May 18, 2013
The Age of Paine
Posted on Jul 3, 2009
By Scott Tucker
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine in “Common Sense,” the revolutionary pamphlet published in January 1776. Ronald Reagan quoted those words on July 17, 1980, when he addressed the Republican National Convention and accepted his party’s presidential nomination. Reagan led a coalition of corporate oligarchs, imperial crusaders and Christian fundamentalists to power, and to this day Reaganism remains the official gospel of the old guard in the Republican Party. The republican and social democratic ideals of Paine are long lost to many modern partisan Republicans and Democrats, but many memorable phrases of Paine still fill the mouths of career politicians.
When the Iraq war, a broken health care system and a plunging economy gave the Democratic Party a political advantage, Barack Obama raised hopes and promised change. When Obama gave his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2009, he too quoted Paine, this time from the first of 13 articles collected in “The American Crisis”—an article Gen. Washington ordered read to his troops before crossing the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 to fight the Hessian mercenaries of King George III: “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 country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.” Reagan and Obama each lifted some good lines from Paine for their own rhetorical purposes; but each likewise cared more for stagecraft than for the original script.
Thomas Paine was born Jan. 29, 1737, in Thetford, England, and died on June 8, 1809, in Greenwich Village, New York. He was an active participant in the American and French revolutions, and once said to George Washington, “a share in two revolutions is living to some purpose.” Through his writings he also left a lasting legacy in the British working-class movement. During his life, his books and pamphlets became instant best-sellers, since he was a pioneer in addressing a wide public in plain language. He is, in fact, sometimes described as a “pamphleteer,” and it is true that even his books are written in the style of pamphlets writ large. This is entirely to his credit. In 1943, Orwell wrote a short piece titled “Pamphlet Literature,” and claimed “that the pamphlet ought to be the literary form of an age like our own. We live in a time when political passions run high, channels of free expression are dwindling, and organized lying exists on a scale never before known. For plugging the holes in history the pamphlet is the ideal form.” In the age of Murdoch and Berlusconi, the traditional print and broadcast media often serve as megaphones of phony populism. Nor does organized lying cease to exist simply because the Internet carries a cacophony of voices. In this sense, “plugging the holes in history” is still the aim of political writers, and Paine is still good for morale and instruction.
In the United States, Paine wrote “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis,” rallying citizens to support independence, and then literally rallying the troops for battle. When Paine went back to England to promote his own design for a bridge, history had a bigger design for him. He had become acquainted with Edmund Burke, who argued in the British Parliament that lenience would preserve the loyalty of the colonists, and who finally added his qualified support to the American Revolution. In a famous speech Burke gave in the House of Commons on March 22, 1775, he said, “In this character of the Americans a love of freedom is the predominating feature. … This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English colonies, probably, than in any other people of the earth.”
So long as Burke and Paine had that much common ground, Paine was even glad to visit Burke at his country home. But in 1789 the French Revolution broke out, and by the next year Burke was making deeply conservative arguments for hereditary rule and property in his book “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” The leading British radicals and republicans, whom Paine knew well, waged a literary war against Burke. William Godwin wrote his “Inquiry Concerning Political Justice,” and Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” But once again, the runaway best-seller proved to be the first part of Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” published in 1791 and dedicated to George Washington. Paine defended the French Revolution, and renewed his attacks against monarchy and all hereditary privilege. Arguing pointedly against Burke, Paine wrote:
William Pitt the younger, George III’s prime minister, led a campaign of repression against radicals and republicans in the early and middle 1790s. Members of the Church and King Society broke up radical meetings and burned down their camps. On Nov. 22, 1792, a mob of royalist patriots burned an effigy of Paine at Chelmsford, Essex. Two months earlier, Paine had fled to France (at the strong advice of William Blake and others) after he had been charged with sedition. The trial took place in December, and he was found guilty in absentia, outlawed from ever returning under penalty of imprisonment.
He remained in France 10 years, serving as a deputy in the revolutionary National Convention in Paris (though he knew little French), and he was even appointed in October 1792 to the Committee of Nine to write the new French Constitution. He kept company with the Girondin faction in the Convention, which already made him a marked man in the eyes of Robespierre and his faction. He further alienated Robespierre and Marat when he argued that the former king’s life should be spared. Paine had fallen afoul of government once again. In December 1793 Paine was arrested and imprisoned, and the next year “the Angel of Death” made a customary chalk mark on his open cell door. But when the door was closed, Paine and his three cellmates were overlooked as the next cartload of prisoners was taken to the guillotine.
During his 10 months in prison, when he was not disabled by fever, Paine worked on “The Age of Reason.” Like all his other books, this became a best-seller; and though he argued for deism, he would be branded as an atheist. The American minister in France, Gouverneur Morris, ignored Paine’s appeals for help. Paine also grew convinced that Washington had abandoned him, and he poured out his public grievances later in his “Letter to Washington.” Only when Morris was replaced by James Monroe was Paine finally released, in the fall of 1794. By that time Robespierre and most of his party had been guillotined, and the Convention was now called the Assembly. Paine was elected to this assembly in December 1794, and wrote his last major works: the last parts of “The Age of Reason,” “Dissertations on the First Principles of Government” and, finally, in 1797, “Agrarian Justice.” In 1802, at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson, Paine returned to the United States. As the political struggle between the Jeffersonian and the Federalist factions had sharpened, Paine contributed most often to the Jeffersonian press and cause. Jefferson was among the very few people who still honored Paine.
Paine received a modest financial grant for his services to the republic, and the state of New York gave him a small farm in the town of New Rochelle. After he died in 1809 in Greenwich Village, his body was taken to be buried on his farm in New Rochelle. Paine had requested burial in the cemetery of the local Quaker meeting, but the elders had refused. Madame Bonneville, who had been the wife of one of Paine’s comrades in France and who became Paine’s housekeeper, made his final funeral arrangements. By some accounts, only five or six people attended his burial, including Bonneville and her son, two African men who had walked many miles in gratitude for Paine’s work against slavery, and one man in Quaker garb who refused to disown the free thinker. Madame Bonneville later gave an account of “an obscure grave on an open and disregarded bit of land,” writing:
“Looking round me, and beholding the small group of spectators, I exclaimed, as the earth tumbled into the grave, ‘Oh! Mr. Paine! My son stands here as testimony of the gratitude of America, and I, for France!’ This was the funeral ceremony of this great politician and philosopher!”
Though only a handful of people stood by when his body was buried, his skull and bones are now claimed as relics around the world. None of those bones have been proved to be Paine’s, though we do know his grave was robbed in 1819 by a journalist and publisher named William Cobbett. In Paine’s last years, Cobbett had been one of his rabid foes; but when Paine was dead, Cobbett read the man’s books in earnest and became such a thorough convert that the two men had a long intertwined afterlife in the culture of the British working class. Since the United States had raised no proper memorial for Paine, Cobbett decided to dig up the remains and take them to England. Cobbett’s timing was bad. The old wave of anti-Jacobin sentiment had given way to a new wave of anti-Napoleonic, nationalist and royalist sentiment. Cobbett was not able to raise a bronze and marble monument, though he raised a chorus of ridicule from British journalists and cartoonists.
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