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:
“The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.”
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.
Paine’s father was a Quaker and a master stay-maker (a maker of the whale-bone corsets worn by fashionable women at the time, not the usual line of work among Quaker artisans). Paine’s mother was a member of the Church of England, and must have had a streak of independence to marry a Quaker of any trade or social rank. As a boy and young man, Tom often went with his father to the local Quaker meeting in Cage Lane, adjoining the jail, the pillory and the gibbet. (In later life, Paine readily claimed that he had received “an exceeding good moral education” from the Quakers.) Twice in his late teens Paine ran away from home to the London docks, seeking employment as a privateer. The first time, he was found by his father at the docks and was persuaded to come home. The second time he did go to sea and he came back with 50 pounds, good wages at that time. He bought a set of clothes fit for a gentleman, but was out of funds a few months later.
Paine married twice while living in England. His first wife died in childbirth, and the child did not survive. He obtained a legal separation from his second wife, and they had no children. He tried several lines of work—as a stay-maker, teacher, tobacco shop owner and tax collector. In 1772, he published his first political article, “The Case of the Officers of Excise,” a petition for better wages and working conditions. He moved to London, and there, in the clubs and coffeehouses where artisans, merchants and aristocrats often mixed, he joined in conversations about culture and politics. He also attended public lectures on astronomy and other sciences. He took a practical interest in engineering, and he got a British patent for his design of a single-span iron bridge. In London he met the radical Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley, one of the two discoverers of oxygen. He met the Scottish astronomer James Ferguson. And, most important, he met a man with whom Ferguson was collaborating on the design of a new clock, Benjamin Franklin.
As Craig Nelson wrote in “Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations,” “Though the Enlightenment would sweep through every social niche, its most ardent disciples would be workingmen or artisans—self-employed master craftsmen and wage-earning journeymen who made, in that pre-industrial era, pretty much everything money could buy. … In the 18th century they called themselves ‘mechanics’, and their great hero was the world’s most celebrated self-made mechanic, Benjamin Franklin. … ”
Franklin’s gospel of thrift, patience and self-improvement may well have brought a new focus and resolve to the life of Paine. This whole period in London encouraged Paine to test his own powers and set himself new tasks. In Nelson’s view, “Those two years would make him a central figure in the creation of the modern world.” Franklin encouraged Paine to make his future in the American colonies. In October 1774, Paine sailed from London and he arrived in Philadelphia on Nov. 30. He was 37 years old. He spent his first weeks recovering his health after being stricken by the typhus fever that swept through crew and passengers during the ocean crossing. But he also held several letters of recommendation from Franklin, and these served as his key to the city.
Paine rented a room at the corner of Front and Market, and in Robert Aitken’s bookshop next door he soon learned that Aitken owned a printing press. Aitken offered Paine a job as chief editor of the new Pennsylvania Magazine, and Paine readily accepted. With Paine both editing and writing for every issue, the magazine soon became the most popular publication in North America.
In March 1775, Paine (writing under the pseudonym “Justice and Humanity”) wrote and published an article against slavery, arguing that the subject relationship of the colonists to the British crown should have taught them enough moral and practical lessons to renounce holding Africans as property. According to Nelson, this essay brought Paine to the attention of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner, who introduced him to other prominent colonial citizens. In August of the same year, he also published a plea for women’s rights, noting that “even with changes in attitudes and laws,” women often remained “slaves of opinion which rules them with absolute sway and construes the slightest appearances into guilt; surrounded on all sides by judges who are at once tyrants and their seducers. … ”
In Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn had offered not only religious freedom, but also the most nearly republican political culture of any of the colonies. In 1682, Penn declared in his Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, “Any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws.” But by the time Paine arrived, an upper class of merchants and landowners (including Penn’s descendants) had consolidated so much power that open class resentment had grown among hired workers and tenant farmers. In his biography of Paine, Nelson estimates that mechanics constituted nearly half the population of Philadelphia on Paine’s arrival, and held 30 to 40 percent of its wealth. By background and by conviction, Franklin and Paine had close ties with this working-class stratum of skilled artisans. Yet Franklin fashioned a smooth social mask and was prosperous enough to find a fixed place among the Founding Fathers, whereas Paine has always been regarded as a much more prickly and plebeian outsider. Paine joined with a band of Philadelphia radicals who not only pressed for national independence but also spearheaded a revision of the state constitution in 1776.
