in which they lived. They were glad to have enough to eat and housing and they were trying to work off their own independence from their employers who own them.

The black population was completely enslaved. An ordinary man really wasn’t thinking in global terms in any sense of the word. Plus, in America, the provinces, as they were called, later became states. The provinces were all independent politically. They had nothing to do with each other. Until the first Continental Congress, the governors and rulers of each of these provinces didn’t know each other had no connections with each other. There were 13 independent political units with very few ties to each other. Occasionally, there were some trade ties necessitated by the need to import and export via neighboring states’ ports. When they’re debating the terms of the Constitution, James Madison said, “New Jersey is like a man bleeding from both arms,” because it had no ports. They had to pay duties on both exports and imports via either New York port or Philadelphia’s port. There was not a cohesive society that pulled together until Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense and that circulated across the country and become the country.

Bob Zadek 17:27

Tip O’Neill said famously, “All politics is local.” To paraphrase that, all trade was local. That is, you traded within your village or you manufactured goods for your own consumption, except for the fact that to a substantial degree, the trade was bilateral in the sense that it was between various provinces, the colonies, and England — but only with England. There were economic ties to England. They were certainly a supplier and also a customer.

Culturally, there was literally nobody on earth who lived other than under the rule of a king. Earth was ruled by kings. The concept of living free of being ruled by a king — somebody who got to rule you because of the accident of birth — was universal.

A Bleak English Upbringing

Bob Zadek

Take us from Tom Paine’s his life in England to America.

Harlow Giles Unger 19:35

He was born to a relatively lower middle-income family. His father was a craftsman who made stays out of whalebone, which was used to stiffen women’s corsets. Every woman of any class wore corsets to produce the figures that you’re seeing drawings of women of that era. He grew up in a village of Thetford, England, about 75 miles north of London, the son of a corset maker. His father was a Quaker and took him to Quaker services. At the services in those days, there was no minister. The congregation sat in silence waiting all day long for the Word of God. Suddenly, some men (women didn’t go to church) would stand up and start shouting out what he claimed to be a message he had just received from God. He finished the message then he’d sit down. The Congress would wait in silence for the next one — maybe a half hour or an hour later.

In the meantime, all was silent, except outside the meeting house where there were stocks and its whipping post. In the stocks were people who had been there for many, many hours, sometimes several days, with not enough food and water, and they were moaning and groaning and crying for water, for food. At the whipping post, miscreants were being whipped, and shouting out in pain, screaming in pain, and that’s all Tom Paine heard. He wasn’t listening to the occasional congregant who stood up and said he had just gotten the Word of God. He heard the misery from the whipping post and the stocks and he turned away from religion. He said he’d despised religion of all times. He would spend the last part of his life trying to fight religion. He wrote The Age of Reason, in which he tears apart the bases of all religions. In the meantime, he left the church. He left home. He did learn to be a corset maker, but hated it, and went to London to try to earn a better living.

In London, there was an institution called the Royal Academy, in which learned men would give lectures free of charge to public audiences. It also had a great library that also was open to the public. Tom Paine took full advantage of that and studied on his own and gave himself an education by listening, going to the lectures, and going to the library and reading books in the library. He earned a living by applying for and getting a job as a tax collector — an exciseman, they were called. Tax collectors weren’t paid much. The job was brutal because the owners who were being taxed would usually assault the tax collector. It wasn’t a very pleasant job.

Because it was paid so badly, Tom Paine started writing articles in the press. Many of them were published. He became quite a good writer, again, teaching himself how to write. Eventually, the other tax collectors elected him to write a petition to Parliament asking for higher wages. He wrote a beautiful piece that was presented in Parliament at the time that Benjamin Franklin was serving in Parliament as agent for American states. By then, the Boston Tea Party had been held. The Boston Massacre had been held. Patrick Henry had spoken, “Give me liberty or give me death,” so there was ferment taking place in America. Parliament was very angry and dismissed Franklin from parliament as agent for those colonies. At the same time, they rejected Tom Paine’s beautiful petition for higher wages. Franklin read the petition, thought it was brilliant, and took Paine under his wing. He gave Paine access to his own library, helped him write better, and finally advised him to go to America — noting that he was asking for trouble by remaining in England.

