On December 28, 1793, at the height of the Reign of Terror in France, Paris police rousted Thomas Paine in the cold hours before dawn, arrested him as a “foreign conspirator” and locked him in a wet, 10-by-8-foot cellar in Luxembourg Prison. The only light came from cracks in a boarded-up window. Paine was sure the guillotine awaited him.
Citizen Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense helped ignite the American Revolution, was an enthusiastic early supporter of the French Revolution. He received a hero's welcome when he arrived in Paris in 1792 and was even granted honorary French citizenship and a seat in the National Convention, the body charged with writing a constitution for the new republic. But Paine angered Maximilien Robespierre and other Jacobin extremists when he urged the Convention to spare the life of the deposed French king, Louis XVI. Instead, Jacobins brandished the king's severed head in front of a cheering crowd. Then they proceeded to round up thousands of suspected counterrevolutionaries who, Paine observed, fell “as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off.” Now they'd come for him, too.