Edited version of my article in this month’s BBC History Magazine, reproduced with their kind permission:
On 20 January this year, Barack Obama became the first African-American President of the United States. But though he swore the oath of office on the bible of Abraham Lincoln, the 44th President turned for his closing words not to the ‘Great Emancipator’ but to an eighteenth-century English stay-maker, excise-man and tobacconist turned revolutionary pamphleteer, Thomas Paine. Obama selected a passage from the first issue of Paine’s The American Crisis, printed in December 1776 and reputedly ordered by George Washington to be read to the troops before the battle of Trenton:
“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].”
Some American liberal commentators saw Obama’s presidency as the ultimate fulfilment of Paine’s radical political vision: as well as being a staunch republican, Paine was an advocate of the abolition of slavery.
Obama, though, was not the first modern American President to invoke Paine. Ronald Reagan used his famous phrase – ‘we have it in our power to build the world anew’-when accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. Viewed as an honorary ‘founding father’ for his authorship of the pro-independence pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), Paine’s American legacy has defied political pigeonholing: his acolytes have included ultra-conservative senators such as the late Jesse Helms – who once tried to stop the creation of a national holiday in honour of Martin Luther King- and radicals such as Mumia Abu Jamal, the ex-Black Panther activist currently in prison for the murder of a police officer. Paine’s ideals resonate across the modern American political landscape: his belief in small government and low taxes is grist to the mill of most Republicans while his support for social care for vulnerable groups and his hostility to privilege and inherited wealth make him a liberal idol.
It is a different story in England. In the land of his birth Paine, if he is remembered at all, is mainly known as the author of Rights of Man Pts 1 & 2 (1791 & 1792), books that combined a passionate defence of the French Revolution with radical arguments for political, economic and social reform in Britain. Rights of Man Pt 1 was a phenomenal best-seller, shifting a reputed 50,000 copies by May 1791, but its frank republicanism and evident Francophilia aroused fierce opposition. Effigies of Paine were hanged and burnt in towns and villages across the country: records of 412 ‘Paine burnings’ have been found. The historian Frank O’Gorman has estimated that they may have attracted as many as half a million spectators, making them the most witnessed public events of the eighteenth century. Fearing for his life and facing a trial for seditious libel, Paine fled to France – where he had been made an honorary citizen of the Republic- in September 1792. ‘Tom’ Paine has continued to be lauded by successive generations of British radicals, from the nineteenth century republican Richard Carlile to the twentieth-century socialist troubadour, Billy Bragg. But in a country that is still a constitutional monarchy, Paine’s politics remain anathema to many.
The tide of public opinion in England, though, may be finally shifting in Paine’s favour. His birthplace, Thetford, Norfolk, and Lewes, Sussex, where he lived and worked from 1768 until his emigration to America in 1774, are both commemorating the bicentenary of his death with major festivals. Most modern biographies of Paine, however, tend to pay scant attention to his early life in England. These are years normally characterised as ending in both personal and professional disgrace, in the words of his most distinguished American biographer, Eric Foner, years of ‘unrelenting failure’. Once in America, Paine himself clearly preferred to draw a veil over his previous life in England, claiming, erroneously, that he became ‘Thomas Paine’ the writer after he had crossed the Atlantic. (Technically this was true – the ‘e’ only found itself onto the end of his name after he had emigrated.) There is a nagging suspicion that the forthcoming celebrations of Paine in Thetford and Lewes have been mainly driven by the lure of American tourist dollars. The Lewes celebration is particularly ironic given that in 1792 the townspeople reputedly tore Paine’s papers ‘to pieces with distinguished marks of contempt.’ As a result, there now remain only two surviving letters from Paine in the Lewes archives, both dealing with a mundane property dispute.
Yet we ignore Paine’s English upbringing at our peril. It was his experiences as a young man, as recent research by Colin Brent, Paul Myles and the late George Hindmarch demonstrates which both shaped his republicanism and honed his skills as a political writer. Even Paine’s ultimate ‘failure’ itself was important, distinguishing him from his radical peers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. It was that knowledge of the bitterness of everyday life, as well as its occasional rewards, which made him the writer he was. While Godwin wrote Political Justice and Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, radical classics certainly, but, to their core, middle-class books for middle-class readers, only Paine could have written a work like The Rights of Man, a work targeted at and in sympathy with a readership that could barely afford bread, let alone books.
Paine was born in Thetford on 29 January 1737, the son of Joseph Pain, a Quaker stay-maker and tenant farmer. His father’s Quaker faith influenced Paine in several ways: though enrolled in the local grammar school, he was forbidden by his father from learning Latin. Paine’s writings were consequently free of the classical allusions that littered much eighteenth-century political writing – another reason why they have remained so accessible to subsequent generations. It was probably also Paine’s Quaker upbringing that informed his opposition to slavery (the Society of Friends were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement) and his commitment to religious toleration.
