Paine’s first principles form the structure of his political thought and they define his works and much of his activity throughout his life. They also help define modern politics, and how political history has unfolded. His principles were consistent throughout his political life on both continents. These principles which he popularized include the use of reason and science, instead of tradition and superstition, to conduct politics and government; that the role of government is to defend the natural and civil rights of all people; that no person should be forced to live in a condition that existed before civilization; that each generation must decide its fate, including its constitution, lest that constitution becomes mere tradition; that government stands as the expression of the needs of every citizen taken collectively, and that the natural sociability of people forms the basis of government; that government is the embodiment of the concept that all people are created equal, in order to ensure that no conditions exist that negate that equality; and it is the duty of all citizens to actively ensure the above principles through active participation in government – their government, that does not stand above them, but as them.

The development of Paine Studies has emerged as a comprehensive approach to re-examining past historiography, revealing once-hidden interconnected social, political, and philosophic trends created or influenced by his works and political struggles. Compartmentalizing Paine by country, or by discipline, is one cause for the fragmented, and often minimized, approach to Paine’s philosophical and political legacy. The other is the determined ideological bias against Paine that has existed in the historiography for 200 years. That has changed since the more objective approaches of Aldridge and Claeys to his political philosophy in the 1980s, and it has blossomed into a fresh re-examination of Paine since then.(3) But the denigration and marginalization of Paine continues, predominantly in a faction of conservative intellectuals, but subconsciously echoed by others.(4) This is not surprising, despite some brands of conservatism laying claims to fragments of Paine’s prose, since after all Paine represented and called forth the new participants in modern politics – the laboring classes. In inspiring the dismantling of feudalism, Paine helped draw out a growing political consciousness among the masses of people previously denied a voice. And he gave them the tools to engage in the struggle: the nature and role of constitutions, the thoroughly democratic structure of just government, and the philosophic bedrock of rights of all people. It is these tools and his first principles that Paine introduced to the modern world that we are still grappling with 200 years later.

Thomas Paine is a very “troublesome” historic figure in every respect. During his lifetime, he disturbed those in the American Revolution who wished to establish a elitist republic and limit the people’s participation in politics, to the point that John Adams later wrote pejoratively that the era of democracy was the time of Paine. During the federalist era between 1789 and 1800 in the us, he was the symbol of republican democracy against the “aristocratical” designs of George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. In England from 1789 to 1791, he troubled the anti-revolutionaries like Edmund Burke or Prime Minister Pitt, to the point that he was forced to flee to France to escape the repression against the radical movement. In France, his republican positions in 1791 hindered the Feuillants and the moderates(5) who accused him of spreading the principles of “anarchy”. Under the Revolutionary Government, he was the subject of accusations from Gouverneur Morris and various characters close to the Committee of Public Safety.(6) Released from prison after Thermidor, reinstated as deputy to the Convention, he criticized the spirit of the Constitution of the Year III and attracted accusations of former Girondins who equated its position to the “deliberative Terror” of the year II.(7) Close to the neo-Jacobins,(8) suspicious vis-à-vis Bonaparte, he was persona non grata under the Consulate. Finally, back to the United States in 1802, he faced a smear campaign by the Federalists who presented him as a doting, villainous and alcoholic old man.(9) In short, Paine was always considered as a troublemaker.

Recent historiography has restored his role as a primary actor and as a symbol of the Age of Revolutions. Indeed he is one of the few political actors who played a role in the course of the American Revolution, as well as in the English radical movement, and the French Revolution. As such, he can be counted among the handful of contemporaries whose life is merged with the Atlantic dimension of the Age of Revolutions of 1776 in the early nineteenth century (as was the case with La Fayette and Joel Barlow).

While this Atlantic dimension is recognized by some historians, it is not yet at the heart of most historiographical works about Thomas Paine. For example, there is no synthetic study on the impact of Paine’s writings to the transatlantic debate on human rights and republicanism in the period 1776–1810, although on the French side, the work of Carine Lounissi or Nathalie Caron or Yannick Bosc(10) approach Paine through the question of transatlantic circulations between Republican France, the British Isles, and the United States.