In 1780, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed in Pennsylvania, and carried Paine’s signature as clerk of the General Assembly. Though it was a legal milestone, nothing like the later resolute Abolitionist spirit of John Brown and Frederick Douglass is found in that document. On one side of the scales of justice, this document weighed the fact that God chose to create people with diverse complexions, “so all are the work of an Almighty Hand.” But the other side of the scales was weighed down with a large concession to the surrounding slave states, namely, a clause stating that the passage of the act “shall not give any relief or shelter to any absconding Negro or Mulatto slave or servant. … ” Slavery, as a daily moral problem and as a daily material reality, had been exported by the British to their colonies, including the West Indies and southern Africa. And yet that very geographical distance is one reason the British made decisive legal and political moves against slavery well before the American Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In England, after a long campaign in Parliament led by William Wilberforce (and supported by some evangelical Christians and secular republicans), the British finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. In the United States, the home ground was more deeply stained and entangled with slavery, so the struggle against it passed in time from Quaker persuasion to the more militant abolitionists.
Paine had argued with Aitken about his wages at the Pennsylvania Magazine, and by summer of 1775 he was determined to publish a new extended essay elsewhere. In September he read the first draft aloud at Dr. Rush’s house, and by December he had passed out copies to astronomer David Rittenhouse, Boston rebel Sam Adams and of course his benefactor Benjamin Franklin. John and Samuel Adams, along with Franklin, had been among the very few people who argued in private for an independent nation, but Paine was the first to make these arguments in public print. Paine’s pamphlet of 96 pages, “Common Sense,” was published by Robert Bell on Jan. 9, 1776. (In the second edition of “Common Sense,” Paine appended an open letter to the Quakers, suggesting that they should keep quiet if they wished to keep a consistent witness of political quietism, or else they should make their protest for peace directly to the king of England. In Pennsylvania, the more prosperous Quakers, Presbyterians and Anglicans formed an odd de facto coalition opposed to the agitation for independence.)
Competing publishers and pirate editions soon made Paine’s first serious work a best-seller. By the end of January a German translation appeared in Pennsylvania, and a French translation appeared in Quebec by the end of April. Other editions soon appeared in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Moscow. In his “History of the American Revolution,” George Trevelyan wrote, “It would be difficult to name any human composition which has had an effect at once so instant, so extended and so lasting. … ”
Nelson wrote, “In time, Thomas Paine’s first book would sell at least 500,000 copies domestically at a time when the nation’s population (including slaves) was a bare three million—the equivalent of thirty-five million copies today. Over half the citizens of the turbulent North American colonies either read it, or had it read to them, and Paine’s share of the proceeds (which he donated to the American government, as he would do with all his copyrights), were used to buy the nascent Continental Army its mittens.” Washington found “sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning” in “Common Sense,” and noted that the pamphlet was “working a wonderful change in the minds of many men.” “Common Sense” was, in the view of American historian Bernard Bailyn, “the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language.”
Paine opens the argument of “Common Sense” with a distinction between society and government: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” And the second paragraph begins with some of the most famous lines Paine ever wrote: “Society is in every state a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one. … Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver. … ”
This is memorable writing, but in his later works Paine unmistakably changes his tone and reasoning when he revisits the subject of the duties and limits of government. Unfortunately, the famous early lines of Paine are framed and frozen as his essential creed even by some scholars sympathetic to the libertarian left and to democratic socialism. Indeed, when political scientist Isaac Kramnick wrote an introduction to a bicentennial Pelican edition of “Common Sense” in 1976 (later republished by Penguin Classics), Kramnick interpreted Paine in this manner: “Government was not a positive agent laying the foundation for a just or a good society, let alone a welfare state. Its only role was to provide a stable and secure setting for the operations of commercial society.”
