Sunday, August 14, 2011

At war with Jonah's whale, and after

Peter Linebaugh's new introduction to the works of Thomas Paine

Peter Linebaugh introduces Thomas Paine

“Where liberty is, there is my country,” declared Benjamin Franklin, to which Thomas Paine replied, “Where is not liberty, there is mine.” Tom Paine was a worker and commoner. He spoke and wrote from a particular experience, that of an English artisan at the onset of industrialization. He was, too, a planetary revolutionary—indeed, he helped give meaning to the term—and as such his writing is hugely significant for the twenty-first century. If we were to compare him to any contemporary figure, it would be Che Guevara. He asserted aspiration, possibility, the unheard of. He breathed the warmth of human agency to frigid hierarchies of power. The phrase “world revolutionary” might have several meanings—a sailor of the seven seas, a scientist of the universal mind, a philosophe in the republic of letters, a journeyman on the move. Rachel Corrie in Palestine, Ben Linder in Nicaragua, Brad Will in Oaxaca, those from the USA who step forth onto the world stage at places of maximum hope in the class struggle, express his spirit. As with Guevara or Jose Martí, he too struggled within the belly of the beast. He likened the British Empire to Jonah’s whale.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” he wrote. His own soul was divided; so has been his legacy. “The Age of Paine” (as John Adams called it) was contradictory, like any other individual or historical age. While he gave voice to the age, he would bend, if not kneel, to power. Power and Empire have claimed him as one of their own. He has been quoted by American presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama (who would not name him). A prevailing view is that he was only an American patriot (the Nation), another that he was chiefly a citizen (the Republic). He defended private property and wrote on behalf of banking. His pamphlet Common Sense elucidated and called for revolution in America; Rights of Man defended revolution in England and France, constituting it upon popular sovereignty. As a patriot, as a citizen, as a populist, was Paine not an adjunct to the bourgeois revolution? We must take a fresh look.

If Paine was these things, he was also an outlaw, a traitor, an alien, a felon. He died forlorn, his funeral in 1809 attended by a Frenchwoman, her two sons, some Irishmen, and two African-Americans. In relation to power, Paine’s life and thought was also divided. He took part in three attempts at revolution: in America and France it succeeded while in Britain it failed. He was a class-conscious man, sensitive to the differences of power and money. He wrote and spoke for the common people. You see this in his first major writing, which is about the central capitalist relation, the wage; you see it also in his last major writing, which is about commoning. The Case of the Excise Officers denounced the relations of money and wages, while Agrarian Justice called for social reparations for class injustice. It is between these two major concerns that we place Paine’s concepts of revolution and constitution.

Paine lived during times of “industrial revolution,” “commercial expansion,” “urbanization,” and “population growth.” Behind these sclerotic phrases, so characteristic of the ideology of the Cold War, were the Atlantic-wide transformations of the class relations of capitalism whose legacy endures to this day. The factory proletariat propelled the machines of industry; the slave plantation of the West Indies and the plundered indigenous peoples provided the commerce; the young, the unemployed, and the criminalized peopled the towns; the separate public and domestic spheres of women’s endeavor reproduced the population on an enlarged scale. The working class was thus composed of waged artisans, criminalized unemployed, unwaged domestic workers as mothers and wives, slaves, and the indigenous and colonized.

We tend to think of communism and capitalism as incompatible, but Paine did not think in such terms which were still, to quote his great antagonist Edmund Burke, “in the gristle,” that is, not yet well-defined or full-bodied. In preparing this introduction I have found fresh evidence of commoning (and its continuity in English history) whose significance has been neglected in Paine scholarship. I have found it in the landscape of Paine’s childhood and formative years, his ancestry, and his experience. This evidence shows us that Paine came from, and belonged to, a long English anti-capitalist tradition; moreover, it helps us understand the tasks of “revolution” and “constitution” in the twenty-first century.


