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Thomas Paine
by [?]

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The genius of Paine was a flower that blossomed slowly. But life is a sequence, and the man who does great work has been in training for it. There is nothing like keeping in condition–one does not know when he is going to be called on. Prepared people do not have to hunt for a position–the position hunts for them. Paine knew no more about what he was getting ready for than did Benjamin Franklin, when at twenty he studied French, evenings, and dived deep into history.

The humble origin of Paine and his Quaker ancestry were most helpful factors in his career. Only a working-man who had tasted hardship could sympathize with the overtaxed and oppressed. And Quakerdom made him a rebel by prenatal tendency. Paine’s schooling was slight, but his parents, though poor, were thinking people, for nothing sharpens the wits of men, preventing fatty degeneration of the cerebrum, like persecution. In this respect, the Jews and Quakers have been greatly blessed and benefited–let us congratulate them. Very early in life Paine acquired the study habit. And for the youth who has the study habit no pedagogic tears need be shed. There were debating-clubs at coffeehouses, where great themes were discussed; and our young weaver began his career by defending the Quakers. He acquired considerable local reputation as a weaver of thoughts upon the warp and woof of words. Occasionally he occupied the pulpit in dissenting chapels.

These were great times in England–the air was all athrob with thought and feeling. A great tidal wave of unrest swept the land. It was an epoch of growth, second only in history to the Italian Renaissance. The two Wesleys were attacking the Church, and calling upon men to methodize their lives and eliminate folly; Gibbon was writing his “Decline and Fall”; Burke, in the House of Commons, was polishing his brogue; Boswell was busy blithering about a book concerning a man; Captain Cook was sailing the seas finding continents; the two Pitts and Charles Fox were giving the king unpalatable advice; Horace Walpole was setting up his private press at Strawberry Hill; the Herschels–brother and sister–were sweeping the heavens for comets; Reynolds, West, Lawrence, Romney and Gainsborough were founding the first school of British Art; and David Hume, the Scotchman, was putting forth arguments irrefutable. And into this seething discontent came Thomas Paine, the weaver, reading, studying, thinking, talking, with nothing to lose but his reputation. He was twenty-seven years of age when he met Ben Franklin at a coffeehouse in London. Paine got his first real mental impetus from Franklin. Both were workingmen. Paine listened to Franklin one whole evening, and the said, “What he is I can at least in part become.” Paine thought Franklin quite the greatest man of his time, an opinion which, among others held by him, the world now fully accepts.

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Paine at twenty-four, from a simple weaver, had been called into the office of his employer to help straighten out the accounts. He tried storekeeping, but with indifferent success. Then it seems he was employed by the Board of Excise on a similar task. Finally he was given a position in the Excise. This position he might have held indefinitely, and been promoted in the work, for he had clerical talents which made his services valuable. But there was another theme that interested him quite as much as collecting taxes for the Government, and that was the philosophy of taxation. This was very foolish in Thomas Paine–a tax-collector should collect taxes, and not concern himself with the righteousness of the business, nor about what becomes of the money.