Thomas Paine, Spared the Guillotine

Revolutions are notoriously unwieldy, and no one knew that better than the consummate revolutionary of the 18th century, Thomas Paine. His work Common Sense, the first best-seller of America, was hugely influential among the general public in turning the tide of opinion to supporting independence from Britain in January of 1776. But he wasn’t finished there; Paine headed to the revolution in France and wrote one of its defining texts, The Rights of Man. In gratitude, Robespierre and the French imprisoned him.


The Rights of Man, Paine’s classic French Revolution text

It seemed inevitable that Paine would be guillotined. In July of 1794, this was in the midst of the Reign of Terror, during which tens of thousands were executed. It appears that Robespierre’s belief was “Spare the guillotine, spoil the revolutionary.” Men came to visit Paine and left via guillotine.


Paine reached out to the Americans for aid. The problem was that Paine had two talents: speaking for revolutions and making enemies. The American minister, Governeur Morris, felt no love for Paine. After a few tepid attempts to secure Paine’s release, Morris gave up, claiming he couldn’t do anything because Paine was an English citizen.


In jail, Paine developed a severe fever, probably typhus. For days it seemed he might succumb to the illness rather than kiss the blade. To aid his fever, the other prisoners asked their guards to keep their prison door open at night to let the air circulate more freely. The guards permitted this, and it saved Paine’s life.


The night before an execution, a man would walk around the jail cells and mark an X in chalk on the door of the prisoner who was to be executed the next morning. Because Paine’s cell door was opened so wide that it lay flat against the wall, the man marked the X on the inside of the door. In the morning, the prisoners closed the door and the executioner walked right by.


Three days later the Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre’s head in the guillotine.


Soon thereafter, a new American Ambassador to France was chosen: James Monroe, the future president. Monroe was a huge fan of Paine and worked tirelessly for his release, which he secured in November. Paine spent the next two years living with the Monroes and continuing to write on the Revolution.


Thomas Paine

In times of war and revolution, one’s fate can hang on a slender thread such as this. Other great minds of 18th century France, such as the pioneer chemist Antoine Lavoisier, were not so lucky.

What is your favorite piece of writing related to the French Revolution?


13 Comments Add yours

  1. cardinalrich says:

    Terribly boring selection and modern but “Citizens” by Simon Schama – picked it up the moment it came out and didn’t regret it for a second.

    1. Simon Schama did that documentary about the history of Britain, right? My husband and I watch a few episodes of it, love it, then get bored and shun it for a while, then go back to it again…

      1. cardinalrich says:

        So very true! I tried to watch but my eyes glazed over; definitely not Pawn Stars! Citizens is loooong and non-fiction but blessed with fluid yet descriptive prose. Loved the beginning which details the meeting of the young Talleyrand with the old Voltaire. For my money if I am going to subject myself a British accent narrating a history of anything I will stick with Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation – it’s older than I am but still works in a very basic kind of way. .

  2. Mike says:

    I enjoyed the script for “History Of The World Part 1”.

    1. cardinalrich says:

      Your Majesty, you look like the piss-boy! – without question needs to be included in the Western Cannon.

  3. vanbraman says:

    The first book that came to mind for the French Revolution was ‘The Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens. I also thought of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ by Orczy and ‘Scaramouche’ by Sabatini. Of these the first is my favorite.

    1. Tale of Two Cities may be my favorite Dickens. Good choice. As for the Scarlet Pimpernel, well, it wasn’t really my style.

  4. R Towns Blethrow says:

    For me, without a doubt it’s Francis Parkman’s “France and England in North America” It’s a big read (2 volumes)

    I am fond of this succinct description of the (IMHO) epic writing by The Library of America with regards to volume two.

    “This is the second of two Library of America volumes (the companion volume here) presenting, in compact form, all seven parts of Francis Parkman’s monumental narrative history of the struggle for control of the American continent. Thirty years in the writing, Parkman’s “history of the American forest” is an accomplishment hardly less awesome than the explorations and adventures he so vividly describes. The story reaches its climax with the fatal confrontation of two great commanders at Quebec’s Plains of Abraham—and a daring stratagem that would determine the future of a continent.” Copyright 1995–2011 Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.

    1. Interesting choice. I’ve always more associated Francis Parkman with the Oregon Trail, though I suppose what you’re referencing is related.

      I have a decent little collection, about 20 volumes, of LoA editions in slipcase. I am a fan of their work, for sure!

  5. Rod Rodriguez says:

    It’s hard to read about this period, the death and destruction, a world truly turned upside down. Makes you ponder upon the differences between the American and French Revolutions.

    I would say there are few better book opening’s or closing’s than “A Tale of Two Cities”. So few words, but immortal in there power and simplicity.

    As for my favorite piece of writing about this period I would say it must be “Code civil des français”. Yes it was implemented 5 years after the end of the revolution, but it began to right the injustices executed in the name of freedom.

    It reminds us at times that nations must go through fire, sometimes even total destruction, in order for the people to come out stronger.

    1. Tale of Two Cities suffers a bit from the 19th century weakness for coincidence, and sometimes gets borderline on its sentimentality, but you’re right. The opening and closing portions are killer, and it’s one of his best works!

  6. jrb says:

    though way early, i thought “candide” helped throw down the gauntlet to the state, the church, and the individual, and was an interesting articulation or crystallization of the issues that would turn simmering discontent into the full boil of revolution.

    1. Thanks for your comment. So true–Voltaire’s writings were crucial in the ways you describe, along with works by his contemporaries like Diderot’s Encyclopedia.

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