In a fit of envy, the 71-year-old John Adams scribbled furiously to a friend, seething that few men, if any, “had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs or the last thirty years than Tom Paine…. A mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.” With a near audible sigh, he added: “Call it then the Age of Paine.”
So who was this Tom Paine—originally baptized Thomas Pain on January 29, 1737, O.S. (February 9, 1737) in Thetford, England? Who was this “mongrel between pig and puppy” who bravely rooted for American independence and the abolition of slavery when the likes of John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson were too reluctant to do so? Who was the man who hobnobbed with some of the greatest statesmen and thinkers, from Jefferson and George Washington to the first modern feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Irish nationalist Theobald Wolfe Tone, the philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, and the Jacobin revolutionary leader, Georges Danton? And more importantly, who was the man who challenged hereditary government while laying the foundations of a modern welfare state with provisions for the young, the elderly, and the poor? In short, who was this modern Prometheus, this revolutionary radical who ignited a fire, bringing a new political discourse to the people—only to be variously prosecuted, proscribed, and punished by the powers-that-be, the British, American, and American governments? And why is he still relevant today?
Paine’s early life embodied the very concepts of revolution and innovation—that he “disrupted” everyday expectations for men of his working-class background by refusing to pursue his father’s vocation as staymaker and instead adopting one that had long been reserved for well-educated elites.
It could be said that Paine’s early life embodied the very concepts of revolution and innovation—that he “disrupted” everyday expectations for men of his working-class background by refusing to pursue his father’s vocation as staymaker and instead adopting one that had long been reserved for well-educated elites. Indeed, Paine would venture on a number of new paths as he embarked on a privateer, attended lectures in London on the burgeoning field of astronomy, applied for work in the Excise after the death of his first wife, and tried his hand at teaching after being falsely accused by a supervisor of “stamping” without inspecting goods. That he was requested by his fellow officers not long after his reinstatement to the Excise in order to lobby for higher wages attested to skills not commonly associated with those who had little formal schooling. Although this petition proved unsuccessful when Parliament denied any future consideration, Paine’s keen awareness of economic inequality can already be gleaned from such sentences as: “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.”
Not that this was altogether an entirely singular or novel awareness on Paine’s part. After all, by 1774, some had begun to comment on economic and political injustice in Britain, drawing attention to the ways in which the aristocracy and gentry—the literal and figurative bigwigs of the day—lorded it over others. Pamphlets such as James Murray’s popular Sermons to Asses (1768) grumbled about the taxes on windows, soap, leather, and other items which affected the poor and middling orders far more than the wealthy. Murray and other contemporary writers seethed at high-handed earls and dukes who not only had a hand in every election to endorse prospective M.P.’s willing to enact policies suitable to their needs, but spent obscene sums spent on elections—enough to feed a village or two. At the same time, other writers also began to appeal for the abolition of slavery in Britain and criticize the greed and corruption displayed by British colonial forces around the globe. Times were a’ changing.
Many of these ideas would be further radicalized by Paine when he crossed the Atlantic after his sacking from the Excise and a plea of separation from his second wife. The man whom Benjamin Franklin recommended as an “ingenious, worthy young man” would unequivocally censure British brutality in India, rejecting the conjoined ideas of conquest and empire altogether in the pages of The Pennsylvania Magazine. More daringly than other British writers (if partly because he was thousands of miles away), he scoffed at the idea of peerages and titles. What were they good for anyway when so many so-called “Right Honorables” were anything but? And although Paine did not write about women’s rights, he saw fit to insert an article in the magazine about the oppression of women and the double standards they faced: ideas that his friend Mary Wollstonecraft would develop a decade and a half later in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).