One reason for this lack of a fully Atlantic dimension is the national par¬titioning of studies about Paine. American historians focus on Paine in the American Revolution and on the aftermath of the publication of his Age of Reason. British historians, following E.P. Thompson,(11) highlighted his role in the construction of the radical ideology behind the creation of the English working class movement. Most French historians have often considered Paine as a secondary political actor, only remarkable for the link he was supposed to have with the Girondins.(12) Now, these different “national” Paines represent only the truncated (and even misleading) aspects of his political activity. Paine is still troublesome to “national” historiographical schools.

Finally, Paine is particularly challenging to the dominant interpretation, such as Keith Michael Baker’s,(13) of modern republicanism. In this scheme, inherited from Benjamin Constant opposing the “Ancients” and “Moderns”, Paine is supposed to be part of the latter. Friend of a number of Girondins ; opposed to the historical use of references to antiquity; actor of an American Revolution above all in its exaltation of a modern and commercial republicanism; deeply influenced by Adam Smith’s thought; Paine should be, according to Baker’s interpretation, classified in the “liberal economists” group against the “Ancients” (or “traditional Republicans” in the terminology of Pocock) who would include Mably, Rousseau and Robespierre. But none of these categories a posteriori “work” in the case of Paine as the papers gathered here show.

Paine is therefore always troublesome… That’s why he still matters. Can Paine be used as a “marker” of the political divisions in the Revolutions of the Atlantic ? Can he be a mean to rethink republicanism in the Age of Revolutions ? These are some of the questions addressed in the papers presented here.

In his “Note on Thomas Paine’s Collected Works in Progress”, Gregory Claeys reminds us that “Paine remains the most important contributor to the American and French revolutions for whom no reliable collection of writings” has been published. All existing collections of Paine’s writings fall short of scholarly standards according to Claeys. At least 26 of Paine’s texts have been deattributed and seventeen have been recently added to his collected works. A complete edition based on modern scholarly standards remains to be finalized and Claeys gives us insights of the work that lies ahead.

Yannick Bosc’s contribution is centered on the “right to existence” in Thomas Paine’s republicanism. He shows that Paine shares the same conception of “the right to existence” with Mably, Marat and Robespierre and that the interpretation that makes Paine a liberal Girondin close to Condorcet is the result of a flawed analysis that is an offspring of the misleading opposition between the “Liberty of the Ancients” and the “Liberty of the Moderns” first proposed by Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël and revisited by some historians, especially by Keith Michael Baker.

Carine Lounissi is interested in Paine’s republicanism during the French Revolution which had been often taken by many historians as marginal to the political debates of the time. According to Carine Lounissi, Paine’s contribution to the debate on republicanism “should be neither overestimated nor ignored.” Often considered as a “Girondin” by historians, Paine cannot, according to Lounissi, be considered as such. He remains an original actor, sometimes associated to political groups or networks (such as the “républicains” in the summer of 1791 during the Varennes crisis), sometimes acting on his own (as in the debate on the Constitution of the Year III).

In his “Paine’s Debt to Hume? On the origins of Paine’s Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance (1796)” Allan Potofsky attempts to define Paine’s economic thought. Historians have tried to imprison him in traditional categories: “bourgeois radical”, “Lockean liberal” “reformist Keynesian avant la lettre”, “leveling and redistributive Jacobin”, “premodern freethinking deist with physiocratic-agronome leanings” but none of these anachronistic concepts are useful to analyse his writings on such issues as paper currency, the gold standard, the minimum wage, and the real value of money. Potofsky situates Paine’s in the longer eighteenth-century context of transatlantic debates about economics and especially about public debt and finance.

Thomas C. Walker focuses on Paine as a thinker on global politics. He is increasingly appreciated by a widening circle of scholars for his insights into a complex and revolutionary world. In his essay he explores Paine’s revolutionary liberalism with a special focus on the inter-democratic peace through trade and on the issue of reducing military spending by democracies while simultaneously promoting liberal interventionism to support democracy, which he referred to as ‘descents’ This collection of essays opens new paths in the understanding of Paine’s role in the French Revolution and as a Transatlantic Republican and proposes new insights on the politics of the Age of Revolutions.


