George Kerevan’s review of A Radical History of Britain

I usually think it’s not good form to answer bad reviews but in this case, George Kerevan’s appraisal of my book so misrepresents its content that some kind of response is in order.

Kerevan claims that my treatment of British radicalism is myopically Anglophile. I am the first to admit that much of the narrative focuses on England, but this is already clearly stated in the introduction to my book, p. 12: ‘For much of this book…what is offered is an ‘enriched’ English, rather than a genuinely British, history of radicalism.’

Kerevan also complains that I am not sensitive to the separate political traditions of the British Isles ‘or the fact that Britain as a state did not exist before 1707.’ Yet, on pages 38-9 I explicitly discuss the problem of creating a ‘British’ freedom trail – noting, of course, that the creation of  a British state did not occur until well into my narrative.

In his review, Kerevan states – ‘in Ireland and Scotland dissent is always about potentially overthrowing the British state, not reforming it’

Funnily enough, on p. 38 of my own book I acknowledge that

‘much that could be defined as “radical” activity in a British context essentially gains its force from its opposition to the existence of a British state, at least one run from Westminster.’

Again, Mr. Kerevan and I seem to be in agreement.

Kerevan then complains that my narrative doesn’t discuss the 1820 Rising (actually handled on p. 347), the United Irishmen (mentioned p. 247 and p. 375) or John Maclean and Red Clydeside (ibid. pp. 521-2). Perhaps he skimmed over these pages in his haste to get to the conclusion (the only part of the book from which a direct quotation is taken.)

However, it is not unsubstantiated claims of Anglocentricity or unfounded accusations about various supposed sins of omission that I really object to.

Probably the worst thing a reviewer can do is to try to tell an author what his book is *really* about ( even though the author has spent fifty odd pages in his preface and introduction explicitly setting out its aims.)

For Mr. Kerevan, the subject of my book is ‘the history of English … dissent.’ This is strange because the title of my book is A Radical History of Britain and the word ‘radical’ itself appears 1614 times in the text. ‘Dissent’ with all its manifold meanings – religious as well as political – appears a mere eight times.

I do, it is true, use the phrase ‘tradition of dissent’ twice in the book -in both instances in inverted commas and in the context of demonstrating that it is largely a political fiction.

This is the greatest injustice Mr. Kerevan does to my book , presenting it as a contribution to Whiggish accounts of steadily broadening British liberty. In fact, the purpose of the book is to expose such lazy assumptions about the incremental growth of our freedoms to rigorous historical analysis.

Contrary to Mr Kerevan’s claims, I am not the one guilty of holding a ‘romantic’ definition of radicalism. Quite the opposite. I seek to puncture many of the romantic presentations of a ‘tradition of British dissent’ made by, amongst others, Mr. Kerevan’s own literary hero, E. P. Thompson.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 10:04 am  Comments (1)  

Tom Paine: Made in England

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.

Rumours, Prostitutes, Historians: Researching and Writing Cultural History – A Workshop with Luise White

Thursday 25th June 2009 Archives Teaching Room
School of History
9 Abercromby Square


11:00 “How I went from prostitutes to vampires to the politics of white rule and why I’m still slightly baffled by it”

12:30 Lunch

13:30 Oral history, oral historiography, and the study of rumour and gossip.

This is a free event; for the catering it would be helpful if you could let us know if you plan to attend. Also, it would be useful if, in preparation for the workshop you could read: Chapter 2 ‘Historicising rumor and gossip’ from Luise White, Speaking with Vampires and/or: Luise White, ‘The traffic in heads: bodies, borders and the articulation of regional histories’, Journal of Southern African Studies 23.2 (1997), 325-38

Thomas Paine podcast

Now up on the BBC History Magazine website with me blathering on once more about the great man. I’ll post a copy of the article that went along with this shortly. You can also subscribe to the podcast through i-tunes and download me to your i-pod, should you be so minded. This is not recommended for those operating machinery or driving heavy goods vehicles as my voice can cause some drowsiness.

New book on Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine in Lewes 1768 -1774

A Prelude to American Independence

£6.50 at bookshops in Lewes

This publication was borne out of the thrust of organising the Thomas Paine Festival in Lewes for 2009.

