Thomas Paine’s influence as a radical political activist at the end of the 18th century was profound. Extracts from Life of Thomas Paine, shown here, was published in 1822, 13 years after his death, at a point when his legacy in the longer term was only beginning to be properly understood. His earlier work Common Sense, first published in 1776, had offered a critique of British rule in the American colonies by arguing that Britain only had her self-interests at heart and cared little for the interests of people who lived so far away. The book was widely read among ordinary American patriots and the sentiments it contained offered primary justifications for the American revolutionary wars of the late 1770s.
In the early 1790s Thomas Paine turned his attention to Revolutionary France. In perhaps his greatest work, Rights of Man, he argued that political revolution was always justified whenever the natural rights of man were no longer protected by the crown. Paine opposed the hereditary aspects of British government which he believed was a self-interested institution run for the benefit of a land-owning elite. Paine advocated the proper delegation of powers within a representative democracy and was distinctly anti-monarchist in his outlook. His political vision, however, was considered treasonous by the standards of the day. Paine was forced to flee Britain for France and was later convicted of a seditious libel in his absence.