That is not just a minor misreading of Paine, but a major distortion of the whole trajectory of his thought, both early and late in his life. The philosopher A.J. Ayer noted a tension between the arguments Paine made for natural rights, and the arguments he made in a more utilitarian manner; but in neither case did Paine ever abandon a distinctly moral view of human relations. Paine’s moral sense smolders and flares up on almost every page, even when he is presenting economic facts and figures. Paine’s critique of government did change with time, and he did finally find a larger role for both government and taxation in providing basic social democracy. But Kramnick simply portrays Paine as a lifelong exemplar of “bourgeois radicalism,” and this might be historically true if he meant to argue that many 18th century mechanics would join a rising middle class.
That argument would border upon my own in this article, since Paine was among the most class-conscious of the radical republicans. Kramnick’s only argument for class consciousness, however, would have to be an argument for a middle class rising right up to the ruling class. For what would stop them? Not “bourgeois radicalism,” which Kramnick bluntly defines as “the ideology of Tom Paine.” Here we come to the real reason Paine has never been a welcome figure in group portraits of the Founding Fathers. In the person of Paine we do behold an ideologically contradictory persona, but also a rapidly evolving egalitarianism. Kramnick acknowledged “that Paine pushed bourgeois radicalism to its outermost limits. … ” Kramnick’s bicentennial message, if not his class-conscious mission, becomes plain in his own words:
“To emphasize the bourgeois Paine is not to discount the Paine who later would become a hero for the Chartists and early trade unionists. It is simply to insist that his radicalism be seen as still within the bourgeois fold, a line of interpretation receiving little stress in recent discussions of his politics.”
This is nothing less and nothing more than the molding of a bicentennial wax-work figure of laissez-faire ideology, the stamping of a “special edition” medallion from the Franklin Mint, and, in short, the conjuration of a prophet and precursor of Gerald Ford in the year 1976. Readers can be pointed to Kramnick’s text to decide whether he does or doesn’t discount the Paine who became an early hero for later labor radicals and even for frank socialists.
In studying the works of Paine, we find a man both daring and conflicted. Paine often draws back from the brink of his own most advanced ideas. Sometimes we find Paine surveying a social chasm wider than the Grand Canyon; and, with all his good will and genius in the 18th century, he cannot draw up a single-span iron bridge to cross over to the other side. Paine was certainly a troubled man in some periods of his life, and finally a quite lonely man as well. If we attribute this only to personality and not also to class consciousness, then the anxiety of Paine teaches us no more useful lesson than the anxiety of various scholars seeking to keep him “within the bourgeois fold.”
“Tyranny, for Paine, was taxation.” So Kramnick wrote, and for proof he offered a quote from Paine’s “Anti-Monarchical Essay” (1792): “ … in a word, whoever demands a king, demands an aristocracy, and thirty millions in taxes.” Yes, but it does not follow that whoever demands millions in taxes to provide grants to young workers, solidarity to the unemployed and aid for the elderly is thereby demanding the restoration of monarchy. For these are precisely some of the economic proposals Paine also makes in “The Rights of Man.” In that book Paine laid line after line of dynamite at the foundations of the fortress built up with so many medieval towers and turrets by Edmund Burke to defend hereditary peers, prejudice and property. Here we will find Paine pushing the limits of 18th century social democracy, and we will find him making class-conscious and materialist arguments:
“Why, then, does Mr. Burke talk of his house of peers, as the pillar of the landed interest? Were that pillar to sink into the earth, the same landed property would continue, and the same ploughing, sowing, and reaping would go on. The aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land, and raise the produce, but are the consumers of the rent; and when compared with the active world are the drones, a seraglio of males, who neither collect the honey nor form the hive, but exist for lazy enjoyment.”
Paine was acquainted in England with William Blake, who already mentioned the “dark Satanic mills” of early industrialism in one of his poems. Had Paine lived to observe British factories and working-class slums a century later, he would have given that scene a similar survey.
In Paine’s time, Adam Smith was considered the Isaac Newton of economics, thus giving mercantile capitalism the blessings of the laws of nature. Smith often stated that trade monopolies undermined free trade, without giving any clear enforcement plan beyond moral warnings to break up such monopolies. Many self-styled disciples of Smith happily edit out the moral homilies, and then read him as if he was simply an 18th century Ayn Rand. The same liberties can be taken with Paine for the sake of the same libertarian ideology. Paine was certainly influenced by doctrines of the free market. In Paine’s time, the free market already had both mechanical and metaphysical properties, since the machinery of class domination had been set in perpetual motion by some hidden hand. This was an early version of the belief that the free market was free as the birds and the bees, though also subject to a few natural disasters.
