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Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

60 min

Students will:

  • explain the arguments Thomas Paine made in Common Sense.
  • explain the main ideas of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.
  • understand the reasons for Paine’s negative reception in the U.S. upon his 1802 return.
  • analyze The American Crisis and Paine’s explication of civic values.
  • evaluate modern applications of eighteenth-century civic values.
  • appreciate the contributions Thomas Paine made to the revolutionary cause.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Thomas Paine.

    Thomas Paine was a writer and philosopher. He wrote Common Sense, the bestselling pamphlet of the revolutionary era. His The American Crisis essays inspired the Continental Army in dark times. In the late 1780s he returned to Europe and wrote, in the 1790s, The Rights of Man, a political tract, and The Age of Reason, a critique of Christianity and organized religion. Reaction to Paine’s philosophies caused him to fall largely out of favor in the United States by the end of his life.

Thomas Paine was a major figure during the early years of the American Revolution. One of the foremost propagandists for American liberty in the 1770s, Paine penned words that rallied the war-weary spirit of the colonists and that still stir the hearts of Americans today, even when taken out of their original context: “These are the times that try men’s souls. . . . The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. . . . Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. . . . The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” His Common Sense was the bestselling pamphlet of the Revolutionary era. (As a percentage of the population, it was read by more people than watch the Superbowl today.) It is still widely available and read today by students of the period. He is often cited as a champion of liberty.

Yet, Paine played no role in the formation of the American government after independence and lived outside the United States in the critical years, 1787–1802, when the nation’s new political institutions were being tested. While abroad, he more openly advocated the ideals of the Enlightenment in their most extreme form, railing against established religion, legal precedent, and all tradition. In the 1770s, Thomas Paine embodied the American Revolutionary spirit better than any other writer. But the radical road that he followed to Revolutionary France in the 1780s and 1790s is the path that America chose to reject.

Conduct a large group discussion about the civic values Paine attempts to summon in readers of his essay. What are the opposites of those values (i.e., the ones he condemns in the essay)? Ask students to share ways they have, in their own times of crisis, acted on those civic virtues Paine attempts to summon in his audience.

  1. Have students write their own “American Crisis” essay in the style of Paine, focusing on a modern cultural or political crisis and persuading people to take a specific action. Possible crises might include poverty or the war in Iraq.
  2. Have students create a one-page pamphlet expressing their opinion on a school issue, persuading their fellow students to act in accordance with a civic value discussed in class. Possible topics might include acting respectfully in class, being tolerant of student groups or clubs with whom they might not agree, being kind to others, or putting a stop to bullying.

  1. Have students read “Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs” from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Have students write a one-page essay summarizing his main points and analyzing the way Paine’s argument compares to the one he makes in The American Crisis.
    Source: “Common Sense by Thomas Paine,” <>.
  2. Thomas Paine began the introduction to The Rights of Man (1791–1792) with a dedication to George Washington. He wrote, “I present you a small treatise in defense of those principles of freedom which your exemplary virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish.” In 1796, in his public letter denouncing Washington, he wrote, “. . . my citizenship in America was not . . . diminished by anything I had done in Europe (on the contrary, it ought to be considered as strengthened, for it was the American principle of government that I was endeavoring to spread in Europe).” Have students write a one-page essay defining and discussing what those principles of freedom and principles of government are.

Student Handouts

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