Thomas Paine and Monarchical Republicanism

My thanks to Robert Morrell for giving permission to me to reproduce this article from Journal of Radical History of the Thomas Paine Society, 10, 4 (2011), pp. 1-12

I’ve corrected a few typos here which managed to creep into the printed version. All remaining errors, of course, are the author’s responsibility.

Ted Vallance, Roehampton University

Thomas Paine and Monarchical Republicanism

An edited and revised version of the Eric Paine Memorial Lecture given 5th March 2011.

The fourth sort or classe amongest us, is of those which the olde Romans called capite censij proletary or operœ, day labourers, poore husbandmen, yea marchantes or retailers which have no free lande, copiholders, all artificers, as Taylers, Shoomakers, Carpenters, Brickemakers, Bricklayers, Masons, &c. These have no voice nor authoritie in our common wealth, and no account is made of them but onelie to be ruled, not to rule other, and yet they be not altogether neglected. For in cities and corporate townes for default of yeomen, they are faine to make their enquests of such manner of people. And in villages they be commonly made Churchwardens, alecunners, and manie times Constables, which office toucheth more the common wealth, and at the first was not imployed uppon such lowe and base persons. Wherefore generally to speake of the common wealth, or policie of Englande, it is governed, administred, and manied by three sortes of persons, the Prince, Monarch, and head governer, which is called the king, or if the crowne fall to a woman, the Queene absolute, as I have heeretofore saide: In whose name and by whose authoritie all things be administred. The gentlemen, which be divided into two partes, the Baronie or estate of Lordes which conteyneth[5] barons and all that bee above the degree of a baron, (as I have declared before): and those which be no Lords, as Knightes, Esquires, and simple gentlemen. The thirde and last sort of persons is named the yeomanrie: each of these hath his part and administration in judgementes, corrections of defaultes, in election of offices, in appointing tributes and subsidies, and in making lawes, as shall appear heereafter.

Sir Thomas Smith, De Republic Anglorum (1583)[1]

‘if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials’

First. – The remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of the king.

Secondly. – The remains of aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers

Thirdly. ­– The new Republican materials, in the persons of the Commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.

Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)[2]

These two quotations are from two authors seemingly poles apart in time, politics and personality: one, Sir Thomas Smith, the Elizabethan diplomat, renaissance scholar and loyal servant of the crown, the other Thomas Paine, former stay-maker, revolutionary pamphleteer and literary thorn in the side of the English monarchy. But, in the course of this article, I hope to demonstrate that Sir Thomas Smith and Thomas Paine shared more than a first name in common.[3]

Thomas Paine’s thought and writing has often been presented as distinct from the mainstream of late eighteenth-century English radicalism: his frank republicanism, the relative absence of historical or classical allusions in his prose, and his clear Francophilia are all seen as marking him out from the more Whiggish political philosophy of either the artisan-led London Corresponding Society or the more middle-class Revolution Society.[4] It is certainly hard to imagine Paine endorsing the idea of an Anglo-Saxon ‘ancient constitution’ enshrining British liberties or extolling the importance of the revolution of 1688 as numerous declarations from the LCS did.[5] According to this account, this difference became only more marked as war with revolutionary France tainted Painite radicalism with treasonable overtones.[6] Paine here appears as a stylistic and intellectual aberration whose subsequent influence was felt only amongst the ‘ultra-radical’ fringes in the later 19th century.[7]

However, here I will suggest that Paine’s ideas were actually closer to more established strains in English political thought than is usually recognised.

