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Last updated:29 January 2018

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, a staymaker's son, was born in 1737 in the small country town of Thetford in Norfolk. He attended the local school until he was twelve and left to become his father's apprentice. The probability of him becoming anything other than a country tradesman seemed minimal.

portrait of Thomas Paine

Portrait of Thomas Paine

At nineteen, however, with his apprenticeship over, he ran away to London to begin an eventful life full, equally, of fame and notoriety. He escaped death several times including once as an English sailor, once as an American soldier and once, narrowly dodging the guillotine, as an elected Deputy to the French National Convention.

His radical ideas about freedom, justice, equality, republicanism and the importance of reason were expressed in the plainest of language and published in the cheapest possible editions to reach ordinary people. All of his three major publications - Common Sense (1776), Rights of Man (1791-2) and Age of Reason (1794-5) - became immediate best sellers.

When the first edition of Rights of Man, the most incendiary of his books, was first sold in 1791 it cost three shillings. It drew very little response from the political authorities because only the wealthy could afford it. When he brought out a cheap sixpenny edition, however, he was prosecuted and a Royal Proclamation condemning the book was issued. The Attorney General condemned it as ‘thrust into the hands of subjects of every description, even children's sweetmeats being wrapped in it'.

Far ahead of his time, Paine wrote against slavery and poverty and in favour of Amerindian freedom, an old age pension, family allowances, maternity benefits and free education. His ideas were a source of inspiration across two continents two hundred years ago and are still an inspiration today.


Related Object of the Month

April 2009: Commemorative Jug

A Sunderland pink splash lustre ware commemorative jug chosen Cliff Stockton, volunteer and showing a bridge designed by Thomas Paine


Resources about Thomas Paine in our collection

Click here for a description of the Thomas Paine collection that was assembled by Adrian and Christopher Brunel and then donated to the library.

Search the Library catalogue for books and pamphlets by and about Thomas Paine


3 Greater Manchester schools take a contemporary look at the ideas of Thomas Paine

Are you a teacher? See KS3/4 lesson plans to accompany these films.

'Dragon's Den' Part 1 -Ashton Sixth Form College 'Dragon's Den' Part 2 -Ashton Sixth Form College


'Equality' -Oasis Media Academy, Salford 'Violence': the personal and political'       
-Lostock College, Stretford


Resources about Thomas Paine in the library collection

Peter Porcupine, The life of Thomas Paine, interspersed with remarks and reflections (1797) - Shelfmark: D70

James Cheetham, The life of Thomas Paine (1809) - Shelfmark: D67

Thomas Clio Rickman, The life of Thomas Paine: author of Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, Letter to the addressers, &c. &c (1819) - Shelfmark: D68

WT Sherwin, Memoirs of the life of Thomas Paine: with observations on his writings, critical and explanatory - to which is added, an appendix, containing several of Mr. Paine's unpublished pieces (1819) - Shelfmark: D67

The life of Thomas Paine: interspersed with sundry letters, &c. not before published, and containing his last will and testament - with notices of the American and French revolutions (1833) - Shelfmark: D33

G Vale, The life of Thomas Paine: author of "Common sense", "Rights of man", "Age of reason", &c., &c.: with critical and explanatory observations on his writings and an appendix, containing his letters to Washington (1841) - Shelfmark: D05

Calvin Blanchard, The life of Thomas Paine... (1860) - Shelfmark: D67

FJ Gould, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) (1925) - Shelfmark: B22

William M Van der Weyde, The life and works of Thomas Paine (1925) - Shelfmark: D68

Mary Agnes Best, Thomas Paine: prophet and martyr of democracy (1927) - Shelfmark: B23

George Creel, Tom Paine: Liberty Bell (ca. 1932) - Shelfmark: D68

Hesketh Pearson, Tom Paine: friend of mankind - a biography (1937) - Shelfmark: D05

JM Robertson, Thomas Paine: an investigation (1937) - Shelfmark: D68

Frank Smith, Thomas Paine: liberator (1938) - Shelfmark: D68

JM Connell, Thomas Paine (1939) - Shelfmark: D70

Howard Fast, Citizen Tom Paine (1943) - Shelfmark: D71

WE Woodward, Tom Paine: America's godfather, 1737-1809 (1946) - Shelfmark: B23

Joseph Lewis, Thomas Paine, author of the Declaration of Independence (1947) - Shelfmark: D67

Hildegarde Hawthorne, His country was the world: a life of Thomas Paine (1949) - Shelfmark: D68

Alfred Owen Aldridge, Man of reason: the life of Thomas Paine (1960) - Shelfmark: B21

Philip S. Foner (ed.), The life and major writings of Thomas Paine (1961) - Shelfmark: D68

Robin McKown, Thomas Paine (1962) - Shelfmark: D68

Audrey Williamson, Thomas Paine: his life, work and times (1973) - Shelfmark: B23

Samuel Edwards, Rebel!: a biography of Thomas Paine (1974) - Shelfmark: B23

Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1977) - Shelfmark: D83

David Powell, Tom Paine: the greatest exile (1985) - Shelfmark: D68

Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: social and political thought (1989) - Shelfmark: Q04

Mark Philp, Paine (1989) - Shelfmark: D68

John Vail, Thomas Paine (1990) - Shelfmark: D83

John Keane, Tom Paine: a political life (1995) - Shelfmark: FR03

Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Paine's Rights of man: a biography (2007) - Shelfmark: D70

Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: enlightenment, revolution and the birth of modern nations (2007) - Shelfmark: D70

Ellery Sedgewick, Thomas Paine (no date) - Shelfmark: D68