When the Thomas Paine Society was founded in 1993, most people had never heard of Thomas Paine. Some remember the name vaguely from their schooldays — most likely from a single sentence or short paragraph in a history book. “Thomas Paine,” they’d say, “isn’t he the one who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death?’” No, that was Patrick Henry.

The confusion isn’t surprising. Henry’s quote along with a multitude of other memorized trivia has been the historical mainstay for centuries. Enshrined are simplistic fairy tales: George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, Abe Lincoln was “honest” and Benjamin Franklin was the man with a kite over his head. In today’s sound bite society, learning is even more abbreviated. About the American Revolution, we maintain the image of Paul Revere galloping down cobblestone streets shouting his alarm and little more — Snapshots, Instagrams, Tweets from our past.

No written record exists of the “Liberty or Death” speech Patrick Henry delivered to the Virginia Convention in 1775, but one attendee recollected his final sentence:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Henry was a fervent advocate of the Revolution. That was the purpose of his speech, and it is reported that it drew the crowd in the chamber to its feet cheering “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!” The problem with the story is the glaring contradiction omitted from our history. Henry and almost all the men in the chamber — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among them — were wealthy slave owners.

Henry personally owned about 75 men and women. He admitted that slavery was a terrible institution but excused his own participation: 

“I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them.”

Not to single out Henry, Jefferson owned 600 slaves and Washington used hundreds to run Mount Vernon. When he died in 1799, he owned 316 slaves.

This passive consent attitude was typical of the elite, slave-owning men who founded our nation. Much of their economy was supported by slavery. Compare it to our 21st century dependence on wars and weaponry. We all know that war is immoral, but we are “drawn along … and can’t imagine living without it.”

Paine owned no slaves. From his room that overlooked the human auction blocks along Philadelphia’s harbor he watched the transactions. He would be first to denounce slavery in print, publishing an essay: “African Slavery in America” in 1775.

“So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incest, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty Masters must answer to the final Judge.”

While it might be OK for our slaveholding founders to condemn the “peculiar institution” with a wink of the eye, it’s another thing for a non-slaveholding outsider to incessantly remind them that they “must answer to the final Judge.” 

Paine was unique among our founders. He was never a member of the club of wealthy white men who organized the country where “all men being created equal” came with the caveat that slaves were three-fifths of a person (for the purpose of their owners voting bloc), where men without property (the poor) couldn’t vote because they had no interest or insight into the workings of government, and where women, as property of their husbands, had no rights and therefore were prohibited from voting.

Paine had become the conscience of the Revolution, a nagging voice that nobody wanted to hear. His position among these elite men was an accident of fate; a consequence of the fame brought him by “Common Sense.” He didn’t have the wealth or family of Washington, the education of Jefferson or the respect of a lawyer like John Adams. His formal learning ended at Thetford Elementary School. He was trained as a corset maker. He certainly didn’t know how to act in social settings, his clothes were threadbare, his wig was a disaster, and if he would just shut up about slavery, equality and justice.

Paine’s “Common Sense” became the nation’s first bestseller, heralded as the most important tract of the American Revolution and a masterpiece of persuasive writing. Some say the Revolution would not have been won without him. In spite of this, by choice he remained a man of meager circumstance donating all money from its sale to the Revolution.

Once things looked secure for the founders, Paine’s usefulness came to an end and with the exception of a few, including Franklin and Jefferson, he was scorned, belittled and marginalized until his death in 1809. 


Join the Thomas Paine Society’s celebration of Paine’s birthday at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29, at Castle Green, 99 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. For more information, visit thomaspainesociety.org.