To return to that quotation from Sir Thomas Smith, Smith’s work is a valuable example of what the distinguished historian of Elizabethan England, Patrick Collinson, memorably labelled ‘monarchical republicanism’. A seeming oxymoron – how can you have a republic that is also ‘monarchical’? But for an Elizabethan gentleman like Sir Thomas Smith, there was no contradiction. England was a ‘commonwealth’, to use the vernacular term most often substituted for the Latin republica, which contained elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. In his analysis of the English state, if not in his assessment of the efficacy of the arrangement, Smith was in agreement with Paine. For Smith and for many other 16th and 17thC thinkers, a ‘commonwealth’ was defined primarily not by the form of government which was, significantly, potentially subject to alteration but by its end, the service of the ‘common weal’, the public good. The point was reiterated by Paine in Rights of Man pt. 2 chap. 3:

“What is called a republic is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical of the purport, matter or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, ResPublica , the public affairs, or the public good”[8]

So Smith and Paine were agreed that a ‘commonwealth’ or republic was defined not by a form of government but by that government’s end, the public good. However, it is worth stating here that it is not the intent of this paper to make an ultra-revisionist argument (and thereby send the membership of the Thomas Paine Society into a collective apoplectic fit) that Paine was really a closet monarchist. As Paine went on to state in Rights of Man monarchy categorically could not be the form of government of a true commonwealth because the end of monarchical rule was to serve the interests of a hereditary ruler not the public good. But I do want to suggest here that ‘monarchical republicanism’ may, in a variety of ways, have influenced Paine’s intellectual development and vision of both society and government.

Before looking at its potential relevance to Paine, we need to unpick what Collinson means by ‘monarchical republicanism’. For Collinson there are essentially two types of monarchical republicanism – one representing a theory about the state and what it was for, the other, a fitting description of how, at a local level, the Elizabethan state actually operated.

As historians are now recognising, the theory of ‘monarchical republicanism’ had a long shelf-life. It is still mostly associated with the Elizabethan period and the schemes of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, for a temporary English republic leading to an elective monarchy, should the Queen fall victim to illness, old age or a Catholic assassination attempt. In these schemes, hatched as early as the 1560s, the political vacuum caused by the Queen’s death would be filled by the Privy Council and a recalled Parliament, acting as a de facto government. A long-term republican vision was completely absent from these schemes – the goal was for the Privy Council to act effectively as a sixteenth-century interview panel, judging appropriately blue-blooded (and Protestant) candidates for the vacant throne. However, as Collinson notes, these schemes still involved radical constitutional alterations, essentially setting preservation of the Protestant religion above observing the line of succession (a point to be revisited with revolutionary consequences in 1688-9) and transforming England from a hereditary to an elective monarchy.  It also had more sustained implications in the sixteenth century in terms of its emphasis upon the need for rulers, especially female rulers, to listen to (predominately male) counsel and govern for the public good.[9]

The incipient radicalism of ‘monarchical republicanism’ was brought out in the seventeenth century. Variations on this form of thinking can be found in the Levellers’ proto-constitutions, the Agreements of the People, and in the late seventeenth-century writings of the ‘Harringtonian’ Henry Neville in his Plato Redivivus (1681) – a work which called for a limited monarchy supporting a religiously tolerant state.[10] In both the Levellers’ and Neville’s view, there could be a place for a hereditary monarch as a head of state but this monarchical element would be grafted onto a largely ‘republican’ structure: under both the Levellers’ and Neville’s schemes the king’s prerogative powers would be severely circumscribed while the rights of citizens (especially freedom of conscience) would be constitutional protected against encroachment from either the legislature or the executive.[11]

The same ideas, as Rachel Hammersley has shown, were also part of the intellectual make-up of the radical Whig ‘commonwealthsmen’ of the early 18thC, as Robert, viscount Molesworth stated:

‘A true Whig is not afraid of the name of a Commonwealthsman…queen Elizabeth, and many other of our best princes, were not scrupulous of calling our government a Commonwealth, even in their solemn speeches to parliament. And indeed if it be not one, I cannot tell by what name properly to call it: for where in the very frame of the constitution, the good of the whole is taken care of by the whole (as it is in our case) the having a king or queen at the head of it, alters not the case.’[12]

Of course, Thomas Paine did differ from these authors – his advocacy of republicanism was clear and consistent from the publication of Common Sense (1776) onwards. But, even so, he could seemingly engage with this monarchical republican tradition in his most famous English political work, Rights of Man pt. 1:

