Thomas Paine: champion of the common man
“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” -Thomas Paine
If the writer Thomas Paine, who died in 1809, were alive today, in the age of Trump, he would be a brilliant, uncompromising and effective voice of opposition, writing in a way that reaches the common man and woman. In his lifetime, much of what he wrote affected contemporary events. Much is still relevant to this unsettled world of 2018.
Often called the first international revolutionary, Paine’s weapon was his pen. He denounced government by one unelected individual or small elite, and argued for equality, human rights, freedom, representative democracy and social justice. In his lifetime, these were dangerously radical ideas. Paine challenged many of his society’s ruling assumptions. Slavery, monarchy and the Christian religion were just three of his targets.
Before Paine, educated people had written political works for other educated people. Paine was different, noting, “As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet." At a time when many people were illiterate, his works would be read aloud in coffee-shops, homes and taverns.
Paine was born into a family of modest means in England in 1737. He played an important part in the 1776 American Revolution (or the American War of Independence) and the 1789 French Revolution, writing later, “A part played in two revolutions is a life lived to some purpose”. He died in poverty and isolation in the USA, then still a new country.
Paine’s first thirty-seven years did not suggest that he would later become an important historical figure. They were marked by failure. He left school at 12 and was apprenticed to his father as a maker of ladies’ corsets. He later had a succession of jobs - corset maker, sailor, teacher, excise man, and shop owner. None were successful. Married twice, his first wife died in childbirth, as did the child; and his unhappy and childless second marriage fell apart. At thirty-seven, he was sacked from his job and sold everything he owned to pay off his debts.
This was when Paine’s life changed. He took a boat across the Atlantic to America, arriving in December 1774. The American colonies were then part of the British Empire. He arrived just months before the start of the American Revolution, which turned out to be perfect timing.
Soon after his arrival in America, Paine wrote a magazine article denouncing slavery, commenting“Our traders in men (an unnatural commodity!) must know the wickedness of the slave-trade, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their hearts.” Such views were not popular with the American elite. Paine was, as he so often would be in the future, brave and ahead of his time.
What was to make Paine famous overnight in America was a pamphlet called Common Sense,published in February 1776, arguing for independence at a time when many Americans were unconvinced. He also argued that what was at stake in America was of universal significance, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” Common Sense sold half a million copies and is credited with decisively changing opinion and paving the way for the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.
Paine attacked monarchy and ridiculed the hereditary principle. He also argued that the Rule of Law must be supreme, “But where say some is the King of America? In America, THE LAW IS KING.”
By the end of 1776, however, the fight for American independence was not going well. Paine wrote another pamphlet, Crisis, which was so powerfully inspirational that Washington ordered it to be read out to all his soldiers on the eve of battle. “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; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
The Americans won the battle and it was a turning point in the war.
At the end of the war in 1783, Paine’s energies went in a completely new - and surprising - direction. He designed a new iron bridge and his (ultimately fruitless) search for funds to build it took him to France and then back to his home country of England.
In England, despite his role in the American Revolution, Paine did not face arrest, but the government targeted him with something that we can recognise today - a smear campaign. They made lurid claims: that Paine was a fraudster; that he beat his first wife to death when she was pregnant and - for good measure - that he had sex with cats!
In 1789, while Paine was in England, the French Revolution took place. Edmund Burke - now known as the father of modern Conservatism - wrote a book denouncing it and Paine took up his pen and wrote his most famous work The Rights of Man in direct reply.
Paine insisted that men were free and equal in respect of their rights. “It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased, till the whole is out of nature.”
He attacked monarchy as oppressive and absurd, and the aristocracy as useless “mere consumers of rent.”
Paine wanted to educate the common man. “Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: once dispelled, and it is impossible to re-establish it…though many may be kept ignorant, they cannot be made ignorant.”
He also went into considerable detail about his proposals for what is in effect a welfare state, well before such a thing existed anywhere in the world. He produced tables setting out how progressive taxation and inheritance tax could fund support for the poor, for children, pensions for the aged and State education.
In a later work, Paine advocated that every man and woman reaching 21 years of age should receive £15 (a significant sum) “to enable HIM or HER to begin the WORLD!” This idea can be seen as an early version of modern proposals for a Universal Basic Income.
Paine was driven by a desire for social justice and abhorrence at great wealth co-existing with dire poverty. "The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.”
The Rights of Man made Paine a marked man in England. Facing arrest and likely execution for treason, he fled to France in 1792.
Arriving in France, as the famous author of The Rights of Man, Paine was immediately offered French citizenship, and elected to the Parliament of Revolutionary France.
Whereas, in England Paine had been seen as a highly dangerous radical, in Revolutionary France he was a moderate compared to the leaders of the Revolution. This moderation almost cost him his life.
The leaders of the French Revolution wanted to execute the French King. Paine, brave to the point of foolhardiness, argued the King ought to have a trial and, in any event, should not be executed. He made powerful enemies and was later arrested and thrown into prison. Due to be guillotined, he escaped only because an “X” was marked on his door when it was open, and so was not visible to those collecting prisoners for the guillotine when the door was later closed. The very next day, the revolutionary leader, Robespierre, himself fell from power and was guillotined. Paine’s life was saved.
Paine’s motivation was not sympathy for the French King but his belief in the Rule of Law and his - then unusual - opposition to the death penalty.
Paine wrote his final famous work, The Age of Reason, in France. He made it clear that he believed in a God but launched a fierce attack on Christianity, deeply shocking many people.
In 1802, Paine returned to the USA. The next seven years until his death were not happy ones. He was widely shunned because of The Age of Reason and also because he had furiously attacked George Washington, by now revered in the USA, for having abandoned him in the French prison.
In 2018, Thomas Paine has much still to offer the world. He would be appalled at what is happening in the USA. He would take up his pen - or tap his keyboard - and attack the assaults of the Trump administration on democracy, freedom, the Rule of Law, human rights and truth itself.
He would attack corruption and perhaps single out the particular evil of encouraging wars in order that some may profit. “That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of nations, is as shocking as it is true; but when those who are concerned in the government of a country, make it their study to sow discord and cultivate prejudices between nations, it becomes the more unpardonable.”
On Paine challenging received wisdom
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
On Paine insisting on the Rule of Law, even for unpopular people
"He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
Paine on social justice
‘“When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government.”