Capitalism, in the most optimistic view (then and now), was naturalism. Adam Smith did not, of course, have in mind Ayn Rand’s Social Darwinism. No, but as the real costs of the free market grew unmistakable, the naked Social Darwinist doctrine became necessary. From the fountainhead of class struggle emerged not only the trade unions and the socialists, but also such “libertarian” class warriors as von Mises, Rand and Milton Friedman. Where do we locate Thomas Paine in this picture? He studied economic documents, but he was not an economist. He was not only a citizen of England, America and France, but also a citizen of “the republic of letters.” In “The Rights of Man,” Paine even took the utopian view (all too much under the spell of Smith) that commerce tended to advance world peace: “I have been an advocate for commerce, because I am a friend of its effects. It is a pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other. … If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.” This was naive even in his own day, but we cannot blame him for not forecasting the fierce imperial rivalries and world wars of later centuries.
In England there were always links between political and religious dissenters, so a good number of British republicans, anti-slavery activists and working-class radicals attended the chapels and meetinghouses of the Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and other dissenting churches. By the time Thomas Paine was born, the civil disobedience of the early Quakers was hardly necessary. As E.P. Thompson wrote in “The Making of the English Working Class,” “They had prospered too much: had lost some of their most energetic spirits in successive emigrations to America: their hostility to State and authority had diminished. … ” A sterner spirit of dissent existed among the Baptists at that time, and found expression in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” “And it is above all in Bunyan,” wrote Thompson, “that we find the slumbering Radicalism which was preserved through the 18th century and which breaks out again and again in the 19th. Pilgrim’s Progress is, with Rights of Man, one of the two foundation texts of the English working-class movement: Bunyan and Paine, with [William] Cobbett and [Robert] Owen, contributed most to the stock of ideas and attitudes which make up the raw material of the movement from 1790-1850.”
Eighteenth century artisan work was often highly skilled, and this stratum of the English working class was both numerous and literate. (Nineteenth century industrial production, by contrast, began with the immiseration and consequent illiteracy of many workers drawn from the traditional artisan class. The poorest rural and urban workers had, of course, always had to struggle for both wages and literacy.) Artisan labor and public association created relative independence from the ruling ideas of the ruling class. So did the printing presses, which published much of the news the ruling class saw fit to print, but also published an ever increasing number of republican and radical journals. Coffee, chocolate and tobacco, all part of the “free trade” of empire (widely extracted from slave labor), also kept the customers coming to the pubs, clubs and coffeehouses that multiplied in London, Paris and Philadelphia. Radicals, republicans and revolutionaries found much common ground in these material circumstances and public places.
“That filthy little atheist,” as Thomas Paine was called by Theodore Roosevelt (a man we might with more justice call that filthy little imperialist), has few monuments dedicated to his memory, and has sometimes had few readers beyond those students who are required to read his great revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense.” This pamphlet was the firebrand Paine wielded to spread the flame of independence throughout the British colonies in America, with such success that John Adams claimed that “without the pen of Paine the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
Adams was honest enough to acknowledge the persuasive talents of Paine, but lost no time publishing his own pamphlet in 1776 opposing the more “democratical” politics of Paine, Jefferson and others. Many who had first hailed Paine as an archangel of light would later claim that he had become a son of Lucifer. The odor of sulfur always stuck to Paine after he wrote and published “The Age of Reason,” and yet all his infidelities to orthodox religion do not make him an outright infidel.
Paine began his public life by disavowing the divinity of kings; he proceeded to disavow the divinity of Jesus Christ; and during his last years he even disavowed the divinity of George Washington, which made most of his few remaining friends and comrades decide that the old iconoclast had finally gone too far.
Those ideas may not disturb the peace of many people today, at least not if taken one by one, or even all together. But in Paine’s time, such ideas carried great risks, and usually remained restricted to small circles of friends and readers. Paine deliberately stepped outside of those inner circles. He repeatedly made the decision to become Citizen Paine, a person in public life. If we assume Paine became a republican and a revolutionary all at once, we may as well assume that no larval stage precedes a butterfly and that no geological rift precedes an earthquake.
