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‘This interment was a scene to affect and to wound any sensible heart. Contemplating who it was, what man it was, that we were committing to an obscure grave on an open and disregarded bit of land, I could not help but feel most acutely.’
The occasion for this lament was the sparsely attended funeral of Thomas Paine, who died 200 years ago, in June 1809, at the age of 72, and was buried in the small farm he owned in what was then the rural hamlet of New Rochelle, 20 miles north of New York City.
Not long before, New Rochelle’s bigwigs had barred Paine from voting, claiming he was not a US citizen. Paine, who had virtually invented the idea of US citizenship, was furious. But this was not the end of his indignities. When he sought a place to be buried, even the Quakers would not oblige him. Hence the muted funeral of the man who had inspired and guided revolutions in north America and France, and equally important, the revolution that did not happen in Britain.
Despite his extraordinary career, Paine was a late starter. When he left England in 1774, at the age of 37, he could boast six years of formal education, teenage service in a sea-going privateer, stints as a corset-maker, excise (tax) officer, tobacconist and schoolteacher. Having been sacked, for a second time, from a post in the excise, Paine separated from his second wife, sold up and sailed for north America.
There he found a cause, a constituency and the talent to link one with the other. Fourteen months after his arrival in the New World he published Common Sense, the pamphlet which galvanised opposition to British rule in north America. In it he called for immediate separation from Britain and the establishment of a democratic republic in the former colonies. During the ensuing war, he shuffled between battlefields and congressional committees, becoming the foremost propagandist of the colonial cause, both at home and abroad.
He had hoped, after the victory of the north Americans, to devote himself to his mechanical interests, notably the design of a single arch bridge. But political controversy waylaid him. When Edmund Burke published his conservative classic, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he upheld the divine right of kings and decried dangerous tampering with the established order, Paine felt obliged to respond with the first part of Rights of Man, published in March 1791.
Declaring ‘my country is the world and my religion is to do good’, he mounted a comprehensive defence of the French revolution and its founding ideas. Against Burke’s devotion to precedent, Paine offered a central statement of purpose: ‘I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.’
Paine was to commit even greater offence with the publication of part two of Rights of Man six months later. Arguing that ‘only partial advantages can flow from partial reforms’, he laid out the case for dismantling the British state and replacing it with a democratic republic. In the final chapter, he broached new and even more dangerous territory: the intrusion of democracy into the economic realm. He set forth proposals for what we would now call old age pensions, child and maternity benefits, state-funded primary education and employment for the casual poor – all funded by redistributive, steeply progressive taxation.
Rights of Man was an immediate best-seller, reaching in its first two years perhaps 10-20 per cent of the English reading public and becoming the most widely and hotly debated text of the age. Paine himself became the pre-eminent embodiment of radicalism in Britain. Conversely, for the British establishment Paine became a prime menace and demon, the carrier of the dreaded French disease. His writings were banned; those who distributed them were prosecuted. A government-subsidised smear campaign branded him a drunkard and libertine. The burning of Paine’s effigy became the central rite of the ‘Church and King’ mobs that harassed dissidents. Paine himself fled to France. In his absence he was convicted of seditious libel, which barred his return to his native land for the rest of his life.
In France, Paine was elected a deputy to the National Convention. His biographers tend to see his decade in France as a tragic tale, but for me Paine emerges from this severe historical test with amazing credit.
Upon his arrival, Paine advocated the prompt abolition of the monarchy and its replacement by a constitutional republic based on representational democracy. When the king was finally removed, Paine supported his public trial and subsequent conviction but opposed the sentence of execution, for reasons both tactical (the alliance with the USA) and principled: his opposition to the death penalty, which he viewed as a legacy of ‘monarchical’ cruelty.
A few months later he was writing to Danton, despairing of the revolution, the intimidation of legislators by the Paris crowd and the widespread ‘spirit of denunciation’. Under the Jacobin ‘Terror’, Paine was imprisoned for eight months. On his release, he again bit the hand that fed him, opposing the Directory’s restriction of the franchise. Later, he was ambivalent towards Napoleon but happy to give him advice on making war against the English enemy. Paine remained viscerally hostile to the British empire, its institutions and agents, and consistent in his belief that the American and French revolutions, whatever their disfigurements, had to be defended.
As if he hadn’t alienated enough people, in 1795 Paine published The Age of Reason, an assault on state religions (‘set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit’), on the Bible (‘a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalise mankind’) and on Christianity. While praising Jesus as a ‘virtuous reformer and revolutionist’, Paine damns the religion practised in his name: ‘A man is preached instead of God; an execution is an object for gratitude; the preachers daub themselves with the blood, like a troop of assassins, and pretend to admire the brilliancy it gives them; they preach a humdrum sermon on the merits of the execution; then praise Jesus Christ for being executed, and condemn the Jews for doing it.’
Paine’s writings circulated to a large public, thanks not least to the energy and clarity of his prose. Accessible but never condescending, rigorous in argument but rooted in the spoken language, Paine’s style was nearly as threatening as his ideas. It had immediacy, humour, compassion, sardonic irony and a dollop of ad hominem spice (despite his disavowals).
When Paine returned to the US in 1802, he received a cool welcome. He was now the infamous author of The Age of Reason, an infidel with whom even old allies like his friend in the White House, Thomas Jefferson, were reluctant to associate. Meddlesome Christians urged the sick and dying man to embrace their faith, but were brusquely dismissed. One of his friends facetiously suggested that Paine could resolve his financial worries by publishing a ‘recantation’. The author of The Age of Reason replied, ‘Tom Paine never told a lie’.
In the two centuries since his obscure burial, Paine has been claimed by as many as once disclaimed him. Liberals, Marxists, anarchists, right wing libertarians, American exceptionalists, neoliberals (a passage in Rights of Man reads like a hymn to globalisation). Even New Rochelle finally got around to awarding Paine posthumous citizenship – in 1945.
Recently ‘New Atheists’ such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have staked a claim. Dawkins simply omits the fact that Paine was not an atheist but a deist. Hitchens takes a different route, dismissing Paine’s deism as a halfway house to atheism. What both miss is that Paine’s deism was part and parcel of a sustained challenge to the hierarchies and powers of his day – which cannot be said of their atheism.
Paine’s ideas were not static. He was, above all, a participant. His writings were interventions. He changed his mind. He contradicted himself.
Leninists and liberals alike have squeezed Paine into the dubious category of ‘bourgeois democrat’. But the democratic thrust that he embodied, that drove him forward, that fuelled his writing, cannot be so easily delimited.
Whatever else he may have been, Paine was and remained a committed ‘revolutionary’, in theory and practice. He sought not just to ameliorate but to overturn the existing order. His restless egalitarian spirit could not be contained. It flowed from the political into the religious and economic realms.
‘Change of ministers amounts to nothing. One goes out, another comes in, and still the same measures, vices, and extravagance are pursued. It signifies not who is minister. The defect lies in the system. The foundation and the superstructure of the government is bad.’
Read more columns by Mike Marqusee at [www.mikemarqusee.com