American Beginnings

He even paid for Paine’s voyage, gave Paine letters of introduction to important figures, including his brother, who was governor of New Jersey. Paine took the boat for America. He got to Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin’s brother was away at the time, so he couldn’t go to him for help. He turned instead to another fellow recommended with a letter of recommendation from Franklin — the owner of the largest bookseller in Philadelphia. There were very few booksellers in those days. I couldn’t verify this, but he may have been the only bookseller. He certainly was the most important one in Philadelphia. He published the newspaper as well. Paine went to see him. The bookseller was considering starting a monthly magazine and asked Paine if he’d like to take charge of that and edit it. He said yes. He was very successful. The magazine grew by leaps and bounds within a year.

As a revolutionary ferment was growing, Paine also began writing the essay that he would call Common Sense. In it, he mentioned this idea of how idiotic it was for a man to become a ruler simply because he was born of a certain mother, how idiotic it was for a group of people and island thousands of miles away to govern an entire continent. All of these things defied common sense, which became the title of his essay. Common Sense took off. It was the equivalent of a best seller. It circulated across the colonies. It circulated in Europe. No one had ever written anything defying the divine right of kings, the idea that God had appointed these people to be rulers. That brought a large proportion of the common man in America to the side of the wealthy elite. Now you had almost a national consensus that it was time for the United States, for the American colonies, to declare independence from Britain. Every participant had different reasons for why George Washington said of Britain, “they have no right to put their hands in my pocket.” He didn’t want to be taxed. Others just didn’t want to be indentured servants anymore. There were all sorts of reasons but they all coalesced under common sense.

Bob Zadek 28:50

One of the wonderful aspects of your writing is you help us place ourselves in the times. When you write about various figures in the past, you not only write about the subject of your scholarship, but you place us wonderfully in the times. We just can imagine what life is like. You present, almost as a wonderful byproduct, a social history that’s very hard to achieve otherwise, so it makes the subject of your writing even easier to understand and to follow because you place us in the places where your subject is at the time you’re writing about them. It makes us have a much greater understanding of the characters and of the times. It’s a wonderful aspect of your writing that just comes about even when you just presented that narrative about how Paine got from an unsuccessful person in England to a bookseller and a pamphleteer at an important time in American history.

Harlow Giles Unger 30:54

I would just say that I try to let the characters speak for themselves in the book. I don’t step in and use my voice. Everything I say is really the words of the characters.

Rousing the Common Man

Bob Zadek 31:12

The importance of Common Sense was, generating momentum and mass acceptance of the population for the Revolution. They were less interested in this dramatic change in their lives, breaking from what was called “the mother country.” He made good use of that in a somewhat sarcastic and cynical way, showing that they were hardly a mother. They didn’t behave very mother-like.

After all, who was going to serve in the army? Who was going to provide food for the military to fight the battles? It was going to be the common people, the people who needed to be behind the revolution. During the early stages pf tje Revolutionary period, only a third of the country was firmly behind the revolution. A third was neutral — whoever seemed to be winning that cohort favored — and a third were Tories or loyalists and supported remaining subject to English rule. If those statistics were right, only about a third of them were Americans. Those who lived in the colonies weren’t Americans at the time.

Only a third supported the Revolution at the beginning. We needed a battle to be successfully waged for the hearts and minds of the common residents of the colonies. That missing piece was supplied primarily, I think it’s fair to say, by Thomas Paine and his writing. Now, give us some statistics. How popular was Common Sense? After all, as you point out in your book, I think you mentioned only 5% of the population were literate. The concept of a book being very popular that so many people couldn’t even read is strange. Tell us about how popular and therefore influential the book was.