The habit of public life has to be cultivated to create citizens and to preserve democracy. If that much seems too plain for words, we forget that the plain language of people like Paine was one of the great advances toward personal liberty and social solidarity. Paine added greatly to our common store of common sense. The men and women who first invented (or, in the 18th century, reinvented) the republican tradition were flawed, all too human and brave. Their courage and their ideals will have died with them if we allow the big corporate political parties to undermine both democracy and the republic in our own time.
Paine advanced the causes of universal suffrage, equality for women, abolition of slavery, separation of church and state, public education, and progressive taxation. He made the first proposal for a guaranteed minimum income. He advised a system of public funding to give starting grants to young workers, and to aid the poor, the unemployed and the elderly. He believed that only well-informed and active citizens could defend democracy, and he roused the hostility of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others who were already a rising oligarchy of the wealthiest landowners and merchants.
Paine was an advocate of republican world revolution, and (if we consider his time and culture) he was a genuine social democrat. There are historians who claim he showed little originality of thought, only originality in his plain prose and telling turns of phrase. But the proof of his powerful mind was shown in his ability to survey and summarize a vast treasury of Enlightenment thinking; and his deliberate choice to address a wide audience of working people seemed original enough to the ruling classes of his time.
Most of Paine’s practical proposals of the social democratic kind appear in “The Rights of Man” (particularly part two), and in one of his last works, a long pamphlet titled “Agrarian Justice.” As historian Eric Foner noted in “Tom Paine and Revolutionary America,” “More than in any other essay, Paine seemed torn in Agrarian Justice between his customary desire to unite all classes in what he perceived as the common good, and his sympathy for the plight of the European poor.” Though there are utopian elements in these works, he took care to study and publish many relevant economic figures, so his criticism of existing conditions and his budget for reforms was not drawn from the clear blue sky. If we expect him to be as comprehensive as a modern economist (or indeed as a modern socialist), then we can easily prove how clever we are without ever acknowledging both the practical and prophetic dimensions of his thought.
Even so, the subject of public health is sketchy to a vanishing point in the works of Paine. Medicine was still emerging as an empirical field of knowledge, doctors were still shaking off a reputation for quackery, and the particular field of public medicine barely existed beyond the usual charity wards and hospitals. So Paine may have slighted this subject in real modesty. But he may have trusted his readers to fill in the gaps as well. This is suggested in one of the best studies of Paine’s work, a book by the British philosopher A.J. Ayer, titled simply “Thomas Paine.” Ayer drew a comparison between the social democratic proposals of Paine and the reforms introduced by the British Labour Party in the wake of World War II:
“This brings me to the end of Paine’s blueprint for what I have felt justified in calling his Welfare State. Its main difference from the package introduced in 1945 is the absence of a scheme of National Health Service. I suggest that the reason for this is that Paine’s principal aim was to abolish poverty. He may, therefore, have assumed that once this was achieved, there would be no need to make special provision for health. His measures would ensure that those who needed medical attention would be able to pay for it.”
We may get a better idea of Paine’s clarity and courage if we study how he anticipated public policies that would only be put into real practice under 20th century European social democrats, and in this country under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. But even if we limit our interest to the timeline of his own life, he stands out among revolutionaries who not only dared to think but also dared to act. The historical gap between Enlightenment in theory and Enlightenment in practice is clear enough in a celebrated essay which Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Kant took care to drop a curtsey to the Prussian monarch when he claimed “this is the century of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.” Kant did not even propose a constitutional monarchy. Nor did he dare mention the American Revolution. He did make a plea for “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters”:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.”
All well and good. But precisely the failure to act in common meant that much of the European public remained subject to the will of hereditary rulers. The advice of Kant remained in the realm of German idealism, and of slow diffusion through the educated public of Europe. To be on the same page only in ideals could lead to political quietism, and even to an open divorce between theory and practice.
The republicans of the 18th century were not above using the blunt instruments of worldly power, or the sharp silencer of the guillotine. But Paine can be remembered and honored as an early civil libertarian among the early republicans. Behind the polemical heat of the attacks Paine turned upon dogmatic religions, we will find a sentiment much cooler and much closer in spirit to these words of Gotthold Lessing: “Let each man say what he deems truth, and let truth itself be commended unto God!” If that seems to be an empty piety, consider all that is implied in those words—including the strong suggestion that no single mortal mind or religious doctrine could encompass the whole truth. The search for truth requires pluralism in public life. For many republicans this meant daring to create a public sphere of conflicting voices, and therefore of conflicting claims to truth.
