IN PRAISE OF TOM PAINE, 1737 – 1809: A Personal Tribute to the First Democrat of the Modern World

In the small Norfolk town of Thetford there is a statue to Thomas Paine, who was born there in 1737.  The town also has a hotel named after him (The Historic Thomas Paine Hotel), which, on its outer wall carries a commemorative plaque. During the Second World War an airfield was built at nearby Knettishall for the USAF Eighth Air Force for use in 1942/43. The plaque carries a dedication to Paine which is worth quoting in full:

THOMAS PAINE 1737 – 1809

“Journalist, Patriot and Champion of the rights of the common man, Thomas Paine, son of a humble Thetford Staymaker was born near this house. From his talented pen came the voice for the democratic aspirations of the American Republic through such splendid writing as Common Sense, Crisis, and The Age of Reason. Buried in New York this simple son of England lives on through the Ideals and Principles of the democratic world for which we fight today. In tribute to his memory and to the everlasting love of freedom embodied in his works, this plaque is gratefully dedicated through the voluntary contributions of soldiers of an American Air Force group.”  October 21st 1943

The wording of this dedication leaves no doubt that the US servicemen who voluntarily contributed to placing the plaque, not only knew something of the history of their own revolution, but were aware of the contribution that a “simple son of England” had made to the cause of American freedom through the power of his writing and his active engagement in the struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Furthermore, it shows that they were aware of the connection between Paine’s unconditional commitment to the cause of liberty some 170 years earlier, and “the ideals and principles of the democratic world” for which they were fighting in 1943, namely, the world-wide struggle to defend democracy against Fascism. Some of the terminology seems a little dated today, but phrases like “the common man” or “the common people” had become widely used in the 1930s, not only, but mainly on the left. During the war they were adopted by liberal and conservative leaders of the democracies. US Vice-President Henry Wallace referred frequently to “the common man” and Churchill, borrowing shamelessly from the language and style of the left, ended one of his perorations in 1940 with the words “Long live …the forward march of the common people in all the lands towards their just and true inheritance, and towards the broader and fuller age…”

It was not until twenty years after the placing of the plaque by a group of US soldiers that the good people of Thetford finally came to recognize their famous forebear. And Thomas Paine’s homecoming, in the form of a statue offered in the early 1960s as a gift to the town by Joseph Lewis of the Thomas Paine Foundation in the USA, gave rise to a controversy which echoed the furore his writings had caused in England in the 1790s. Tories on the town council, backed by the British Legion, were bitterly opposed to the erection of a statue to Paine. It is probable that they knew next to nothing about him and had never read a word he had written. They hated him for the same reason his aristocratic enemies had burned him in effigy after he wrote The Rights of Man more than a century and a half earlier; he was a champion of democracy against aristocracy and hereditary monarchy, and he had actively supported both the American and French revolutions. That was enough in their eyes to condemn him as a traitor. And indeed, following publication in a cheap edition of the second part of Rights of Man in 1792, a warrant was issued for his arrest, forcing him to flee to France. He was tried in absentia for high treason, found guilty of “seditious libel” and outlawed. Paine’s crime was not so much to have defended the French Revolution against the attacks of Edmund Burke, but to have denounced the institution of monarchy in Britain which he described as “the master fraud which shelters all others”. Furthermore, he advocated a political and economic revolution which, more than 150 years before the creation of the welfare state, argued for an end to all hereditary powers and class privileges, abolition of the Poor Law, introduction of maternity and child allowances, old age pensions, unemployment benefit and state grants for education. If ever it was true to say that someone was born decades or centuries before his time, it is certainly true of Tom Paine. In fact, the democratic revolution he worked to achieve has still not been accomplished.

I first learned of him more than forty years ago when I read E.P. Thompson’s pioneering work The Making of the English Working Class. This prompted me to read Paine himself. I found his most important works - Common Sense; The Crisis Papers; Rights of Man and The Age of Reason - in Howard Fast’s 1943 compilation The Selected Works of Tom Paine (which also includes Fast’s biographical novel Citizen Tom Paine). Then, just a few weeks ago while on my first visit to Philadelphia, I read Eric Foner’s Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. I knew that Paine was woefully neglected in Britain but I thought that perhaps I might find a mention of him alongside the giants of the American Revolution with whom he was so closely associated following his arrival in America in 1774. But on the tourist circuit that takes in Independence Hall, while the names of Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others are prominent, there is no mention of Tom Paine. This, despite the fact that his Crisis Papers made the first clear call for independence from Britain, and despite the very plausible claim that he may well have been the first to use the term United Sates of America. Prior to the Declaration of Independence (an early draft of which was probably written by Paine) he had certainly referred to the “free and independent states of America”. Paine also called for the abolition of slavery in America and it was probably through his advocacy that the demand for abolition found its way into the first draft of the Declaration, only to be deleted before publication. As he later fell out of favour with some of the leaders of independent America, including Washington, this may account for his absence from the pantheon.  Nevertheless, the time he spent there was infinitely more congenial than his last years in the country of his birth, to which he returned in 1787.

