Founders and the Constitution

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of Thomas Paine. Students will learn about his arguments in Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason as well as his contributions to the Revolutionary cause.

Founding Principles

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Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

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Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

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Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


We have it in our power to begin the world over again. - Thomas Paine (1776)


Thomas Paine was a major figure during the early years of the American Revolution. One of the foremost propagandists for American liberty in the 1770s, Paine penned words that rallied the war-weary spirit of the colonists and that still stir the hearts of Americans today, even when taken out of their original context: “These are the times that try men’s souls. . . . The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. . . . Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. . . . The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” His Common Sense was the bestselling pamphlet of the Revolutionary era. (As a percentage of the population, it was read by more people than watch the Superbowl today.) It is still widely available and read today by students of the period. He is often cited as a champion of liberty.

Yet, Paine played no role in the formation of the American government after independence and lived outside the United States in the critical years, 1787–1802, when the nation’s new political institutions were being tested. While abroad, he more openly advocated the ideals of the Enlightenment in their most extreme form, railing against established religion, legal precedent, and all tradition. In the 1770s, Thomas Paine embodied the American Revolutionary spirit better than any other writer. But the radical road that he followed to Revolutionary France in the 1780s and 1790s is the path that America chose to reject.


In this lesson, students will learn about Thomas Paine. They should first read as homework Handout A— Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Thomas Paine on Patriotism in which Thomas Paine rallies for support of the Continental Army and the revolutionary cause. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document. Students will analyze the civic values Paine promotes and apply those values to their own lives in Handout D—Analysis: Paine and Civic Values.

There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask students to write their own version of The American Crisis on a modern day national crisis, or to create a pamphlet in the style of Paine on a school issue. Extensions asks students to read and analyze parts of Paine’s Common Sense, or to reflect on the American principles of freedom and government.


Students will:

  • explain the arguments Thomas Paine made in Common Sense.
  • explain the main ideas of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.
  • understand the reasons for Paine’s negative reception in the U.S. upon his 1802 return.
  • analyze The American Crisis and Paine’s explication of civic values.
  • evaluate modern applications of eighteenth-century civic values.
  • appreciate the contributions Thomas Paine made to the revolutionary cause.


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—Thomas Paine (1737–1809)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: Thomas Paine on Patriotism
  • Handout D—Analysis: Paine and Civic Values

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IC1, IC3, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B, 3D
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Thomas Paine.

    Thomas Paine was a writer and philosopher. He wrote Common Sense, the bestselling pamphlet of the revolutionary era. His The American Crisis essays inspired the Continental Army in dark times. In the late 1780s he returned to Europe and wrote, in the 1790s, The Rights of Man, a political tract, and The Age of Reason, a critique of Christianity and organized religion. Reaction to Paine’s philosophies caused him to fall largely out of favor in the United States by the end of his life.

Context 5 min.

Explain to students that one purpose of The American Crisis essays was to inspire the Continental Army and all Americans to support the cause of independence. It was written during a time in the war when morale was down and public support for independence was wavering. In the essay, Paine attempts to summon awareness of several civic values in his audience. His ultimate goal is to inspire them to act on those values.

In His Own Words 20 min.

  1. Ask the class, “What personality or character traits are those of good citizens?” Conduct a large group discussion on the civic values promoted by desirable character traits.

    Students should recognize that the traits they admire in their friends and family are likely the traits that good citizens share. Some examples include honesty, responsibility, industry, respect, courage, tolerance, and perseverance.

  2. Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: Thomas Paine on Patriotism. Have students read the document and complete Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions individually.
  3. Divide students into pairs or trios and have them complete Handout D— Analysis: Paine and Civic Values.
  4. Using an overhead of Handout D, complete the chart as a class and have the students share their responses.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

Conduct a large group discussion about the civic values Paine attempts to summon in readers of his essay. What are the opposites of those values (i.e., the ones he condemns in the essay)? Ask students to share ways they have, in their own times of crisis, acted on those civic virtues Paine attempts to summon in his audience.

Follow-Up Homework Options

  1. Have students write their own “American Crisis” essay in the style of Paine, focusing on a modern cultural or political crisis and persuading people to take a specific action. Possible crises might include poverty or the war in Iraq.
  2. Have students create a one-page pamphlet expressing their opinion on a school issue, persuading their fellow students to act in accordance with a civic value discussed in class. Possible topics might include acting respectfully in class, being tolerant of student groups or clubs with whom they might not agree, being kind to others, or putting a stop to bullying.


  1. Have students read “Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs” from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Have students write a one-page essay summarizing his main points and analyzing the way Paine’s argument compares to the one he makes in The American Crisis.
    Source: “Common Sense by Thomas Paine,” <>.
  2. Thomas Paine began the introduction to The Rights of Man (1791–1792) with a dedication to George Washington. He wrote, “I present you a small treatise in defense of those principles of freedom which your exemplary virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish.” In 1796, in his public letter denouncing Washington, he wrote, “. . . my citizenship in America was not . . . diminished by anything I had done in Europe (on the contrary, it ought to be considered as strengthened, for it was the American principle of government that I was endeavoring to spread in Europe).” Have students write a one-page essay defining and discussing what those principles of freedom and principles of government are.


Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Foner, Eric, ed. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995.
Fruchtman, Jack. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.
Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine: Firebrand of Revolution. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Grove Press, 2003.

“Document Library: Thomas Paine.” Teaching American History. <>.
Thomas Paine National Historical Association. <>.
“Thomas Paine.” <>.

Selected Works

By Thomas Paine

  • African Slavery in America (1774–1775)
  • Common Sense (1776)
  • The American Crisis (1776–1783)
  • The Rights of Man (1791–1792)
  • The Age of Reason (1794, 1796)

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