Citizen Paine

On Tom Paine's birthday, we republish Michael Foot on Paine's revolutionary legacy as a citizen of the world who translated words into action.

Thomas Paine to the Pantheon! I first heard this splendid cry, most appropriately, in the Paris of the pre-14 July celebrations when a number of French historians assembled at a special seminar in the French National Assembly to discuss the theme in strictly academic terms. Suddenly, after all the debate, the proposal for action seemed to light up the affair with a revolutionary blaze.

And such a development, quite unforeseen by the seminar organisers, was indeed an event of real historical interest. One of the most curious, persistent aspects of the Thomas Paine saga is the way in which his great achievements have periodically been the subject of bitter, deadly denigration. It was happening every few years in his own lifetime, and the pattern has been repeated every few decades since, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the land of his birth and in the land of his adoption.

Both the British establishment and its American counterpart, if there is such a definable body, have always had their reasons for defaming Thomas Paine; these were tributes to the potency of his still highly combustible revolutionary thought. But why the French?

In one sense his neglect there was all the more inexplicable, since his Rights of Man was, and remains, the most powerful defence of the Revolution. Somehow the true role of Thomas Paine in those might events became so buried beneath the debris that even the greatest of French revolutionary historians, Jules Michelet, could make mistakes about his name, his nationality and his true glory.

One cause of the change was the publication of the first French biography of Paine. Napoleon, in his revolutionary days, is supposed to have said that a statue to him should be erected in every country in the universe, and then did nothing about it when he had the chance.

Professor Bernard Vincent’s book Thomas Paine ou la Religious de la Liberté, published in 1987, at last made some French recompense for the Napoleonic bombast or, rather, placed Paine in his proper French setting of the Condorcet household, ‘the hearth of the Revolution,’ as Michelet called it. Condorcet and his beautiful, feminist wife Sophie have recently experienced a revival in their fame, and it is most fitting that all these reappraisals should synchronise.

It is indeed the international reputation of Thomas Paine which Gregory Claeys’ Tom Paine constantly examines and extols. As a man of words and a man of action combined, no other figure of this century could match the way he would take all national frontiers in his stride. He was the first who could properly call himself a citizen of the world, and who sought to translate his claim into action.

Amazingly, some of his supposedly less well-educated contemporaries saw all this quite clearly when it was concealed from their terrified rulers. Soon after the publication of The Rights of Man in 1791 one of his Yorkshire disciples wrote: ‘Our views of The Rights of Man are not confined solely to this small island but are extended to the whole human race, black or white, high or low.’

That was the true Paineite doctrine; it was no accident that the American Paine was one of the first to denounce slavery and the English Paine one of the first to describe the lineaments of the welfare state. Yet, side by side with these spacious visions went Paine’s fury about the obstacles which blocked the path to reform. It was the combination of the two which made the true Paineite message, and Gregory Claeys’ book has a real gift for ensuring that the connection is never neglected.

What Paine did in his Rights of Man, he says, was to challenge as never before ‘the bonds of deference and hierarchy which were the sinews of an aristocratic, agricultural and Anglican nation.’ No one before has shown so well how servility could be, must be, perpetually despised and assaulted. One radical, quoted by Claeys, wrote for many besides himself to some so-called loyalist society which would burn both the book and the man: ‘Men and Angels sing the eternal immortal praises of The Rights of Man,’ and signed himself, ‘not your humble servant, but the contrary.’

Recently, Gwyn Williams wrote a new preface to his classic Artisans and Sans Culottes in which the role of Paine was once again properly celebrated. ‘His insolence was the best cure for defence,’ wrote Gwyn. ‘His subversive presence seemed to be everywhere. Wales, Ireland, Scotland, each experienced their Paineite introduction to the new world, and never allowed these honourable traces of democratic manhood (and womanhood) to be wiped from their records.’

All devoted Paineites should also be eager to acknowledge that the true revival of his reputation was the work of an English writer. H. N. Brailsford started his essay on the subject with the exchange that Bernard Vincent adopts as his epigraph: ‘Where Liberty is, there is my country,’ said Benjamin Franklin. ‘Where Liberty is not, there is mine,’ replied Thomas Paine.

He never forgot that his most devoted readers might be those for whom even the right to read would be denied. I suppose he had more of his books burnt in one place or another than any other English writer, even though he took the precaution of calling his Satanic VersesThe Age of Reason.

About the Author

Michael Foot was the co-editor of Tribune from 1948 to '52 and editor from 1955 to '60. He was the leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to '83, and Labour member of parliament for Plymouth Devonport, Ebbw Vale and Blaenau Gwent.