Curtis Dahlgren
Tom Paine: Corset maker, bartender, and king breaker
By Curtis Dahlgren
December 12, 2022

Republished from August 9, 2006

"These are the times that try men's souls." —T. Paine

KING GEORGE III of England eventually went mad. You'd probably go mad too if your mighty army had been defeated by the pen of a corset maker, the likes of Tom Paine.

Now that's the way history should be taught — and it's not overstating the facts, since the American Revolution was the biggest "upset" since David v. Goliath. Paine was a major factor in the American victory, but today most people have never even heard of him! Generation XYZ thinks that history began with Elvis, Marilyn, and the Beatles.

Let's go back to that little town in Norfolk, England where Thomas Paine was born in 1737. His father was a stay maker (a stay being a strip of whale bone that was used in women's corsets). Young Tom helped take measurements. That was his trade on and off in his 20s and 30s, but he was never very good at anything (especially not good at handling his money, spending a lot of it on books, and getting fired twice as an excise tax collector). After his first wife died in childbirth, he married the daughter of a pub owner, and to make a long story short, the business went belly up. Paine was soon wanted by the debtors' prison (they didn't fool around with deadbeats in those days). To begin the twists in his life's story: Paine had been corresponding with Ben Franklin in London about science.

Paine escaped imprisonment in England twice in his lifetime, thanks to a letter from Thomas Jefferson, later, and this time with a letter of introduction to Franklin's son-in-law in Philadelphia. Paine would later escape the guillotine in France by a miracle, and the dungeon there with the help of future President James Monroe. Anyway, the perennial failure landed in Philly at age 37 with just the letter from Franklin, the shirt on his back, and his pants, plus he was sick with a fever. This homeless Brit's first home in America was as a guest in a doctor's house, an omen that everything was about to change for Paine — and FAST.

Had he arrived here in any year other than 1774, we may have never heard of the guy. But here was a guy who thrived on crises, and America was in a crisis. Tom Paine's timing (or that of his guardian angel) was impeccable. The newspapers in England had been censoring news from the colonies, so it was only in his conversation with Ben Franklin that Paine had learned much about the possible rebellion by the colonists. He was starting from scratch in more ways than one, but with the help of Franklin's letter, Paine soon found himself editing the Pennsylvania magazine — even though he had never written anything professionally in his life!

Within about one year, he published the pamphlet Common Sense. It sold 100,000 copies in three months. It was to the newspapers of the day what talk radio and the Internet are to the media now. Within six months, the Declaration of Independence had been signed, and some of Paine's concepts made it into the Declaration itself. Not bad "selling" for a bartender who couldn't even sell booze to drunks in England!

There is in liberal circles the myth that the American Revolution was just the action of a bunch of aristocrats who used the farmers and common people for cannon fodder. Not so. Paine's unique perspective — rubbing shoulders with both the common man and the "greats" — enabled him to read all the people, and to see the shadows of coming events. Outside of Paine and Patrick Henry, not many people in 1774 had thought it realistic to even think about independence from Britain, but Paine knew what was bubbling beneath the surface.

"Common Sense" had changed a lot of hearts and minds, and not with demagoguery but with logic. To the argument that America was "growing" — even under the Crown's thumb — Paine responded:

"We may as well assert that because a child has thrived on milk it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of ourt lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty years."

He was speaking from experience! He was almost 40, and had only been successful for a year or so. Business had never been his bag, but in matters of the big picture out there, his forte was foresight.

He said it wasn't logical that an island across the ocean should forever govern a whole continent when it took 4 or 5 months to communicate back and forth. "We have it in our power," he said, "to begin the world over again.

"A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah . . The birthday of a new world is at hand . . "

During the war with England, Paine wrote a series of pamphlets. "Crisis I" (which was read to the troops as they boarded boats to cross the Delaware to fight the Hessians), through Crisis XIII in 1783, at war's end. His concluding remarks included this one: "It was the cause of America that made me an author. The force with which it struck my mind, and the dangerous condition the country appeared to me in . . made it impossible for me, feeling as I did, to be silent . . . "

Never underestimate the power of one individual speaking out. The bartender from Thetford ended up being an adviser to Presidents, kings, and emperors. The Presidents took his advice, but the kings and Napoleon didn't — and look where they ended up: George III delirious, and Napoleon in exile. Our public schools could teach our cultural heritage if they wanted to, but they don't. And many of my best books are marked "DISCARDED" by various public libraries. "Tom Paine, Freedom's Apostle," is one of them.

BTW, I must admit that some deists are closer to the truth than some of the preachers who persecuted Paine in his declining years. His mother had been Church of England and his father was a Quaker, and their squabbles had turned him off to religion. He was refused burial in a Quaker cemetery, so he was buried on the farm the state of New York had given him as a gift to thank him for his services to America (a farm abandoned by Royalist owners during the war). He had cast his bread upon the waters. And his words didn't return void.

He had begun his controversial book The Age of Reason by reasserting his belief in a God ["one God"]. He wrote: "I believe that religious duties consist of doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. Some, perhaps, will say: Are we to have no word of God — no revelation? I answer, Yes; there is a word of God; there is revelation. The Word of God is the Creation we behold . . It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds."

P.S. Applying the lessons of Thomas Paine's life:

  • If King George III had had the foresight of this uneducated bartender, would he have wasted so many pounds and so many soldiers on a futility?

  • If Napoleon had had the foresight of this corset maker, would he have gone ahead and wasted the lives of 10 million Europeans?

  • If the Confederates had had the foresight of this tract writer, and known the outcome (half a million deaths), would they still have gone ahead with their little revolution?

  • If Hitler were rational and knew that his little jaunt into a neighboring country would lead to the deaths of 50 million people worldwide, would he do it again? In his case the answer is yes; like the proverbial scorpion, that's what evil men do, and the NEXT world war could kill billions, not millions.

PPS: It's time to do some "winnowing and sifting" for the Truth. Most of the kids walking past that U. of Wisconsin motto probably can't define the word "winnowing." WINNOW comes from "wind," and means "to separate the wheat from the chaff." Our Universities have been "blowing off" the history of our people for a century now. But sometimes I still see glimmers of hope. Several years ago I attended a parade in the U.P. and three bands played the Battle Hymn of the Republic. One float had a soloist singing "God Bless America" for the entire length of the parade – right out there in the public square! God is indeed sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

By the way, Tom Paine's body was stolen and taken back to England. Wherever his old "dry bones" are today, they must be itching for action. This would be a good time to write "Crisis #14.

© Curtis Dahlgren


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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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