Thomas Paine was born in 1737 in a small corner of East Anglia: Thetford, a small town in the flint-rich, sandy-heathed Brecklands. His mother, Francis Cocke, was an Anglican and the daughter of an attorney; Joseph, his father, was a stay-maker (or corset-maker), the owner of a small-holding, and a Quaker. Together they formed a domestic compromise between Established religion and historic Dissent, the two forces (Anglican and Puritan) that collided during the English Revolution (1640–60). As a Quaker, Joseph was “no respecter of persons,” that is, he believed in equality, exactly what Voltaire admired in the Quakers. Yet, for Thomas, his baptism, his marriage, and his funeral were all occasions of religious carpings and cavils.

The landscape of Tom Paine’s childhood world was the product of apparent capitalist triumph. The countryside had been enclosed, privatized; the country’s bodies were bound, and the people’s voices gagged by, in Blake’s eloquent phrase, “mind-forged manacles.” In consequence, Paine as an individual suffered from a kind of social trauma which repressed historical memory. This memory began to find release in 1774 when, at the age of 37 and by all conventional standards a failure in both love and money, he left England for North America, where he found his voice in an extraordinary revolutionary career.

The Brecklands was beautiful with heartsease, cypress spurge, spiked speedwell, grape hyacinth, wild asparagus, and the blue of viper’s bugloss which provided spectacular color, “surpassing in splendor anything that can be imagined,” in the opinion of Paine’s contemporary, the scientific botanist Carl Linnaeus. Engrossment, emparkment and enclosure had been at work for many centuries, and a map of the deserted villages of Norfolk shows a decided concentration in the Brecklands. But the region had been producing “loose and wandering people” since the sixteenth century. Perhaps this explains why the region became “a symbol of liberty,” in Oliver Rackham’s words, or why the gentry was afflicted with ericophobia, or fear of the heath. The soil was too sandy for the “improvement” that Norfolk was famous for among eighteenth-century agribusinessmen. The heather and bracken in the great sweeps of sandy landscape provided raw materials of domestic life—fuel, fodder, thatch, and the ingredients of rural medicine. If enclosure and engrossment could not make the sandy desolation into fenced fields of agribusiness, then the emparkment and warrening would restrict the ecology into a partial hunting preserve for the privileged.

The Duke of Grafton, who ruled Thetford from his estate at Euston, north of London, led the enclosure movement in the Brecklands during the 1780s. He had brought into cultivation extensive acreage that had previously been rough grazing common lands. He was a founding member of the Board of Agriculture in 1793. He ran a renowned stables and kennels, and the views landscaped by Capability Brown at Euston were admired by the ladies of England. This cold, sullen and profligate contemporary of Paine was basically the ruler of Thetford. He managed to pass the Thetford Enclosure Act of 1804, in the process privatizing 5,616 acres and denying public access to 80 per cent of the borough.

A couple of months after Thomas was born, his father was made “free” of the town, that is, he joined its oligarchy. The accompanying privileges, though, were disappointing, and “amounted to little more than the right of pasturage on the commons.” At about the same time, the great Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield records that a sturgeon was taken in the paper-mill pond, 7 feet long, and weighing 13 stone, 10 lbs. The fact is that, while the birds of the air and the fish of the sea were thought to be God’s creatures, their habitat was fast being privatized, and such creatures were deliberately bred in a type of semi-domesticated animal husbandry in the fish ponds and dovecotes and deer parks of the enclosing gentry. Around Thetford rabbits were bred in the thousands, and woe betide the poacher who violated “free warren,” as the landlord’s exclusive right was paradoxically termed.