‘civil government is republican government. 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, except the name which William the Conqueror imposed upon the English, that of obliging them to call him “their Sovereign Lord and King”.’[13]

To what extent he had been directly influenced in this section of Rights of Man by previous English political works in this vein is not clear. Paine’s mature political thought has usually been presented as the shared inheritance of American and French republicanism, though work on his reading by Caroline Robbins and A. Owen Aldridge suggests an author equally well-read in literary classics, British history and seventeenth and eighteenth century English political thought.[14] Aldridge sees some echoes of Leveller writing in Paine’s American works, though no evidence of direct influence or quotation. The water is muddied further by the work of J. G. A. Pocock and, much more recently Rachel Hammersley, which reminds us that both French and American republicanism were themselves in debt to the writings of English Commonwealthsmen like Thomas Gordon and Robert Molesworth (quoted earlier).[15]

The obvious difficulty with seeing Paine as a ‘monarchical republican’ is his unequivocal attachment to republicanism and his hostility to monarchy. The Commonwealthsmen of the early eighteenth century had been at pains to point out (whether for reasons of self-preservation or out of genuine intellectual commitment) that while they saw intellectual value in republican works such as Algernon Sidney’s Discourses, they did not share that author’s views on monarchy or the legitimacy of the regicide of 1649. After 1776 at least, Paine appears to have held no such reservations. Not only did he attack George III as a ‘bad king’ (to use the terminology of 1066 and all that), in Common Sense styling him as the ‘Pharaoh of England’ and ‘the Royal Brute of Britain’, he laid waste to the institution itself.[16] For Paine, as Gregory Claeys has noted, hereditary government was tyranny because the principle imposed rulers on future generations without their consent.[17] Paine’s clearly stated antipathy to ‘mixed government’ (as in the British case, King, Lords and Commons) –‘A mixed Government is an imperfect everything, cementing and soldering the discordant parts together by corruption’, Rights of Man pt 1, Conclusion – was also at clearly odds with the ideas of the ‘Commonwealthsmen.’[18]

Yet, even given these differences and the difficulties in tracing Paine’s intellectual influences, there are still reasons for thinking that Paine’s intellectual development owed something to this English tradition of ‘monarchical republicanism’. As stated earlier, Collinson identified two types of monarchical republicanism: crudely put monarchical republicanism in theory and monarchical republicanism in practice. As evidence of the latter, Collinson singled out the parish of Swallowfield, in the sixteenth century in Wiltshire but now part of Berkshire, whose chief inhabitants produced their own articles:

‘to the end we may the better & more quietly lyve together in good love & amytie to the praise of God and for the better servynge of her Majesty’[19]

The articles themselves were partly drawn up to help resolve the anomalous position of Swallowfield –a parish for administrative purposes in Wiltshire but geographically in Berkshire. This was not a local constitution creating a petty democracy within a monarchy – the articles were clear about the need to maintain social distinctions within the parish, any ‘malapert’ poor who upbraided their betters were to be firmly reprimanded. But it was a document that looked to local co-operation and civic participation to ensure the smooth running of the community without recourse to the heavy-handed instruments of the law. At Swallowfield, then, the name of the Queen, through the operation of her courts, was, as far as possible to be left out of things, just as Paine said it routinely was in the operation of English government in the eighteenth century.[20]

Swallowfield was an exceptional case, but recent histories of the ‘politics of the parish’ in early modern England have attempted to broaden out this picture of local autonomy and self-government to the nation in general. Mark Goldie produced an important but controversial paper in which he described parish office-holding as the ‘unacknowledged republic’ within the English state. For Goldie, it was office-holding in early modern England (exemplified by Smith’s sub-yeoman class of ale-conners and parish constables) rather than elections (more often than not really the ‘selection’ of MPs by local magnates) which constituted the genuinely participatory element of civic society at this time.[21]

Paine, while at Lewes, had first-hand experience of serving in this ‘unacknowledged’ English republic. Since the first hostile biography of Paine appeared in 1791, commentators have noted that Paine sought to reinvent himself as an individual who had only become a writer in America, therefore drawing a veil over his life in England prior to emigration in 1774. However, as A. Owen Aldridge pointed out, many of the ideas in Common Sense and in later works such as Rights of Man pt 2, had previously been aired in his early anonymous contributions to the Pennsylvania Magazine. Prior to this, he had already in England, in the Case of the Officers of the Excise (1772), produced a work that was much more than a merely sectional document, addressing broad themes of poverty and corruption.

