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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Tom Paine, philosopher of revolution



Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is a somewhat controversial historical character, particularly when he is regarded from a British perspective. He was British by birth and upbringing, but spent much of life beyond its shores in support of causes that were not in Britain’s interests.

In 1774 he left Britain and settled in Philadelphia just as tensions between Britain and her American colonies were beginning to reach an interesting stage. Paine soon played an active role in support of the Revolution, writing a pamphlet (“Common Sense”) that did much to persuade the colonists that they had a just cause. He was later employed by the new American government in various capacities, including undertaking a voyage to France in 1781 as part of a mission to gain financial support for the new nation.

In 1787 he was back in France, this time hoping to gain support and funding for his plan to build an iron bridge, for which he had a designed a model. This project took him back to Britain, where an iron foundry in Rotherham was persuaded to construct the bridge which was then built, from forged sections, across the Thames in London in 1790, but subsequently dismantled when it began to rust. However, in the meantime revolution had broken out in France and Paine’s interests were now diverted away from bridge-building and back towards his favourite occupation of writing in support of liberty and against tyranny.

Paine’s most influential work, “The Rights of Man”, was written in response to Edmund Burke’s condemnation of the French Revolution in “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. Both were published in 1791, although the second part of Paine’s work appeared in 1792. Paine’s main theme was that one generation cannot bind another as to the form of government it should adopt, and the constitution of a country is an act of the people that constitute the government. In Paine’s view, the French and American Revolutions were manifestations of the same wish to escape from tyranny and establish “government by the people”. He also hoped that the British people would follow the same course.

Tom Paine’s support was well received by the new National Assembly. Not only was he granted honorary French citizenship, but he was also elected by four “d├ępartements” to be their Assembly representative. He took up the offer of the Calais d├ępartement and crossed the English Channel to a rapturous response. The streets were lined with cheering crowds and he was given a revolutionary cockade as the champion of liberty.

However, life as a National Assembly deputy soon proved to be less desirable than Tom Paine might have imagined. For one thing, his French was nothing like good enough for him to follow the debates. More importantly, he soon found himself out of favour with many of the deputies because of his deep opposition to capital punishment.

In Paine’s view, revolution was about moving from barbarism towards civilization, and a country that takes the lives of its own citizens, whatever their crime or offence, is still a barbaric one. He therefore fiercely opposed moves to execute the deposed King Louis XVI, proposing instead that he be exiled to the United States. In his words:

France has been the first of European nations to abolish royalty. Let her also be the first to abolish the penalty of death”.

However, his plea was in vain and the King went to the guillotine in January 1793, to be followed in October by his queen, Marie Antoinette. The same fate befell many more supposed “enemies of the people” in the months that followed, and Tom Paine began to fear that his head would also fall into a basket. He had definitely made some powerful enemies through his opposition to the increasingly violent and undemocratic turn that the Revolution was taking.

The knock at the door came in the early morning of 28th December 1793 and Paine was taken away to the Luxembourg prison. However, he soon contracted a severe fever and spent several weeks drifting in and out of consciousness. While in this state it was impossible for him to stand trial and receive the inevitable punishment, and this gave time for the American ambassador, James Monroe, to intervene on his behalf. However, it was not until November 1794 that he was eventually released and taken to Monroe’s Paris residence.

Tom Paine continued to live in France until 1802, there being no prospect of him ever being allowed back into Britain, where he had been tried in his absence in 1792 and found guilty of treason. While in France he met the up-and-coming Napoleon Bonaparte and discussed plans for how the latter could invade Britain, even writing two essays that advocated such a move. Eventually he moved back to the United States, where he died in 1809 at the age of 72. Curiously, although he never returned to the country of his birth, his bones did. The radical campaigner and writer William Cobbett had them dug up and sent to England as some sort of trophy for republicanism and liberalism, but they eventually disappeared.

Tom Paine’s enthusiasm for popular revolution received a severe rebuff at the hands of the French, where his democratic theories came up against people who were more interested in imposing their will by force and replacing one tyranny with another.

One of his problems in France was that his nationality was in question. His message was one that overrode nationality, believing as he did that the principles of social justice and self-determination were universal. However, whether he was a citizen of France, Great Britain or the United States was vital when it came to deciding whether he could be put on trial for his life. If American, as he claimed on the basis of his taking citizenship during the American War of Independence, he could claim protection from the representatives of a friendly nation, but did his acceptance of a seat in the National Assembly mean that he had thereby become a citizen of France? This uncertainty, together with his illness, no doubt helped to save his life.

He was also not helped by the flaws in his character that tended to turn people against him. For example, he was self-important and vain, with a reluctance to listen to views that did not accord with his own, and many people found him to be physically repulsive. He was often drunk, shabbily dressed, and stinking from the ointments he used to treat a skin disorder. He was not an easy person to like. Popular heroes have not only to say and do the right things, but to look and act the part as well. Tom Paine may have fitted one half of this requirement, but not the other.

Whether Tom Paine is regarded as a hero or a traitor may depend on one’s own nationality, which is ironic given Paine’s own views. However, if one relies solely on his writings as a measure of the man, the conclusion must be that he stood as a champion of the rights of man (less so of woman) throughout the world, and the principles he advanced are still very relevant today.


© John Welford