Rabbits had come to England with William the Conqueror. The early eighteenth century had seen an increase in commercial warrens providing fare to the London food markets and fur for felt-hat manufacture. After the First World War, a local farm worker said, “They’d let you take a rabbit or two, for instance. Before 1914, if you’d caught a rabbit, my God, the world would have come to an end.” Poaching had become a serious criminal offense. Its criminalization was an especially humiliating form of destroying the subsistence commons, and Paine had no doubt where the blame for it lay. Writing in 1792, he got straight to the point: “Had there been a house of farmers [and not a House of Lords], there had been no game laws.” Indeed, in one of the first acts of the independent USA, an alliance of backwoodsmen, artisans and militiamen provided in the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 the right to fowl and hunt on their own land and “on all other lands ... not enclosed.”

The Brecks was renowned for more than its warrens. Then as now, it is the name for the flint-strewn open fields, locally known as the Wilderness. At its heart is Grime’s Graves, the Neolithic flint-mining galleries of five millennia past. The sound of the flint knappers’ clear, precise tapping—quartering, flaking, and knapping are the stages of ever-finer shaping of flints—filled the village of Brandon five miles from Thetford. Paine’s prose is like this quartz; hard, crystalline, and perdurable, it has a glass-like, glittering sheen: “The palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.”

The comparison can be taken a step further. Flint had been essential to the arms industry since Neolithic times, used for arrowheads, axes and spear points, and in Paine’s era, for guns. When the flint was struck against steel (the frissen) a spark was emitted that ignited the powder in the pan, whose explosion propelled the bullet down the smooth-bored musket, the Brown Bess of the American Revolution.

“From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen not to be extinguished.” Literally so, inasmuch as the British used black flints, which the Americans also preferred. When a shortage of flints hobbled effective fire-power in 1776, early in the war, the Second Continental Congress received a huge correspondence regarding flints. The Americans discovered black flints at Ticonderoga and sent 30,000 specimens to Washington. The shot heard round the world was detonated by Brecks flint, while flint and steel were the technics of the imperial hunt. Paine writes in Common Sense that “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.” Brecklands flints are scattered about the planet today, the scat of empire.


Born a few miles east of Thetford, Francis Blomefield went to the same school as Paine, and published the first volumes of his history around the time of Paine’s birth. A transcriber of church memorials, a genealogist of lords of manors, a describer of coats-of-arms, Blomefield was not a remembrancer of popular memory, yet he acknowledged a long tradition of rebellion. Like Paine, Blomefield drew upon a common store of local knowledge. Andy Wood has shown the shared tradition of popular revolt from the fourteenth century onwards, revealing continuities in leadership and organization, in similar patterns of regional involvement, and finally, in the very consciousness of the continuity. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Kett’s Rebellion of 1549, and the English Revolution of 1649 were part of social memory, as they were steps in the long commodification of land, until England could be bought and sold.

Blomefield writes of the Revolt of 1381, when the peasants rose for equality and the commons: “these were the outrageous doings of this county ... the people of Thetford, Lyn, and Yarmouth, assembled together, and came and rested before Norwich, and as they came, caused every man to rise with them.” Tom Paine knew this story well and tells it in Rights of Man, albeit very differently to Blomefield. Blomefield retrojected the charged political term “Levellers” from the eighteenth century back to 1381, adding historical depth to his condemnation of the actual Levellers, the radical republican movement of the English Civil War that was brutally suppressed by Oliver Cromwell.

About two centuries before Thomas Paine, the second camp of Kett’s 1549 rebellion organized operations at Brandon and Thetford, stopping traffic on the river Ouse. This “camping time” or “commotion time” was, as Blomefield told it, class war: “They openly declared great hatred against all gentlemen, whom they maliciously accused of covetousness, pride, extortion, and oppression, practiced against their tenants and the common people, having thoroughly imbibed the wicked notions of the ancient levellers, they begin to put in execution their vile designs.”

About a century before Paine’s birth, the vicar of Santon Downham, a Brecks village once totally buried beneath shifting sands, kept a diary from 1625 to 1642. In it he criticized a Mr Paine of Riddlesworth, six miles east of Thetford, when noting that “men be disposed to speake the worst of State bisnesses and to nourish discountente, as if there were a false carriage in all these things, which if it were so what would a false hearte rather see than an insurrection? A way whereunto these men prepare.”

