Perhaps you know Thomas Paine from his shiny gold painted statue in Thetford shopping centre? It is rather odd that a man who railed against the excesses of monarchy and never cared for wealth should be given a fake gold statue. If you have been to the University of East Anglia you might know him as the central lecture theatre. It is ironic that a man whose effigy was once burned as a traitor to Britain, and whose books were defaced for attacking monarchy and religion, should now be remembered as a lecture theatre in a University. Still others might know him as a Thetford hotel or even the name of a conspiracy car lobby group. I think he would find all these memorials highly amusing.
In fact, most American and French school children know far more than we do about Thomas Paine. Many of them recite stirring extracts from Common Sense and The Rights of Man in the classroom.
Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Robespierre, Napoleon, Lafyette, William Blake, Edmund Burke – Paine met them all, befriended them all, and fell out with most of them.
Escape from England
Thomas Paine was born in 1734 so is 286 years young. Thetford was a rotten borough in the pocket of the hugely wealthy Grafton family. The landscape of England was dominated by a select few aristocrats and landowners, much as it is today. Paine was born within sight of the gallows and would have seen the injustice of local people steeped in poverty hung for minor crimes. Custom decreed that bodies swung for a full hour for all to see.
He came from a freethinking Quaker background and reason would have been part of his education. His father’s profession was a corset-maker for the wealthy. Ahead of young Thomas was a life of hard work and servitude as a petty craftsman. Social mobility didn’t exist in Thetford.
In that situation, he did what every rebellious young man did in the eighteenth century, and escaped to sea. After a series of lucky escapes, dead-end jobs and a failed marriage, eventually he found himself across the Atlantic along with other free-thinkers. All he had was a scribbled note from Benjamin Franklin as introduction.
Paine inspired the very idea of the United States
America proved to be the perfect environment for young Paine. He needed America and America needed him. Paine’s genius was to inspire the American public to go one step further than politely asking the British King for representation. Paine said that at root their problems were because they were ruled by a monarch who did not care a fig for America and had never set foot in America. He argued with satirical rhetoric that trusting to a hereditary monarch was as illogical as trusting to a hereditary surgeon.
His anonymous book Common Sense was written in an accessible and direct way. ‘Common sense’ has now become a term we all use, but at the time it was original, and implicitly referred to our rights as commoners established since Magna Carta. Paine’s spirited writing demanded the reader think rationally and question the status quo. Common Sense sold so many copies that it is claimed that nearly everyone in America at the time read it or heard it. Crucially it changed minds and inspired Americans to demand more and take up arms. Washington’s troops read extracts from Paine before battle. Furthermore, Paine inspired all Americans to fight together, and he was the first person to propose a United States.
French revolution & a brush with the guillotine
Not content with inspiring one revolution that changed the world, he travelled to France and was promptly hailed as a radical hero. He was the link between the two revolutions and Lafayette gave him the key to the Bastille to present to Washington. Paine became one of only two non-French deputies and represented the people of Calais. He wrote The Rights of Man – partly a brilliant argument against his former friend Edmund Burke – and inspired a new generation. Napoleon later claimed to keep a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow despite falling out with Paine, and it was a key treatise for all radicals. In artistic terms it inspired the Romantic movement and figures like William Blake and Robbie Burns.
Who was Paine, really?
There are many misunderstandings about Paine and prejudices against him. He has been portrayed as a bloodthirsty republican who wanted all monarchs’ dead. It is completely right to say he despised monarchy, but he did not blame the individual for this corrupt institution. During the French Revolution he tried to stop Louis XVI from being sentenced to death – and very nearly succeeded during a tense vote in the Assembly – and was nearly guillotined by Robespierre as punishment. Paine had nine lives and escaped an early death by a whisker on many occasions.
Many people believe Paine was a committed and aggressive atheist. Certainly his Age of Reason mercilessly attacked and satirised organised religion and the Bible. He never held back, and he thrived on controversy. However, he did believe in a God as a creator. But his God was one God for all mankind, rather than for any exclusive religion. Like many other American founders, he was a deist. The Christian right in the US would do well to remember the Declaration of Independence explicitly promotes freedom of religion or no religion. That is partly down to figures like Thomas Paine.
From my point of view, perhaps his most interesting work is a slim and less well-known pamphlet written towards the end of his life called Agrarian Justice. In this work he argues that land distribution is arbitrary and unfair. Everyone should have the right to something and only with something can s/he participate in society. He then went on to propose a once in a lifetime form of unconditional basic income and a universal pension. He foresaw the welfare state 150 years before it happened.
It is no exaggeration to say he changed the world we live in. His ideas were beyond radical in his lifetime, and many of them are only beginning to be seriously considered now. He was on the right side of history – in America he was sympathetic towards native americans and against the slave trade. Above all, he championed individual thought and attacked the greed of the oppressive world around him.
Not bad for an ordinary lad from Thetford.