His most important work from this period, of course, is Common Sense, arguably the first American bestseller. If the vast majority of colonists deplored British regulations on commerce, they were less certain about casting Britain off entirely; as Jefferson primly stated in the conclusion of his Summary Rights of British America, “It is neither our wish, nor our interest, to separate from her.” Indeed, only a third of the colonists were willing to entertain the idea of American independence when it was finally declared in July 1776. But here was no pussyfooting for Paine when he claimed “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Whether or not his desire for independence was informed by the miseries he suffered in Britain or by an overall dissatisfaction with an unreformed Britain is difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, what emerges from Common Sense is a much more daring and democratic vision than either Ronald Reagan or today’s Tea Party ever imagined—even as they have variously purported to embrace Paine. If the neoconservative (and neoliberal) demand for lower taxes and small government relies chiefly on a privileging of already powerful corporations and the wealthiest .1%, Paine’s call for small government offers a diametrically anti-elitist contrast. Firmly rejecting “the remains of monarchical tyranny” and the “the remains of aristocratical tyranny” in the “exceedingly complex” constitution of England, he countered American veneration for both hereditary establishments by claiming that “The state of a king shuts him from the World, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly.” More often than not, kings did more harm than good, not to mention that the very origin of the monarchy was anything but honorable. Not least, this proclivity for war and conquest in monarchical governments, Paine argued, distinguished them from peaceful republics such as were found in Holland and Switzerland.
But if Common Sense delivered a bold defense of republican government—one that had not been witnessed since the English Civil War with the beheading of Charles I—Rights of Man, Parts 1 and 2 (1791-2) went much further. Having left America to propose a design for a single-span iron bridge, Paine did not initially anticipate to become involved in politics again: but with the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, he grew interested in a revolution which many believed to be inspired by the American revolution. When Edmund Burke, a recent acquaintance and supporter of the American cause, published a tome deprecating the revolution in France, Reflections of the Revolution in France, Paine replied with a fiery rebuttal, Rights of Man, Part 1, defending the French revolution. Here Paine not only argued that precedent was a poor excuse for retaining an outdated, anachronistic government that served only the needs of the nobility, but that in fact it was high time to tend to the “rights of man” which were anything but theoretical and abstract as Burke pretended. It was time for Britain to reject church-state establishments and a House of Lords which granted certain men the right to legislate merely on account of birth and lineage.
As Part 1 outsold Common Sense, and indeed, any previous texts in the publishing history of Britain, Paine would continue the momentum with an even more intrepid Part 2. The problem with so many governments—including the British one—he explained, was that it was impeding, not helping, their people. Popular discontent and rage arose from a “want of happiness”—particularly when the odds were stacked against the ordinary man and woman. There was no denying that “excess and inequality of taxation, however disguised in the means” was an evil which
never fail to appear in their effects. As a great mass of the community are thrown thereby into poverty and discontent, they are constantly on the brink of commotion; and deprived, as they unfortunately are, of the means of information, are easily heated to outrage.
What struck Paine was that in spite of the affluence and apparently elevated state of civilization in Europe, it was also all too true that “a great portion of mankind, in what are called civilised countries, are in a state of poverty and wretchedness, far below the condition of an Indian.” For beneath the apparent facade of the glitter and pomp of civilized society, there “ lies hidden from the eye of common observation, a mass of wretchedness, that has scarcely any other chance, than to expire in poverty or infamy.”
Why was it so? In a word, drastic inequality—one that favored the few at the expense of the many. Overall, the king and his court as well as the aristocracy were largely propped up by the middling and lower orders, and even the poor: in other words, by the 99%. If the bulk of taxes went to support the monarchy and their frequent and useless wars of ambition, where “War is the Pharo-table of governments, and nations the dupes of the game,” in addition to jobs created for aristocratic heirs and their kin, it was nothing short of inhuman to
talk of a million sterling a year, paid out of the public taxes of any country, for the support of any individual, whilst thousands who are forced to contribute thereto, are pining with want, and struggling with misery. Government does not consist in a contrast between prisons and palaces, between poverty and pomp; it is not instituted to rob the needy of his mite, and increase the wretchedness of the wretched.
Moreover, since the titled and landed elites frequently resided at their large, secluded estates, remote from the populace, they were therefore spared the expense of relieving local poverty: as such, the poor-rates--sums which supported the poor--were almost always paid by those barely better off, resulting in the farcical scenario of “one class of poor supporting another.” This imbalance was worsened by the fact that the proportion of taxes paid by the wealthy, mostly in the form of property taxes, had declined as the aristocrats and their kin who sat in the houses of Parliament shifted taxation from property to commodities. Needless to say, insult was added to injury when taxes on such basic necessities contributed even further to the vast wealth of men like the Duke of Richmond, an owner of coalmines. How was this just or equitable when taxes consumed at least a quarter of laboring incomes? If “Humanity dictates a provision for the poor,” Paine asks, “by what right, moral or political, does any government assume to say, that the person called the Duke of Richmond, shall be maintained by the public?” Something is amiss when “any man, more especially at the price coals now are, should live on the distresses of a community” and any government which “permits such an abuse, deserves to be dismissed.”