When the project was initiated it quickly became clear that very little was known about Paine’s life in England prior to his departure to America. Even less was known about the time he spent in Lewes. A small team, Paul Myles, Dr Colin Brent and Dr Seth Gopin spent 16 months in research and regular discussions and to their surprise much came to light that had not been previously thoroughly probed. Paul as a recent psychology graduate, Colin the eminent local historian and Seth, the visiting art historian from New York formed an unusual group. The combination of different approaches has proved to be illuminating.

New stories have been found. We gained a sharper insight of why Lewes has always been so radical and thus proved to be a perfect place for Paine to develop his writing and debating skills.

Colin Brent reveals how Paine, and possibly America, owes a developmental debt to Lewes. Thomas Paine as national commentator through the offices of excise is a story that has not been well known before; the strands of this tale are pulled together in Paul’s essay. Seth Gopin brought an American perspective to the challenge, and asked what now seems to be the obvious questions of how did Paine get to know so much, and was General Gage, the commander in Chief of the British forces, linked to Firle Place, just outside Lewes? Deborah Gage, a direct descendent of General Thomas Gage has written the third essay about the man who now rests, with his wife, in the family crypt at St Peters Church in Firle.

There is a rich visual component to the book, the front cover shows a largely previously unseen image of Paine painted in London in 1790. Rare images of Lewes by D Serres, marine painter to King George III painted in year Paine rode into town are shown, as well as a rare image of Paine’s Lewes friend, Clio Rickman, by Hazlitt. These images are discussed with some history of Serres.

The Authors

Colin Brent, an Open Scholar of New College Oxford, gained a formal First in Modern History in 1961 and was awarded a DPhil by Sussex University in 1974. He has written erudite articles on aspects of Tudor, Stuart and Victorian Lewes. Colin also published Pre Georgian Lewes and Georgian Lewes, the most comprehensive relevant resources of local history that was available to us.

Deborah Gage is an Art Historian, and family historian. She has held a long interest in General Gage, and continues to research relevant archives on both sides of the Atlantic.

Paul Myles was a director of Lewes Festival in the mid 90’s, a director of four major sculpture exhibitions in Lewes over the last ten years and latterly, the director of the Thomas Paine & Lewes Festival in 2009. Paul recently completed six years as a student at the University of Sussex in the discipline of psychology graduating as a Batchelor and then Master of Science. Paul is a part time lecturer at the local college, teaching access students and outreach courses in child psychology.

A Radical History of Britain – Times Review

A *very* short review of my book in The Times on Friday.

Don’t you know who I am?

Douglas Carswell MP clearly doesn’t.

(I don’t, by the way, suggest that the Left is the ‘party’ of English radicalism and the Levellers. Indeed, one of the points of the book is that those sorts of political appropriations are usually a distortion of the nature of radicalism in its specific historical contexts. However, such retrospective genealogies are nonetheless politically and historically significant because they continue to influence what politicians do and how they argue.)

He is, though, spot on in suggesting that I have not read The Plan.

Lewes Thomas Paine Festival Programme

Now available here.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 11:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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John Lilburne Conference

London Renaissance Seminar
Birkbeck College, University of London
24 October 2009

On 25 October 1649, the charismatic Leveller leader John Lilburne was dramatically acquitted of treason following a high profile trial at London’s Guildhall. The decision was greeted by jubilant crowds and celebratory bonfires, and was quickly commemorated by a medal which explained that Lilburne had been ‘saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of the jury’. In the 360 years since that trial, Lilburne has become one of the seventeenth century’s most well-known characters, and one of few contemporaries who have been capable of taking centre stage in both academic and popular histories of the civil wars. However, Lilburne was a flagrant self-publicist, who did much to mythologize his own story, while since his death ‘Freeborn John’ has been made into a hero for a range of more or less incompatible political causes. For Lilburne, more than for most of his contemporaries, it is vital to try and separate myth from reality, and to explore how his reputation has been made and moulded since the 1640s. This event will contribute to this process by reconsidering Lilburne’s 1649 trial, and by thinking about its importance for enhancing our understanding the life and times of this most controversial character.


Ted Vallance, Phil Baker, Rachel Foxley, Jason Peacey, Jerome de Groot

Details: Jerome de Groot

Thomas Paine, made in England

You can listen to my talk given at the Thetford Tom Paine 200 festival hereThomas Paine's statue in Thetford. More Paine anniversary news over here.

Published in: on June 8, 2009 at 1:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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