More important than these early writings was his work in Lewes as a vestryman and juryman. The transfer to Lewes was significant because of the more open nature of the borough in comparison to his birthplace, Thetford, a town safely in the pocket of its aristocratic patrons, the Graftons. So his experience in Lewes between 1768 and 1774, as detailed in recent work by Colin Brent, George Hindmarch and Paul Myles, much less being one of ‘almost unrelenting failure’, was of exactly the sort of open, active civil society that he would later idealise in Common Sense and associate much more broadly with America.[22] Here, as Colin Brent has aptly put it, in ‘England’s republican government’, was that free human society which he contrasted with that ‘at best necessary evil’, government.[23]

For Paine it was not a centralist monarchical state which held together society

‘So far is it from being true, as has been pretended, that the abolition of any formal government is the dissolution of society, that it acts by a contrary impulse, and brings the latter the closer together. All that part of its organisation which it had committed to its government, devolves again upon itself, and acts through its medium.’[24]

Rather it was an excess of ‘government’ which led to ‘riots and tumults’

‘If we look  … we shall find, that they did not proceed from the want of a government, but that government was itself the generating cause; instead of consolidating society, it divided it; it deprived it of its natural cohesion, and engendered discontents and disorders, which otherwise would not have existed.’[25]

There remain problems with viewing Paine’s experiences in England, especially Lewes, as well as his English intellectual inheritance as demonstrating the influence of ‘monarchical republicanism’. As noted by Ethan Shagan, much of theory of monarchical republicanism actually cut against the vision of England as a nation of thousands of self-governing, autonomous, parish or borough mini-republics. For many theorists, the drive was for the state to obliterate administrative anomalies like Swallowfield which threatened the reach and uniformity of central administration.[26] Similarly, for Paine, England’s ‘rotten boroughs’ contaminated even that part of the state which was supposedly representative of the people, the House of Commons, by denying representation to large sections of the country (notably manufacturing towns such as Manchester) and leaving the rest open to the corrupt influence of aristocratic patrons.

Yet, fundamentally, Paine’s view of civic society continued to tally with his own lived experience. Constitutions existed in microcosm in voluntary associations such as the Lewes Headstrong Club of which Paine was a member. These self-generating, bottom-up forms of political association demonstrated that high taxation existed not because society required it but because these revenues were necessary to prop a parasitic court and the vast war machine that it directed. In his regard for England’s ‘associational culture’, Paine was, again, in line with much contemporary, polite opinion.[27] As Paine saw it, it was this ability to create clubs and societies to serve a number of social needs that demonstrated that the English were perfectly capable of governing by themselves for themselves.[28]

The posthumous celebration of Paine would prove his own point. In the nineteenth century, radical clubs and societies across Britain would toast the ‘Immortal Paine’ in displays of radical sociability and conviviality which reinforced the political potential of this national trait of ‘club-ability.’ [29] In conclusion, we remember Paine now, as radicals did in the nineteenth century, because he was distinctive – there have been few, if any, English political figures whose republicanism has been so strident and yet who have managed to communicate such a radical ideology (in an English context) to such a wide audience. But that distinctive philosophy and style was not solely the product of his American experiences. England shaped Paine the republican not only because of what he might have read (even between the lines of more orthodox texts), but also because of what he did and how he lived.


[1]An electronic version is reproduced here: http://www.constitution.org/eng/repang.htm

[2] The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. P. S. Foner, (2 vols., New York, 1969) i, 7.