Harlow Giles Unger 34:33

Remember, it wasn’t a book. It was a pamphlet. The way printers distributed their pamphlets or newspapers to the general public was to put these broadsheets as the big piece of paper that comes off the press and paste them inside the windows. Crowds would gather. Somebody who was literate would start reading it to the crowd that was gathering around the windowpane of the publisher of the printer. That’s how it got distributed. Nonetheless, it became the best-selling printed item in the Western world outside of the Bible at that time. Nothing sold more. It was sold all over the colonies. It was sold in Canada. It was sold in France and Britain. It was hailed as much in France as it was in America, because they too were living under a divinely appointed King. They too were faced with hunger. They too were faced with taxation. They were faced with many of the same problems that we were.

Across the western world, people just realized that what he said was indeed Common Sense. That’s what pulled Americans together. The local landowners were responsible for raising an army. There was really no such thing as the Continental Army. It was Washington that pulled different militias from the different states together. Each state had to raise its own army. Within each state, the governor would turn to landowners who had indentured workers working for them. They had to be paid to serve. They gladly served because they’d make more money doing that without losing their money as indentured servants. They only had to serve for around three months at a time, because they had to get back to the farms and do their work on the farms.

There was enough interest in the revolution now to one organizing an army. They were not volunteers at first. At first, it was a disaster. The British landed in New York. They actually massacred Washington’s army in Brooklyn. They crossed into Manhattan, which was called New York Island at that time, and sent Washington’s troops racing in retreat. They were retreating so quickly, so haphazardly that the British buglers were playing the hunting call to mock the soldiers who were fleeing. Washington was just beyond belief in anger that these were the troops that different states had sent him to try to fight for independence. He had to retreat — left New York Island into Westchester County in the north — and there again, was terribly defeated there in White Plains. He crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey, to another terrible defeat there. Early winter storms began to break out in the autumn of that year. His army had retreated to the south, and then to the west across Jersey and finally across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River, where it looks like the end of the war.

The British and their Hessian mercenaries would have crossed and massacred them. Washington had the good foresight to tell his troops as they were retreating to take every rowboat they could find along the bank and take it over with them to the West Bank. The pursuing troops wouldn’t have any way to cross the river. They were camped on the west bank of the Delaware River. Washington was preparing an attack on Trenton, but morale was so low. He didn’t know how he would do it. Tom Paine showed up with a rough draft of an essay that he called “The American Crisis” and showed it to Washington. Washington loved it, as did his adjutant. Paine galloped down to Philadelphia to the printer had it printed up, and galloped back up north to the Delaware River encampment. It was distributed among the troops. Every officer was told to read it to all the troops. It began with stirring words to these really bedraggled discouraged troops — so encouraged them with their words, so inspired them that they crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night.

There were ice floes — snowing, bitter cold. They crossed and they won the great Battle of Trenton, which really turned American morale around because it showed that these farmers could fight and defeat this brilliantly trained and equipped, organized army from Britain and Germany. The first essay of American Crisis began with the famous words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It went on from there to inspire the troops. It became the first of 31 essays that Paine would write during the course of the Revolutionary War. They’re each getting the title American Crisis, American Crisis I, American Crisis II. He carried a number after it.

It was always as morale began to fall, he would write one of these essays to lift and boost morale. Each one was signed with Common Sense so that it appealed to the ordinary soldier on the ground, who was often hungry, ill-clothed, badly armed. It picked up his morale and made him feel that he could win, and that we could win as a nation. Thomas Paine could have made a lot of money from these essays, but he turned every penny over to Washington to send to Congress to buy food and supplies for the war effort.

At the end of the war, Thomas Paine was broke. He was just as broke as he was when he first landed in America — so much so that Washington invited him to Washington’s army camp to stay where he could get food and shelter until he picked himself up. Washington then wrote to the governors of each state and to the President and Congress saying, “We’ve got to do something for Thomas Paine.” He refused all the money he could have made and gave it to the war effort. James Madison arranged for Congress to give Paine I think $300. Some states did nothing. Some of the states did do something, most notably New York State gave Paine a 250-acre farm, just north of New York City in New Rochelle, New York, a farm that had been owned by a Tory farmer who had fled and left the United States. That farm became Thomas Paine’s first home and his last one. That was the only home he ever earned.