The early republicans took great personal risks to speak their minds, and Paine in particular became a guiding spirit for later American radicals such as Walt Whitman, Robert Ingersoll, Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs. Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, claimed that Lincoln had written an essay defending the deism of Paine in 1835. Herndon also claimed that the manuscript was burned by Lincoln’s friend, Samuel Hill, to protect Lincoln’s political career. Thomas Edison admired Paine as a fellow inventor and free thinker, and stated, “I have always regarded Paine as one of the greatest of all Americans. Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic. … ”
Big round anniversary numbers often roll the dead back to life, and the 200th anniversary of Paine’s death has brought him a new round of public honors, a revival of interest among scholars, and a recent discussion of his life and work on PBS’ “Bill Moyers Journal.” In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the writings of Paine generated a kind of solar energy among republicans throughout the Americas and throughout Europe. Yet his reputation also suffered a lunar fortune, waxing whenever people searched the past for present inspiration, and waning whenever people accepted the propaganda about the godless and bloodthirsty Jacobin. Even in his own country and lifetime, Paine’s fame gave way to infamy and finally to mere forgetting.
The works of Paine did not simply fall out of fashion once he had been laid in his grave. No, he was elbowed out of the inner circles of government even while he was living. If we reduce the story of his life to a psychological study, any fool could find evidence of a difficult character. But the real difficulty many of his contemporaries had with this man was not simply personal but political. And the real difficulty so many liberals and conservatives have with Paine today is the plain fact that he was both a radical republican and a social democrat. We cannot claim Paine as a modern democratic socialist, but he remains a prickly hedgehog if we place him in the company of modern Republicans and Democrats. If Paine is to be taken seriously today, he will still be a pain the neck of career politicians.
While Paine was still living, his worst enemies either did not bother to read “The Age of Reason” or they deliberately chose defamation above the evidence of his own words. Why atheism should be considered defamatory is a fair question, but it was not simply a philosophical question in the 18th century. Even bare-knuckle politics could be a gentleman’s sport, but the charge of atheism always took off the gloves and brought brass knuckles into the boxing ring. In that respect little has changed during the whole history of the United States of America (a phrase Paine invented, and which was promptly adopted as the name of the new republic). Paine was never tarred and feathered for his religious and political beliefs, but in England his effigy was hanged and burned by angry royalist mobs, and in the United States a coach in which he was riding was pelted with stones by angry Christians. Paine had the misfortune to return to the United States during an evangelical revival now known as the Second Great Awakening.
The 18th century democrats and republicans did not create something from nothing, and they did not create gold from lead. Paine (among others) did show real originality in casting the available older materials into the crucible of current events, and drawing out silver seven times refined. How is it possible that the political philosopher Thomas Paine emerged from his working-class English artisan background? How did he dare put republican ideals to the test of common action? Asking that question goes a long way toward answering it, because artisan material production also helped to create a public sphere beyond the Court of St. James’s, the House of Lords and debates in Parliament.
Likewise, when British men and women broke away from the Church of England, they often paid real penalties in the long struggle for religious civil liberties. They were slandered, beaten, jailed and sometimes put to death. The artisan-class politics and the religious idealism in the background of Paine can be studied almost as distinct cultural chemicals, but the real chemistry is all in the mix. This spirit of religious and political dissent was already the milk and honey of the Promised Land for the young Tom Paine, and a true foretaste of earthly freedom. For Paine, the horizon of faith was a mirage unless he could plant his feet on the common ground of free citizens. His moral and intellectual compass was never oriented toward an inward paradise, but toward the worldly creation of liberty. All men and women might be born free, but liberty would never be guaranteed only by claiming natural rights. That claim had to be advanced precisely through political struggle. Paine chose a journey far beyond his island country and far beyond any orthodox faith.