Paine’s mother’s ancestor, George Charles Cocke, was a Puritan, a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, a Parliamentarian, a law reformer, a sequestrator of royalist livings, and a Commonwealth judge. Two years after Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Cocke published English Law or a Summary Survey of the Household of God on Earth.

English Law evinces the class consciousness of revolutionary times: justice, it stated, would be served by turning out all the rich men and setting “the plough-man to be their Lord.” In the 1640s the Levellers claimed “that the Land was theirs originally,” not the property of the descendants of the Norman conquerors. Cocke defined Levellers as those advocating the “forcible taking away the property of rich men” and distinguished at least six kinds of levelling. Those effected by individual suits at law were one kind. A second held that all estates should be cast into a common stock and divided equally on the grounds “that the poor had an interest in the Commonwealth as well as the rich.” A third called for “a perpetual community” of goods against the insatiable thirst for riches to be governed by virtuous magistrates, thus avoiding “indiscrete agitations” and “perturbations of state.” A fourth was Christian communism, “as one Family.” A fifth was unregulated “when the flood-gates of Liberty were broken up.” A sixth “of equity and righteousness” would be based “on proportionate justice” or progressive taxation.

Cocke finds Levelling part of Satan’s work, the snake in the garden, but it is not difficult to see allusions to actual rural movements of the time by Ranters, Levellers, and Diggers. The Diggers, in the theory and practice of Gerrard Winstanley, based their practice on the actuality of commoning, an argument which Cocke attempted to dismiss by asserting that “commons were the tenant’s rights originally not the poor’s.” In a subsequent work Cocke argued that custom, a form of commoning if not communism, is not to be admitted as law unless they be “reasonable.” We are used to thinking of the relation between the radical demands of the 1640s and of the 1790s in terms of voting and the franchise, because that was the theme at the Putney Debates, the Levellers’ celebrated gathering at Putney Church in 1649. The debate about subsistence and levelling in the 1790s is the debate of the 1640s continued—the several methods of wealth redistribution, the links with religion, the fear of disorder, the relation between custom and the commons.

In 1740, when Paine was a toddler, dearth threatened starvation, so the people took appropriate measures, posting notices on baker’s doors in Norwich to force down the price of bread: “Wheat at Sixteen Shillings a Comb [a dry measure of 4 bushels].” This was the heralded taxation populaire of French social history and the “moral economy” of English. The people assembled at the sound of horns, a hostile witness reported, “purposing to visit the Gentlemen and Farmers in the neighboring villages, in order to extort Money, Strong Ale, &c. from them. At many places, where the Generosity of People answer’d not to their Expectation, ’tis said they shew’d their Resentment by treading down the Corn in the Fields.” This method of price regulation persisted in Brandon when in 1816 two hundred women and boys shouted “Cheap bread, a Cheap Loaf and Provisions Cheaper” and a woman submitted the demands on a paper, “Bread or Blood in Brandon this day.” Despite the threat of dragoons the women kept the price down.

Thomas Paine of Thetford belonged to an unbroken tradition of rebellion.


In the early 1960s, when jets were replacing ocean liners as the preferred mode of transportation for academics, professor W.W. Rostow compared the changes in mid-eighteenth-century capitalism to an airplane takeoff. Agriculture products, exports, imports, banking, manufactures and population suddenly boomed, flying into the clear blue skies of “self-sustaining economic growth.” Adam Smith’s genius in The Wealth of Nations was to note that these changes originated in that despised, neglected arena, the division of labor in production. The botanical specimens, the zoological order, the mineral layers underground, as well as human manufactured products, had become, or were rapidly becoming, commodities. Both raw materials and tools of production could be exchanged with one another, and against money. This glory—the market—is the precondition of capitalism, whose essence was and remains the exploitation of labor, because labor too became commodified in the marriage market, the slave auction and the labor market of wages.