[3] Others have noted the potential parallels between Paine’s ideas and the ‘Commonwealth’ literature of the sixteenth century, see A. McLaren, ‘Commonwealth and Common Sense: John Hales, Tom Paine and the Early American Republic’, unpublished paper delivered at the University of Liverpool Early Modern Virtual Research Group Seminar, April 2008, for info see http://www.liv.ac.uk/history/research/cultures_of_counsel/seminars.htm

[4] See for example M. Philp, ‘The Fractured Ideology of Reform’ in Philp ed., The French Revolution and British Popular Politics (Cambridge, 1991), pp.50-77. J. R. Dinwiddy noted that the most thoroughgoing criticisms of the British Constitution came from those, such as Paine, who were ‘exogenous to the English political scene’, Radicalism and reform in Britain, 1780-1850 (London, 1992), p. 173.

[5] For pertinent quotations see my A Radical History of Britain: Visionaries, rebels and revolutionaries – the men and women who fought for our freedom (London, 2010), p. 238.

[6] See on the Anglo-Saxon symbolism of post-Waterloo radicalism, P. A. Pickering, “Class without words: Symbolic communication in the Chartist movement’, Past and Present 112, (1986), 154-5; for a more mixed picture J. A. Epstein ‘Understanding the Cap of Liberty: Symbolic Practice and Social Conflict in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Past and Present, 122 (1989), 75-118.

[7] Even here Iain Macalman sees the enduring influence of domestic intellectual and religious traditions, Radical Underworld, Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London 1795-1840  (Cambridge, 1988), pt II.

[8] Foner, I, 369.

[9] P. Collinson, ‘The Monarchical Republic of Elizabeth I’ Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, LXIX (1987), pp. 394-424 reprinted in J. Guy ed., The Tudor Monarchy (1997) and Collinson, The Elizabethans (2003). Google books preview:

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5pE6k85938MC&lpg=PP1&ots=2Fzrh-QQLr&dq=collinson%20elizabethan%20essays&pg=PA31#v=onepage&q&f=false

For earlier schemes see the work of Steven Alford, The Early Elizabethan Polity: William Cecil and the British Succession Crisis 1558-1569 (Cambridge, 1998) and Alice Hunt, ‘The Monarchical Republic of Mary I’, Historical Journal, 52 (2009), 557-572 available here http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/151567/1/AHunt_MonarchicalRepublic.pdf

[10] See G. Mahlberg, ‘Henry Neville and the Toleration of Catholics during the Exclusion Crisis’, Historical Research 83:222 (2010), pp. 617-34; idem, Henry Neville and English Republican Culture in the Seventeenth Century: Dreaming of Another Game (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).

[11] It is worth stating here that the Levellers’ commitment to monarchy was expedient at best. At other points, Levellers writers expressed deep hostility to the monarchy, an early example of this being Richard Overton and William Walwyn’s A Remonstrance of Many Thousands of Citizens (1646),p. 5: ‘The continual oppressors of the nation have been kings’. For an electronic version see here: http://www.constitution.org/lev/eng_lev_04.htm

[12] Quoted in R. Hammersley, The English Republican Tradition and Eighteenth-Century France (Manchester, 2010).p. 15.

[13] Foner, I, p. 326.

[14] A. O. Aldridge, Thomas Paine’s American Ideology (London, 1984); C. Robbins, ‘The Lifelong Education of Thomas Paine (1737-1809): Some Reflections upon his Acquaintance among Books’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 127 (1983), pp. 135-142.

[15] For Hammersley see earlier refs for Pocock see The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975).

[16] Foner, I, 25, 29.

[17] G. Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London, 1989), p. 72

[18] Foner, I, 339.

[19] Quoted in M. J. Braddick, State formation in early modern England c 1500-1700 (Cambridge, 2000), p. 73.

[20] For Swallowfield see Braddick, State Formation, pp. 73-6.

[21] M. Goldie, ‘The Unacknowledged Republic: Office Holding in Early Modern England’, in Harris ed., The Politics of the Excluded c. 1500-1850 , (Basingstoke, 2001) pp. 153-194.

[22] E. Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (2nd edn., Oxford, 2005), p. 3.