Indeed, unlike America “where the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged” and “Industry is not mortified by the splendid extravagance of a court rioting at its expense”--with fewer taxes to boot, so-called “civilized” nations like Britain were mired not only in stark inequality, but in terrible injustice. There is something profoundly flawed “in the system of government” when “we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows.” Paine was quick to inform his readers that:
Civil government does not exist in executions; but in making such provision for the instruction of youth and the support of age, as to exclude, as much as possible, profligacy from the one and despair from the other. Instead of this, the resources of a country are lavished upon kings, upon courts, upon hirelings, impostors and prostitutes; and even the poor themselves, with all their wants upon them, are compelled to support the fraud that oppresses them.
From here, Paine would draft what is arguably the earliest outline of a modern welfare state, introducing measures that would improve the conditions of the many.
Educating Impoverished Children
Having recommended the abolition of primogeniture in Part 1, Paine advocated the breaking up of large estates to abolish the “unjust monopoly of family property” and thereby dampen its “overbearing influence” on elections while also proposing progressive taxation—especially on large inherited estates. Paine was careful to note that “The object” was “not so much the produce of the tax as the justice of the measure” since Parliament had screened themselves from taxation for so long. A proportion of surplus taxes could easily be allocated to the education of impoverished children so that “the number of poor will hereafter become less, because their abilities, by the aid of education, will be greater.” Such was especially true when “scarcely any are executed but the poor”: an evil exacerbated by “wretchedness in their condition,” where youth are commonly “Bred up without morals, and cast upon the world without a prospect,” thereby perpetually remaining “a sacrifice of vice and legal barbarity.” For Paine, “A nation under a well-regulated government”--unlike “monarchical and aristocratical government”—should “permit none to remain uninstructed.”
As for the elderly, those over 50 would receive six pounds a year and those over 60 ten pounds a year: after all, “It is painful to see old age working itself to death, in what are called civilised countries, for daily bread.” This support, as Paine asserted, “is not of the nature of a charity but of a right” since “Every person in England, male and female, pays on an average in taxes two pounds eight shillings and sixpence per annum from the day of his (or her) birth.” Few could quibble if it was
better that the lives of one hundred and forty thousand aged persons be rendered comfortable, or that a million a year of public money be expended on any one individual, and him often of the most worthless or insignificant character? Let reason and justice, let honour and humanity, let even hypocrisy, sycophancy and Mr. Burke, let George, let Louis, Leopold, Frederic, Catherine, Cornwallis, or Tippoo Saib, answer the question.
Here, too, Paine would attend to employment, recommending voluntary workhouses that will admit “all who shall come, without enquiring who or what they are” provided they put in “so many hours' work” for “meals of wholesome food, and a warm lodging.” And just as he pointed out the wide disparity in incomes for heads of clergy and parish ministers in Part 1, noting how the former earned 10,000 pounds a year and the latter a mere 50, he endorsed collective bargaining for workers--not unlike in his days as an excise officer petitioning for higher salaries.
Altogether, a new republican Britain would become a nation where there were no more wasteful wars of conquest and domination. It would be a humane world where few would be shocked by the sight of “ragged and hungry children, and persons of seventy and eighty years of age, begging for bread.” Widows would no longer be “carted away, on the death of their husbands, like culprits and criminals; and children will no longer be considered as increasing the distresses of their parents.” To the 1% of his day, Paine turned and asked: “Ye who sit in ease, and solace yourselves in plenty, and such there are in Turkey and Russia, as well as in England, and who say to yourselves, ‘Are we not well off?’ have ye thought of these things? When ye do, ye will cease to speak and feel for yourselves alone.”
Not the least amazing aspect of Rights of Man is Paine’s populist and unpretentious style—one that could be readily understood by everyone, not just the well-educated and well-heeled who read and wrote political discourses. It is here that we find a modern simplicity with clear, crisp prose. And rather than peppered with dozens of quotations from Cicero, Locke, and Montesquieu, all wrapped in prolix, never-ending clauses no less, Rights of Man contains references to readily imagined and visualized images--for instance, “ride-and-tie” and the “beasts in the tower.” We might also wonder if Paine’s remarks on monarchy did not inspire a climactic scene from the 1939 adaptation of the Wizard of Oz, as he quipped that monchy is not unlike “something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity; but when, by any accident, the curtain happens to be open — and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.”
