Tom Paine

Tom Paine died in New York City 200 years ago this week. An article by historian John Keane in today’s Guardian alerted me to this fact and asks, where is the man for our time who would terrify Westminster and the world in the way Tom Paine did?

Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737 (there is a statue of him there). A chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774 changed Paine’s life. Following Franklin’s advice, Paine arrived in America in November 1774, just as American revolutionaries were debating whether to break with Britain.

In January 1776 Paine published a short pamphlet titled Common Sense; the work has been described by the Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon S Wood as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire [American] revolutionary period”. It put the case for democracy, against the monarchy, and for American independence from British rule. It became a sensation, selling 120,000 copies in the first three months, the equivalent of an American author selling 15 million books in three months today.

“In January 1776, only one third of the delegates to the Continental Congress [the political body of the American Revolution] were in favour of declaring independence from Britain,” says Cheryl Hudson, associate fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University. Then, Paine published Common Sense which argued for immediate and complete separation of the colonies from the ‘mother country’. His visionary and uncompromising words captured the public imagination, and under pressure from the people, individual colonies began to instruct their delegates to vote for independence.” Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence followed soon after.

‘I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine’.  John Adams

Not content with intellectually spearheading the case for American independence Paine went on to write a series of pro-revolutionary pamphlets, which were later published together as The American Crisis. They were designed to lift the spirits of America’s supporters of independence in difficult times, and were invoked by Barack Obama in his inaguaral address:

“Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]“, said Obama, taking his words from Paine’s Crisis No 1.

Paine played no role in American government after independence and in 1787 he returned to Britain. He continued to write on political issues and in 1791 published his most influential work, The Rights of Man. In the book Paine attacked hereditary government and argued for equal political rights. Paine suggested that all men over twenty-one in Britain should be given the vote and this would result in a House of Commons willing to pass laws favourable to the majority. The book also recommended progressive taxation, family allowances, old age pensions, maternity grants and the abolition of the House of Lords.

The British government was outraged by Paine’s book and it was immediately banned. Paine was charged with seditious libel but he escaped to France. Paine announced that he did not wish to make a profit from The Rights of Man and anyone had the right to reprint his book. The Rights of Man was printed in cheap editions so that it could achieve a working class readership. Although the book was banned, during the next two years over 200,000 people in Britain managed to buy a copy.

In 1792 Tom Paine became a French citizen and was elected to the National Convention. However, when Paine opposed the execution of Louis XVI he was arrested and kept in prison under the threat of execution from 28th December 1793 and 4th November 1794. Paine was only released after the American minister, James Monroe, put pressure on the French government.

His next book, The Age of Reason, was a step too far for many of his early admirers. An attack on organised religion and a defence of “free and rational inquiry”, the work saw him subtly edged out of founding father status in America. When he died on 8 June 1809 in Greenwich Village, New York, there were only six mourners at his funeral, two of them freed slaves.

John Keane sums him up in his Guardian article:

He did everything he could to prevent the abuse of citizens’ rights by governments. He disliked parochialism (“where liberty is not, there is my country”, he reportedly told Benjamin Franklin); and he drew from the principle that the earth is common property the conclusion that the most vulnerable in society – especially the young and the old – ought to be guaranteed as of right their fair share of its wealth. Most compelling of all was Paine’s burning desire to meet the arguments of his foes, not with gunpowder or the sword, or haughty bitterness, but with words from Isaiah: “Let us reason the matter together.”

Tom Paine quotes:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.

He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.

He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.

As I Went Out One Morning

And what has this Dylan lyric got to do with any of the above? Who knows? For myself, I’ve always seen ‘the fairest damsel’ as liberty/the United States (the statue of liberty) and that Paine here is represented as being appalled by how the nation for whose liberty he argued has turned out. Robert Shelton (in No Direction Home) wrote that ‘Paine, who once proclaimed that his own mind was his church, would have been appalled to see libertarian ideas enchained by dogma’.

As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s,
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains.

I offer’d her my hand,
She took me by the arm.
I knew that very instant,
She meant to do me harm.

“Depart from me this moment,”
I told her with my voice.
Said she, “But I don’t wish to,”
Said I, “But you have no choice.”

“I beg you, sir,” she pleaded
From the corners of her mouth,
“I will secretly accept you
And together we’ll fly south.”

Just then Tom Paine, himself,
Came running from across the field,
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield.

And as she was letting go her grip,
Up Tom Paine did run,
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me,
“I’m sorry for what she’s done.”

Mira Billotte: As I Went Out One Morning (from I’m Not There)

Villanelle For Our Time

From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.

We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.

Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Villanelle For Our Time is a poem by the late F. R. Scott, one of Leonard Cohen’s professors at McGill University. Cohen recites the poem (not too well, in my opinion, on the album, Dear Heather). I add it here because it seems to embody Paine’s ideas.

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