Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) was a British revolutionary, radical, inventor, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He lived and worked in Britain until he was 37, when he emigrated to America, in time to participate in the Revolution. His principal contributions were the powerful, widely-read pamphlet Common Sense (1776), advocating colonial America’s independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain; and The American Crisis (1776–1783), a pro-revolutionary series of pamphlets.
After that, Paine influenced the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), a guide to Enlightenment ideas advocating the revolutionary idea of representative government with enumerated social programs and progressive taxation to remedy the prevailing poverty of commoners. He was elected to the French National Convention in 1792, fixing – extraordinarily – his place in British, American and French history. He became notorious because of his anti-Christian The Age of Reason (1793–94). In France, he also wrote the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795), discussing the origins of property, and extolled the merit of a guaranteed minimum income. It is not that his ideas were original so much as that his pamphleteering attracted for him a wide readership and influence.
Why he’s relevant
He was ahead of his time, proposing in detail a form of social welfare and an old age pension as early as 1791. Paine wrote brilliantly on the need for a free press. He argued against monopolies and contributed a great deal to what became both the basic principles of the French Revolution and the Constitution of the United States of America. Nevertheless he has been practically washed out of popular history.
Paine stepped on a great many toes. Some of the owners of these toes were very powerful indeed, and ruthless. He was not surprisingly derided by King George the Third because of his support for the French Revolution and the American war of independence, and he went head to head with Edmund Burke. The Rights of Man was Paine’s response to criticisms by Burke (who was born on Arran Quay in Dublin) of the revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
There is strong evidence that the American Revolution would not have succeeded at all were it not for Paine’s work. The fact that he is not in the pantheon, with Jefferson and Washington is down primarily to his opposition to slavery. Most of the other founding fathers were slave owners. Paine was sidelined after the foundation of the Republic by his former colleagues for this reason.
The greatest obstacle to a place in posterity for Paine was his criticism of organised religion. He was not an atheist. He subscribed to the principles of Deism as did such notables as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Greatest Contribution: US Constitution
Even if Paine’s writings were left aside, and they should not be, his contribution to the birth of what was to become the United States of America, and his influence on its constitution, were immense. As there are very notable instances where our own constitution was influenced by that of the USA, it is also fair to say that Paine was an indirect contributor to our public and legal affairs also.
Paine was perhaps the first great socialist. His concern for ordinary men and women, while it may give an additional clue to the attitude towards him of capitalist America, deserves to be recognised by those on the left wing today. That it is not might be down to the fact that, unlike Marx and Engels, who were theorists, Paine was a practical man. He suffered from no delusions whatever, and was somewhat less than patient with those that did. For that other major faction, the people who live according to principles that are only for public presentation and which they discard in private, and for frauds and exploiters everywhere, Paine was merciless.
In the Press
Barack Obama, has recognised the contribution that Paine made. In his inaugural address, the new president quoted from Paine’s pamphlet “The Crisis”, which was very influential at the time of the war of independence, and which George Washington had read to his troops in order to rally them at the critical period when the American army was on the verge of defeat by the British. The passage quoted by Obama is as follows: “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 and to repulse it”. Paine’s spirit and insight deserve a renaissance.
Written by Seamus McKenna