Paine both drew upon and created the common sense of his time. The very title of Paine’s most infamous book was later adopted as a general term for various kinds of rationalism and empiricism, usually bearing the stamp of Europe and the 18th century. Paine placed in the public square (and in plain language) all of the most pointed opinions on “revealed religion” which skeptics, scientists and philosophers had already addressed to much smaller circles. Indeed, many of these opinions had become the common sense of prominent Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson and Franklin.
Paine believed that whatever we deem truth deserves a public hearing, not simply the audience of an inner circle. He sinned against prudence and discretion, or at least many of his old friends and comrades soon decided that was so. Testing the public limits of tolerance, Paine also became one of the practical civil libertarians of both Europe and the early American republic.
In Britain there are conservatives who still grow irate at the mention of his name. In their own way, they understand. Whereas in the United States there are liberals who barely know his name at all, beyond a high school civics class or a passage in a college text. They do not understand, and many of them have not even forgotten because they never learned in the first place. The lesson for liberals is that conservatives sometimes remember what makes radicals truly radical, long after liberals have forgotten. Conservatives still quote chapter and verse from Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Liberals, and indeed radicals, might quote in turn and as often from “The Rights of Man,” the book Thomas Paine wrote in response to Burke. Paine and Burke carried on an argument about politics and liberty that began long before them, and has continued long after. But Burke is always an honored guest among serious conservatives, whereas Paine is little more than a ghost in the memory of many liberals. Beyond the circles of scholars and historians, Paine deserves a much wider place in public memory and in public conversation.
Paine had helped raise the tide of revolution, but by the end of his life he had become stranded by his own advancing ideas. And, yes, to a degree by his own sheer cussedness. As Paine grew elderly and embittered, he turned more often to brandy. His best thoughts no longer gained currency—on the contrary, he seemed to gain increasing infamy. Paine did not tailor his convictions to the more uniform fashions of the most prosperous leaders of the republic. At least he did not break his heart wondering how to win friends and influence people in our modern manner. His moods of indignation alternated with spells of stoicism. He had lived long enough to discover that every revolution is also a wheel of fortune. Even his most bitter words have a natural taste to this day, like fresh salt or strong vinegar. The author of “Common Sense” rarely lost his own, though he lost his temper often enough to pen and publish some lines he would have done better to strike.
Paine lived in an age in which journalists were still emerging as public figures, and indeed in which public journals were still emerging as literary products. In that age, many writers who were alert to current events and to public action became journalists not by habit or by profession, but by writing quite literally “for the day.” Or, in French, “pour le jour.” “For the day” also implies for the general public, and thereby journalism gained the name. If we compare Paine’s prose style with the rhetorical roulades of some of his contemporary French revolutionaries, we find an equally strong spirit but a more sober delivery. He must have known when he was writing a great line, just as Verdi must have known when he had spun out a great tune, but all his best work belongs in the tradition of plain English political prose. There is the same effort to think clearly and therefore to write clearly as we find in Orwell. All of Paine’s books open room by room like a house made with honest craft and solid materials.
If we regard those founding republicans as figures in a fairy tale, then we might as well bury the whole republic and build a marble monument inscribed with these words: Once Upon A Time. Today, in the United States, the highest ideal of many members of the ruling class is to create a private paradise of wealth, and they have no qualms if that goal can be achieved by buying career politicians in Congress. These people know the market value of “our two party-system,” but they have never known the value of democracy. Plainly, it serves the interests of a small but immensely wealthy minority if we, the people, leave politics to politicians except on election days. Plainly, it serves the interests of the great majority of working people if we treat politicians as public servants in our common household. Not as kings, not as a new aristocracy, not as the winners in a cruel game of social Darwinism, but simply as public servants. Building a bronze and marble monument to Paine will never revive the republic, but his words still carry an electric current of freedom. His intellectual and political energy is always available for rediscovery.
In 1805 John Adams was 71 years old, and Paine was living his last years in a somewhat outcast retirement. Neither man had lost all his old powers of invective and satire, a word Adams spelled as “satyr” in a letter he wrote a friend in the same year:
“I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs in the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between a pig and a puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.”
Scott Tucker is a writer and democratic socialist. He lives in Los Angeles.
Portrait by Auguste Millière
Thomas Paine has sometimes had few readers beyond those students who are required to read his great revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense,” the firebrand Paine wielded to spread the flame of independence throughout the British colonies in America.