After a brief, adventurous interlude when Paine enlisted on board a privateer, he followed his father into the stay-making business, first in London and then in Kent. In 1759, Paine set up his own business in Sandwich and the same year married Mary Lambert. Sadly, Mary died in childbirth and Paine returned to Thetford, abandoning the stay-making business to follow instead in his father-in- law’s footsteps by working as an excise officer. By 1762 he had secured his first post at Grantham in Lincolnshire, later moving to Alford. It was here that Paine first ran into trouble with the Board of Excise, when he was dismissed for ‘stamping’ – certifying goods that he had not seen. Paine returned to stay-making, but also wrote apologising to the Board and asking to be re-instated. The request was swiftly granted, though Paine had to wait for a vacancy before he could go back to work. In the meantime, he supported himself by working as a teacher in London, his most extended stay in the capital.
Paine had already rejected one posting, to Grampound in Cornwall, as too far away from the capital, when he was appointed in 1768 to take up the position of excise officer at Lewes – one of ten plus a supervisor for that Sussex circuit. Aside from its relative proximity to London, it was not necessarily an inviting job – Lewes was an important inland port, smuggling was rife and excise officers in the area were frequently assaulted. But Lewes did have other attractions. In contrast to Paine’s hometown of Thetford, where the MPs were chosen by the mayor, ten aldermen and twenty freemen, in Lewes all male householders paying rent of £10 a year or more could vote. Lewes was consequently an unruly borough, prone to occasionally thumbing its collective nose at the local bigwig, the duke of Newcastle: it rejected one of the duke’s chosen candidates in the very year that Paine arrived in the town. Lewes also proved a fertile recruiting ground for the movement for political reform and freedom of the press centring on the gentleman libertine John Wilkes: it was even rumoured that Paine had met Wilkes while the politician was touring the south of the country in 1770.
More important than this possible connection with a national political movement were the contacts that Paine made locally. When he first moved to Lewes, he lodged with a local innkeeper, Samuel Ollive. The choice of accommodation was fortuitous: Ollive was well-connected in the town and took Paine under his wing. The two men entered into business together, running a tobacco mill from Ollive’s residence, Bull House. It was also Ollive, the town’s Senior Constable, who initiated Paine into the circles of local government in Lewes. By 1769, Paine was of sufficient standing in the community to be chosen as one of nineteen jurymen. The following year Paine had been made a vestryman of St. Michael’s Parish and was assiduous in helping administer poor relief.
So it was here, in Lewes, not Philadelphia or Paris, that Paine first experienced ‘republican’ government. For, as he would remark in his Rights of Man:
“All that part of the government of England which begins with the office of constable, and proceeds through the departments of magistrate, quarter-session, and general assize, including the trial by jury, is republican government. Nothing of monarchy appears in any part of it.”
It was also in Lewes that Paine began to develop his skills as rhetorician and pamphleteer. He engaged in lively political debates at the White Hart Inn and started to write satirical prose and verse. His first publication proper, The Case of the Officers of the Excise, emerged in the summer of 1772. Paine later disowned the pamphlet and historians and biographers have also tended to overlook it, but this is a mistake. Despite its limited purpose, it addressed broader themes that would dominate much of Paine’s later writings. Speaking from his own direct experience, Paine argued that the poor salaries of the excise officers, who had not seen a raise for nearly a century, were a recipe for peculation and corruption. Poverty would make thieves and liars of all men:
“true honesty is sentimental, and the practice of it dependent upon circumstances … The rich, in ease and affluence, may think I have drawn an unnatural portrait; but could they descend to the cold regions of want, the circle of polar poverty, they would find their opinions changing with the climate.”
The production of the pamphlet itself suggested that Paine was already plugged into larger political networks. 4,000 copies of his work were distributed, paid for by subscriptions from his fellow excise officers and the pamphlet was accompanied by a mass petitioning campaign which secured some 3000 signatures, all indicating that Paine may well have had powerful support for this initiative – he said that he had been urged to write by ‘superiors in my office’ – and the case was forwarded to the Treasury by nine leading members of the Excise Board.
The campaign was innovative, using mass petitioning to argue for better pay and working conditions, but ultimately unsuccessful. Paine in turn was dismissed from his post, ostensibly for being absent without the Board’s leave, a perplexing reason given the Board’s apparent support for Paine’s pamphlet. Perhaps political pressure was applied from the Treasury or perhaps the Board had always viewed Paine as an expendable ‘stalking horse’ to put forward its demands. Either way, Paine’s return to Lewes was an unhappy one: his tobacco business was going bust and his second marriage, to Ollive’s daughter Elizabeth, was disintegrating. The couple formally separated in June 1774. In October of that year Paine boarded a ship to America, carrying a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met while on business in London.
England had fostered Paine’s republicanism and provided his education as a political activist and pamphleteer. His personal transformation was completed by the journey across the Atlantic. ‘Thomas Pain’ the stay-maker, excise-man and tobacconist was dead. Thomas Paine the revolutionary had been born.