The cottage he lived in is still there. It’s the site of a Thomas Paine National Association, which maintains it today. He earned nothing from the Revolutionary War, nothing from his writings. It was shortly after the war that he began writing his first true book, which was called The Rights of Man. That upset kings and queens all over the world. In effect, it took the words of the Declaration of Independence, the spirit of the American Revolution, and turned it into a book that inspired the French, and set off some rioting in England. It was the first book that he ever wrote. It made him a good sum of money that allowed him to live comfortably after that point. It inspired the French Revolution so much that when the revolutionary government of France took control and overthrew the king, they named him an honorary citizen of France and a member of the French National Assembly. That’s how inspiring he was to the French. He couldn’t speak a word of French, so everything had to be translated.

Later Life and Involvement in the French Revolution

Bob Zadek 45:39

It should be mentioned, though we haven’t got time to get into it in detail, that he was made an honorary citizen and invited to participate in the French assembly. This is like a teaser to further induce or invite the audience to purchase and read the book.Then Paine came within an eyebrow of being guillotined, but the story of that we haven’t got time for it. He then had to leave France in a hurry because he was in danger, and then ultimately returned to the United States and away from France, where the Revolution had run away from many people, and he was in danger of being killed.

Now, The Age of Reason was a polemic against organized religion. Paine was not a fan of organized religion. That book did not endear him to the American public at large and certainly not too many in the American elite. He did not enjoy overwhelming popularity in the later years of his life after he wrote The Age of Reason, which he was most proud of. His life was checkered. He didn’t just live in glory from his arrival at the shores of Philadelphia till his death. He didn’t have a lot of friends. Indeed, I think Washington remained a strong supporter of his. Isn’t that true through most of his life? Washington did not forget. Loyalty was very important.

Harlow Giles Unger 47:58

He died long before The Age of Reason. Washington died in 1799.

Bob Zadek 48:04

1799 in December.

Harlow Giles Unger 48:07

In effect, The Age of Reason was widely read. First he wrote Rights of Man, which is widely circulated. It helped trigger the French Revolution. The French Revolution started out as a democracy with a constitution that he and Jefferson helped write with Lafayette. Then, radicals took over the French Revolution. He then was sentenced to to die because he fought the idea of executing the king — saying the king was very popular in America and that they were endangering the friendship with America by executing the man who had helped send the army to help free the American people. It was while he was in prison that he started writing The Age of Reason, in which he pointed out that he saw Christianity as simply a continuation of the age of mythology that the Greeks had Zeus as their God.

The Romans came with their group of Gods Jupiter. The Jews came with Moses, and then the Christians came with Christ three centuries after he allegedly lived. Obviously, devout Christians and especially royalists hated The Age of Reason. Washington, as I say, was dead by then. Jefferson, Madison, and most of the founders thought it was terrific.

Bob Zadek 50:06

I’ve been speaking with Harlow Unger, who has just written a wonderful biography of Thomas Paine — Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence. It’s Harlow’s 27th. book. I commend all of his books. Harlow has selected many founders who have been under-recognized in American history writing, James Monroe and many others. His list of books that he has written will give you insights into the founding era that are not, in my opinion, otherwise available. I commend all of those books to our audience. Those books will place you in the times of the founding era. It’s a wonderful way to remain loyal to this to the founding era and to learn from it for the present. Harlow, thank you so much for your scholarship and for sharing your insights on Thomas Paine, quite an important and interesting fellow. The history of the founding era is incomplete unless you study the life and writings of Thomas Paine. Thank you.

Harlow Giles Unger 51:44

You can see all my books on my website,

Bob Zadek 51:59

Thank you so much. Harlow. Thank you for your work and thank you to my friends out there for sharing an hour with us this Sunday morning. Have a good rest of the weekend.


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