(1) In his Letter to the Abbé Raynal (1782) in Moncure D. Conway. The Writings of Thomas Paine (New York, ny and London, U.K.: 1894–1896), vol. 2, 67–131.

(2) On the concept the Age of Democratic Revolution, see of course Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution : A Political history of Europe and America 1760–1800, 2 vol., (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1959–1964) and Jacques Godechot, La Grande Nation (Paris, Fra.: Aubier, 1956).

(3) Among the important works on Thomas Paine published in the last 50 years, one can cite (chronological order): Alfred Owen Aldridge, Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine, (Philadelphia, pa: Lippincott, 1959); Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, (London, U.K. and New York, ny: Oxford University Press, 1976); Alfred Owen Aldridge, Thomas Paine American Ideology (Newark, de: University of Delaware Press, 1984); Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine, Social and Political Thought, (Boston, ma: Unwin Hyman, 1989); Mark Philp, Paine, (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press 1989). Alfred Jules Ayer, Thomas Paine, (Chicago, il: University of Chicago Press, 1990); John Fruchtman, Thomas Paine, Apostle of Freedom, (New York, ny: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994); John Keane, Tom Paine, a Politicial Life, (London, U.K.: Bloomsbury, 1995); Nathalie Caron, Thomas Paine Contre l’Imposture des Prêtres, (Paris, Fra.: L’Harmattan,1999); Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, (New York, ny: Hill & Wang, 2005); Edward Larkin, Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution, (New York, ny: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Craig Nelson, 'Thomas Paine, Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York, ny: Viking, 2007); Bernard Vincent, The Transatlantic Republican, Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions, (Paris, Fra.: Rodopi, 2005); Carine Lounissi, La Pensée Politique de Thomas Paine en Contexte, (Paris, Fra.: Honoré Champion, 2012) ; Yannick Bosc, La Terreur des Droits de l’Homme. Le Républicanisme de Thomas Paine et le Moment Thermidorien, (Paris, Fra.: Kimé, 2016).

(4) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers, (New York, ny: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001); Pauline Maier, American Scriptures, (New York, ny: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), Jonathan Clark, “Thomas Paine: The English Dimension” in eds. Shapiro and Calvert, Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, (Yale, ct: Yale University Press, 2014). Replies to Pauline Maier and Clark’s essays have been written by Gary Berton and can be found on the Thomas Paine National Historical Association website and

(5) The club des Feuillants was a “moderate” club formed after the Champ-de-Mars Massacre of the 17th of July 1791. They attacked Paine and the “republican movement” emerging after the Varennes crisis as “anarchical”.

(6) The American ambassador in Paris, the arch-Federalist Gouverneur Morris, refused to help to get Paine out of prison when he was incarcerated as an English citizen by order of the Committee of Public Safety during the period of the Gouvernement révolutionnaire in the end of 1793 until Thermidor Year II.

(7) See Yannick Bosc, 2016.

(8) On the neo-jacobin mouvement, See Isser Woloch, Jacobin Legacy. The Democratic Movement Under the Directory, (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1970); Bernard Gainot, 1799. Un nouveau Jacobinisme?, (Paris, Fra.: cths, 2001).

(9) Marc Belissa, “La Légende grise des dernières années de Thomas Paine en Amérique, 1802–1809”, in Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française, 360, (2010–2): 133–172 ; “Les leçons de républicanisme de Thomas Paine, 1802–1807”, in Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française, 363, (2011): 59–84.

(10) Nathalie Caron, 1999, Carine Lounissi, 2012, Yannick Bosc, 2016.

(11) Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working-Class, (London, U.K.: V. Gollancz, 1963).

(12) This idea has been criticized by Lounissi (2012) and Bosc (2016).

(13) Keith Michael Baker, “Transformations of Classical Republicanism in Eighteenth Century France”, in The Journal of Modern History, 73, no. 1 (2001): 32–53.