Wednesday, April 8, 2009

This Day in Colonial History (Thomas Paine, Taxman, Loses Job)

April 8, 1774—As American anger over British-imposed taxes mounted, a 37-year-old ne’er-do-well in Lewes, England, moved the hard way toward taking up the colonists’ cause: by being dismissed from his own job as an excise or tax officer.

Fired after more than a decade in the excise service for being absent from his post without permission, Thomas Paine found himself in far tighter circumstances than he had ever known in his checkered career—and matters would get even worse within a few months before he decided to break with his past and cast his lot with America.

In a sense, America is about reinventing yourself. Our immigrant ancestors did this as a rite of passage. Some people have reinvested themselves not just with a change of location or job but with a change of name. Hollywood figures have done this as a matter of course (Frances Gumm became the far more euphonious-sounding Judy Garland), while others make slight but telling alterations in their names. (The fictional James Gatz became Jay Gatsby, while the actual Gary Hartpence changed, by subtraction, to Gary Hart.)

Paine was one of these believers in personal reinvention. It might have struck many as incongruous that Ronald Reagan, the herald of late-20th century conservatism, would quote Paine when he accepted the Republican nomination for President. But the line quoted, from Common Sense--"We have it in our power to begin the world over again"—was one that made the explicit leap from personal to national acts of starting over. And it was a sentiment with which Reagan, with a lifelong penchant for starting over (radio announcer, actor, TV pitchman, politician), could readily identify.

At the point when Paine was fired, he was still spelling his surname without the “e.” It was only after he came to America—in fact, after he the most persuasive and brilliant pamphleteer of the American Revolution—that he adopted the new name.

Some years ago, at a lecture at Fairleigh Dickinson University, I heard John Steinbeck’s widow Elaine say that one reason behind the power and empathy underlying her husband’s work was the fact that he had taken so many different jobs before becoming a writer. Such was the case with Paine before coming to America.

It’s a good thing I have a book nearby to look this stuff up in, because I’d never be able to keep track of all Paine’s failed professions: seaman, corsetmaker, grocer, tobacco shop owner, teacher, even surprisingly, for the man who scandalized so many decades later with his brief for religious skepticism, The Age of Reason, independent Methodist preacher. Paine couldn’t make a go of any of them.

But you really had to try hard to get yourself fired as a taxman. Saddled with debt because of the obligation to defend its overseas colonies in the French and Indian Wars, Britain set about with a will to collect taxes.

Twice before, Paine had been fired from the excise service. But this time, for having published his first known pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise (London, 1772), in which he called for higher pay for his fellow tax officials, then for having spent too much time in London campaigning for his idea, the offense was regarded as a deal-breaker.

Now, a whole series of events occurred that would dishearten anyone. Six days after his dismissal, Paine was forced to put up his household possessions and shop stock at public auction to pay his debts. Two months later, he ended his three-year marriage by signing, along with his wife, a separation agreement.

Finally, Paine had the kind of stroke of luck he needed: a meeting with the most famous American of them all, Benjamin Franklin. The great Philadelphian, who had reinvented himself from teenage runaway into one of the richest men of his time, probably saw something of himself—the burning need to improve himself intellectually, the fascination with science, the willingness to argue his ideas, in print and in person—in the Englishman.

In early October, armed with a letter of introduction on his behalf by Franklin to his son-in-law, Richard Bache, Paine journeyed to the New World—and a new beginning for himself.

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