Rights of Man, with its revolutionary manifesto, electrified not only Britain but much of Europe and America--even as the British government declared it seditious. A Promethean pain(e) in the aristocratic ass, he frightened the local powers-that-be who, in turn, incited ordinary Britons to burn effigies of Paine up and down the island, claiming that the “levelling” Tom wanted to redistribute property (a favorite conservative tactic through the ages). However, whatever popularity Paine enjoyed with Rights of Man came to be destroyed in America with his publication of Age of Reason, a work that sought to debunk the Bible. Ultimately, his notoriety was such that the Quakers denied his request to be buried in their cemetery: Paine had no choice but to be buried in his his backyard. His prediction that his bones would be dug up was fulfilled as the Tory-turned-radical Englishman, William Cobbett, stole them with the intention of burying them in his native land.
21st-century America is crying out for not just another revolutionary new SUV, revolutionary new mascara, or revolutionary new sneakers but nothing less than another American revolution.
Fast forward two centuries and two decades. It requires little imagination to determine whether we are closer to Paine’s assessment of colonial America “where the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged” or his portrait of a corrupt Georgian England presided by presumptuous barons, earls, marquesses, dukes and king. True, we do not have a hereditary government (unless, of course, we count the Bushes and Kennedys), but we have one that panders to the beck and call of the .1%. Nor can we can deny that Citizens United allows our aristocrats--Wall Street and large multi-national corporations--to wield a political power all too comparable to that wielded by Paine’s titled peers, with men like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson assuming the part of the lordly political sponsor. In the meantime, few can argue that our CEOs, with their bloated compensations and curious lack of accountability, have come to resemble kings who can “do no wrong.” Do well, get a big bonus; do poorly, get a lesser bonus.
Indeed, just like Paine who asked if it was better that the lives of the elderly be rendered comfortable, “or that vast sums of public money be expended on any one individual, and him often of the most worthless or insignificant character,” we might ask ourselves that very question as politicians continue to call for cuts to Social Security, all the while demanding bailouts for billionaire bankers and urging more tax cuts for the wealthy. One wonders what Paine would have thought of NAFTA and TPP which deprive ordinary Americans of jobs while funneling yet more profits to corporations. Or what he would have thought of Republican governors like Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner and their attempts to deny workers the right of collective bargaining and decent minimum wages.
The fact is that 21st-century America is crying out for not just another revolutionary new SUV, revolutionary new mascara, or revolutionary new sneakers but nothing less than another American revolution: a truly populist political revolution that Bernie Sanders demands—without any of the hateful, faux populism embodied by the likes of Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and the Tea Party. It is time to feel the “democratic impulse and aspiration that he [Paine] inscribed in American experience,” to use Harvey Kaye’s words from his wonderful Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Like Paine, Sanders is aware that something is terribly wrong when the wealthiest and most advanced nation in the world harbors dire pockets of poverty--not to mention high rates of child poverty and hunger, “when 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty” and “40 percent of African American children are living in poverty?” Like Paine who drew attention to the numbers of poor youth sent to the gallows, Sanders knows it’s terribly wrong when “51 percent of African American high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 20 are unemployed or underemployed” and that “the United States has more people in jail than China; a communist authoritarian country.” And again, much like Paine, Sanders knows that our system of taxation is anything but fair or equitable as the wealthiest pay the least proportion of taxes compared to those in the middle classes. For just as the 18th-century British economy was a rigged economy, designed to protect the interests of the landed elites, our economy, is an equally rigged one, and according to Sanders, one “designed by the wealthiest people in this country to benefit the wealthiest people in this country at the expense of everybody else.” Perhaps this explains the penchant of our 1% for Marie Antoinette and Downtown-inspired tea parties?
In the final pages of Rights of Man, Paine imagines a spring where new buds and blossoms begin to appear--along with the promise of a newer, better Britain. “Spring is begun,” he says. Let us hope that Sanders, regardless of whether he wins New Hampshire and Iowa, will continue to inspire and transform our nation. It is now time to fuel our revolutionary fires, to feel the heat--or “feel the Bern”--and to remember that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Frances A. Chiu