Paine remained in England until 1792. The first part of Rights of man had largely been a defense of the French Revolution. The second part contained his devastating attack on the monarchy. It went far beyond a denunciation of George III and the House of Hanover, although it was certainly that. It was a denunciation of the institution of hereditary monarchy itself, an institution he traced back to the Norman Conquest. This was all of a piece with what amounted to a call for revolution in Britain; he advocated sweeping away not only the monarchy, but the class system with it. Unlike the seventeenth century philosophers, Hobbes and Locke, and unlike his contemporary Edmund Burke, Paine, the autodidact, wrote in a rough-hewn, populist style that didn’t beat about the bush. “A banditti of ruffians overrun a country, and lay it under contributions. Their power being thus established, the chief of the band contrived to lose the name of Robber in that of Monarch; and hence the origin of Monarchy and Kings.” This is the style not of philosopher, but of agitator, a role that Paine adopted with pride. E.P. Thompson called it “a new rhetoric of radical egalitarianism.” By 1793, 200.000 copies of Rights of Man had been sold. It caused a sensation and was read by (and to) workers, artisans and journeymen throughout the British Isles, which then had a population of only ten million. With the French revolution just across the channel in its most radical phase, revolt threatened in Britain too. Paine’s popularity was at its height.  The ruling class panicked. His fate in Britain was sealed and he escaped to France by the skin of his teeth.

There, where his fame had preceded him, he threw himself into his second revolution. He was awarded French citizenship and, despite speaking no French, was made deputy to the National Convention for the Pas de Calais. He was put on the drafting committee for the new French constitution. But, despite this auspicious beginning, his fortunes in France soon began to wane. He had associated himself with the Girondins, and with the rise of Robespierrre and the Jacobins, as a foreigner he fell foul of the wave of xenophobia that accompanied this phase of the revolution, now fighting for its life against foreign intervention.  As an opponent of capital punishment, he had protested the execution of Louis XVI. In November 1793 he was arrested and incarcerated in the Luxembourg prison where he spent almost a year, facing a likely death sentence.  Despite his personal appeals to Washington to intercede on his behalf, he was not released until the American ambassador, Morris, who was ill-disposed towards him, was replaced by James Monroe who did secure his release on the grounds that Paine was an American citizen. He remained in France until 1802 when it became safe for him to leave for the United States. There he remained for the rest of his life.

Paine’s last years were not happy. While still in France he finished writing what was to be his most provocative work – The Age of Reason. The book was actually a deistic demolition of the myths of the Bible, but it was denounced as an atheistic tract. In Britain it became a crime to print or possess a copy. Its rationalist argument, presented in his usual robust style, offended not only the defenders of established religion, but also large numbers of believers amongst those who had earlier lionized him. One hundred years later Theodore Roosevelt referred to him as “a filthy little atheist”. His courage in the face of adversity remained undiminished and, perhaps to his own disadvantage, so did his stubborn refusal to compromise on what he saw as matters of principle. He lived on, largely neglected and unappreciated in the country to which he had given so much, until his death in 1809.

I must admit to feeling an intense admiration and respect for Tom Paine. His two best known works, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason do not make easy reading. This is not because they are in any way abstruse, but because they are often repetitive and sometimes excessively polemical. He also pays little or no attention to the need to break his material down into sections or chapters according to subject matter; he just writes on and on without a break – in the case of The Rights of Man for nearly 200 pages. But in spite of this, what is so compelling about his writing is that after almost 230 years, he seems so modern. Time after time he could be describing the sorry state of the modern world. He has the passion and luminous zeal of the best radical journalists and activists of today. It is easy, and sometimes trite to say, that this or that reformer or revolutionary from the past would be with us today in the struggle for a better world. But I feel that Tom Paine would be right there in the vanguard.