Was Thomas Paine a Mere Mouthpiece for Ben Franklin?
This asked in class yesterday by one of my 11th graders
Yesterday, in my 11th grade US History class, a student asked if Thomas Paine was a mere mouthpiece for Ben Franklin, someone willing to utter what Franklin wanted to say but dared not?
To answer the student’s question and to model a great way for students to find the answer to an intriguing historical question, I emailed Gary Berton of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association.
Dear Mr. Berton:
I’m a Southern California High School teacher and I was recently asked by one of my students whether Ben Franklin “coached” Thomas Paine in re the words Paine put forth in Common Sense.
This question followed a reading entitled Thomas Paine: America’s Most Radical Revolutionary.
The article states that at a low point in Paine’s life, “Paine happened to meet Benjamin Franklin, who represented the American colonies in London. Franklin convinced him to give America a try and recommended him to businessmen in Philadelphia. The 33-year-old Paine quickly sailed for America and landed in the middle of growing hostility between England and her colonies.
Paine found a job as a magazine editor and writer. He wrote articles on a variety of subjects that ranged from cruelty to animals to the abolitionof slavery . . .
After the king’s troops clashed with Americans at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Paine went to work on a pamphlet, arguing for independence and the establishment of an American republic. He wrote this pamphlet in plain language to appeal to the “common man.” He titled it Common Sense.”
My student specifically wondered:
1. Why would Franklin even have talked with Paine for more than a few minutes given Paine’s struggles and Franklin’s great reputation and long list of successes?
2. How did Paine even afford the trip to New England and the costs with starting over? Did Franklin cover those costs?
3. Has any Paine or Franklin scholar ever suggested that Paine, in Common Sense, may have just been Franklin’s mouthpiece, uttering what Franklin wanted to say but dared not?
Looking forward to hearing from you soon and thanking you in advance for any response you can give in this regard.
US History Teacher, San Marino High School
Coordinating Editor, KQED’s In the Classroom Website
Within a few hours, Mr. Berton had emailed me back.
There is a long relationship between Paine and Franklin dating back to the late 1750s. In a letter after Franklin’s death, Paine called Franklin his “close friend for three decades”, and Franklin died in 1790. When Paine returned from sea in 1756 he lived in London and attended the science lectures there on a regular basis — that’s where they would have associated.
So Paine didn’t “happen to meet” Franklin in 1774. Franklin called Paine his “political son”, meaning they were in sync on the political, philosophic, and religious trends of the day, and they were both leaders of the emerging “democratic” movement against monarchy and organized religion’s role in government.
Franklin sent Paine to America to write. The cost of the trip may have been borne by Franklin, but Paine had resources. He was very well connected in Whig circles in England, and would have had many sponsors. The trope of Paine being impoverished and a failure while in England is nonsense — started by his reactionary enemies and perpetuated by historians who have never dug up the whole story. Paine was the only person in Lewes for the 6 years who sat continuously on the town governing council, and Lewes was a Whig stronghold.
There is growing evidence that Paine wrote extensively for over 20 years in England before he left — you don’t wake up one morning and write Common Sense. That was a work of genius and polished political acumen. When Franklin and Paine reunited in America in 1775, Paine wasn’t Franklin’s mouthpiece, they were always in agreement on political moves. Paine wanted to surprise Franklin with Common Sense, and as future works show, Paine was always his own man, and although they agreed generally, Paine went well beyond Franklin on some key political issues (like never compromising with the existence of monarchy, or making public the fight against organized religion), but Franklin surpassed Paine in some areas, especially on Franklin’s insistence on curbing excessive wealth.
It was Franklin that first responded favorably publicly to Common Sense writing as Candidus; Franklin and Paine led the political fight in the spring of 1776 to oust the British government in Pennsylvania, fight off the Tory push to reconcile with Britain, and produce a Declaration of Independence and the most progressive constitution ever produced (the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776), and the group that led this fight went on to form the Whig Society and fight for democratic principles against the conservatives and Tories, becoming the first modern revolutionary party.
As a side note, be careful on what is attributed to Paine’s authorship, the “canon” is very inaccurate (he did not write the articles on cruelty to animals nor against slavery), and we are starting an international project to correct and expand the Paine corpus. Most writers on Paine never question what he wrote, or attribute to him some key works, like 4 Letters on Interesting Subjectsin July 1776 which laid out for the world the entire modern concept of constitutional theory. There is a lot of inaccurate information on Paine on the internet, and in several books. But there are some great scholarly works out there as well: the new book by Lounissi Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, or the standard book by Claeys, and the pop history book by Kaye –Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Kaye’s book is suitable for high school reading.
I am happy to see that the foundational influence of Paine is still alive in American schools, and I commend you for your work. Don’t hesitate to ask for more information. If I was close by I would be happy to meet with you and your class.
After reading the above, one of my other 11th graders said she now felt inspired to reach out to a Ben Franklin expert, if only to see if the Ben Franklin expert would agree with Mr. Berton. “Despite what Mr. Berton had to say,” said the student, “I still find myself thinking that Franklin must have put the Common Sense words into Paine’s mouth.”
This should get interesting.