What is it that makes a person great? Is it how they are thought of by their peers, or is it the footprints their ideas leave upon the sands of time? If the answer is the former then then it is entirely understandable that so few people have heard of Thomas Paine (1737-1809). If the answer is the latter, however, then his regular omission from the history books is nothing less than an unforgiveable travesty.
After leaving his native England for the new world in 1774, and immediately swept along by the winds of change blowing through the colonies, Paine published a pamphlet called simply ‘Common Sense’. In it he called eloquently for the case of separation of the colonies from the mother country, and for the rejection of absolute monarchy in favour a fair and democratic society. There is no indication that Paine initially sought the limelight for this. In fact the first publication of ‘Common Sense’ does not even feature his name but instead bears the inscription ‘written by an Englishman’.
Government was a necessary evil in Paine’s eyes, one which could only be made safe by being elected by, and accountable to, those it serves. It was these principles that formed the base from which Jefferson constructed the Declaration of Independence, signed a year later. He was anti-monarchy, anti-establishment, opposed slavery, believed in free education and a minimum income for all. He thought it was people’s duty to strive for a better world and was a firm believer in their capability to do so. “We have it in our power to build the world anew”. A timeless message surely?
The American Revolution had already broken out by the time Paine became involved. But as a tax revolt, but not as a high minded, principled revolution. If the tax revolt gave the revolution its spark, Paine’s ideas gave it its soul. To succeed, a revolution needs both. And succeed it famously did.
Still basking in the warm glow of his central role in the American Revolution, Paine lived the high life for a short while. Granted a large estate in upstate New York by the new nation’s Government he turned his mind to commercial ventures. These ventures took him back to Europe, where he became increasingly fascinated by events in France.
The year was 1789 and part two of Paine’s remarkable story was about to begin-The French Revolution. Paine visited Paris the following year and was transfixed by the excitement the storming of the Bastille had sparked. He was inspired to write his second great piece of work, ‘The Rights of Man’. In it he sets out the need for representative Government based on progressive taxation. It put much needed meat on the bones of the Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité skeleton. An immediate hit for a French public still searching for the soul of their own revolution, it sold over a million copies, unheard of at the time. It also got him convicted in abstentia of treason in Britain, for daring to suggest that people should elect their leaders.
Lightning had struck twice. Paine was once again at the very centre of history, the very eye of a storm he had helped create. This time though, things would not be so simple.
As the new French state began to split in two, with the super radical Montagnards, led by Robespierre, and the more moderate Girondins, of which Paine was a member. Finding himself in the wrong camp when the dice fell, Paine was imprisoned.
Convinced that George Washington had colluded in his imprisonment, and that the new American state was betraying the revolutionary principles of its founding, including on the continued acceptance of slavery, which was abhorrent to Paine, he wrote extensively from prison. From the abuses of the Church leaders to agrarian reform, he shone a light on injustices, before being released in 1794.
Eventually he returned to America, where his attacks on Washington and others, along with his open criticisms of the Church, had made him a social pariah, and he slowly and quietly lived out the rest of his days in relative obscurity.
Perhaps this cuts to the very heart of Paine’s lack of historical recognition- he was clearly a terrible politician. His was the domain of ideas and principle, not of political expediency. Falling out of favour with both Washington and Robespierre, two of the most powerful men of the time is clear proof of this. He was also not either American of French by birth, and as the two new states started to forge their identity they understandably prioritised the work of their own.
So it was to be that this intellectual lion was to go out with a whimper rather than a roar. No state funeral. No waxing lyrical from the great and good of the time. No marble mausoleum for pilgrims through the centuries to pay homage. Buried under a walnut tree on his farm, with only six mourners in attendance, his name slowly faded from fame.
So what type of epitaph is fitting for this complicated genius? As ever, it is preferable to leave the last word with the man himself: “If, to promote universal peace, civilisation, and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libellous … let the name of libeller be engraved on my tomb.”