[23] C. Brent, D. Gage and P. Myles, Thomas Paine in Lewes 1768-1774: A Prelude to American Independence (Lewes, 2009), quoted at p. 14; C. Brent, ‘Thirty something: Thomas Paine at Bull House in Lewes, 1768-1774 – six formative years,’ Sussex Archaeological Collections, 147 (2009), 153-168.;G. Hindmarsh, The Case of the King of England and his Officers of the Excise (Privately published, 1998)

[24] Foner, I, 358

[25] Foner, I, 359

[26] E. Shagan, ‘The two republics: conflicting views of participatory local government in early Tudor England’ in J. F. McDiarmaid ed., The Monarchical Republic of Early Modern England: Essays in Response to Patrick Collinson (Aldershot, 2007), ch. 1.

[27] Peter Clark, British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800, the origins of an associational world (Oxford, 2002)

[28] See for example Foner, I, 359: “In those associations which men promiscuously form for the purpose of trade, or of any concern, in which government is totally out of the question, and in which they act merely on the principles of society, we see how naturally the various parties unite”

[29] For some interesting reflections on radical sociability see Christina Parolin’s, Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790-c. 1845,  (ANU E-press, 2010) available as an electronic book here http://epress.anu.edu.au/apps/bookworm/view/Radical+Spaces%3A+Venues+of+popular+politics+in+London,+1790%E2%80%93c.+1845/2621/ch01.xhtml

Podcast of Thomas Paine Society Lecture

I’ve now put up the recording of the Thomas Paine Society lecture given on 5th March here.

Apologies for the sound quality at the beginning, I was struggling to be heard over the sound of screaming Japanese fan-girls (not screaming at me but attending the Manga convention also in Conway Hall.)

A revised and edited version of the lecture has been submitted to the Society’s journal.

‘Thomas Paine and the English Radical Tradition’

I am honoured to have been invited to give the Thomas Paine Society’s Eric Paine Memorial Lecture.

The talk will be at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London, WC1 4RL at 2pm on Sat 5th March.

More details here.

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm  Comments (4)  
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Podcasts, various

Belatedly, here are some links to recent talks/interviews wot I have done.

A chat with Neil Denny on the Little Atoms radio show on resonance fm. You can download here.

A podcast for BBC History Magazine to accompany my article on Gerrard Winstanley.

A recording of my talk as part of the St Albans festival here.

In other radical news, Tom Paine has a new statue in Lewes.

Uh-oh those summer nights

I’m doing some talks in June and July.  On Sat 5 June it is Republic’s annual conference and I will be discussing Britain’s republican heritage alongside Geoffrey Robertson QC of Tyrannicide Brief and Putney Debates fame. On June 17 I will be taking part in the Firestation Bookswap. On 22 June I will be speaking as part of the St. Alban’s Literary Festival and on 12 July I will be talking to the Liberal Democrat History Group about Thomas Paine’s impact on subsequent radicals and liberals while Professor Ted Royle will be talking about Paine himself.

Tour t-shirts to follow.

In other news, there was a nice review of the paperback of A Radical History of Britain by Ian Pindar in the Guardian a few weekends ago.

Radical History News Round-up

Readers of this blog may have noticed the changed strap-line. I’ve pilfered this quote from Natalie Bennett’s very kind review of my book. I particularly like the potential flexibility of this description. One commenter on the site is unconvinced, suggesting that I am ‘too much the ivory-tower academic’ who ‘somewhat fears’ the ‘radical masses’. Quite right. I spend my days barricaded inside my Roehampton office, comforting myself by reading yellowing back-issues of the LRB and TLS while, outside my window, the baying mob screams for justice.

Another nice review appeared over at Washminster.

In other radical history news, Harvey J. Kaye has posted an interesting article unpacking Sarah Palin’s appropriation of Thomas Paine. (Yes, that’s *Sarah Palin*.)

UPDATE! A Radical History of Britain picked as one of the Telegraph’s History Books of the Year by a completely unbiased reviewer with no previous connections professional or otherwise to the author.

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.

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.

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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