In the twentieth century people of color, women, and indigenous people were at the centre of struggles against ideologies which attained their modern form during Paine’s lifetime. The ideologies propounding white supremacy, the separate spheres of patriarchy, and the stadial inevitability of the extinction of indigenous people helped to produce the structures of modernity. The global South, feminism and deep time are notions in the twenty-first century which were achieved only through these struggles.

As a worker, Tom Paine gained experience in exploitation in the sexual markets, in military expeditions, and in revenue collection. As a corset-maker he witnessed the spirit of vanity; as a sailor aboard a privateer he absorbed the spirit of plunder; and as an officer in the Excise he suffered from the spirit of fraud. One craft produced garments of erotic allure, the other prowled in military adventures, and the last sunk him directly in the corruptions of the mercantilist state. Each might be said to serve a social function of modernity: state-sanctioned marriage, imperialist war, and state taxation.

Paine’s introduction to corset-making came in 1750, when he was removed from Thetford Grammar School at the age of 13 and apprenticed to his father. Over the next seven years Thomas Paine learned to make corsets. Historians have described him simply as an “artisan” and inquired no further; his enemies in the 1790s made fun of him as a corset-maker in a way both snobbish and misogynist. Originally a garment with protective and orthopedic purposes, the corset had become by the mid-seventeenth century a garment to mold a woman’s body, flattening the stomach, straightening the back, in conformity with ruling concepts of female beauty and with upper-class deportment (épaulement is the ballet term). From around 1650, whale fins—boiled, cut, split, and sliced—replaced wood and steel as the ‘stays,” the elements of rigidity in the manufacture of the corset, or “little body.” A hundred years later, when Paine took up the craft, the corset had been altered to give prominence to the breasts. Radiating traverse strips for the stays were added to the traditional pattern of stiffening and molding, emphasizing curves.

A contemporary situated the trade in the Atlantic economy, comparing the body to enclosures of land and treating it as a commodity. “They discover to us indeed a Sample of what we wish to purchase, yet serve as a Fence to keep us at an awful Distance. They encourage the Consumption of our Manufactures in a prodigious Degree, and the great Demand we have for Whale-Bone renders them truly beneficial to our Allies the Dutch; in short, they are a public good.” The market was enlarging, servant-maids accepted the cast-off corsets of their employers as one of their perquisites, and the corset ceased to be the exclusive dress of the upper-class. With the expansion of the market came the division of labor. Men did the fitting, the cutting of the whale fin, and the insertion of the stays into the heavy linen or canvas, which had been stitched by women. An apprentice boy in stay-making had to learn servility, to command his temper, to hold his tongue, and to be “very polite.”

As Paine took up the craft, the corset became the model for the essence of beauty. In his 1753 Analysis of Beauty the English painter William Hogarth argued that the serpentine “line of beauty” was the foundation of aesthetics, illustrating his argument with successive images of the corset in profile. The focus was less on the waist than the bosom (in his description of the line of beauty he did not even include the waist). In 1758 in the tenth edition of his popular Systema Naturae, Carl Linnaeus defined mammals as possessing mammary glands—yet hair, the three bones of the ear, or the four-chambered heart would have distinguished mammals from other classes of animals just as well, if not better. In fact, Linnaeus had another agenda. In 1752 he wrote against wet-nursing, the practice of putting out infants to nurses of “inferior” social class—peasants, indigenous people, or Africans, who, it was believed, caused an excess of infant mortality. This was part of a larger state-sponsored policy to restructure child care and women’s lives according to an ideal of domesticity for the demographic purpose of producing a healthy, growing population. The veneration of the breast as an ideal of aesthetic beauty and as the scientific criterion for placing homo sapiens within the animal kingdom served this political purpose.

Having finished his apprenticeship, Paine the artisan abandoned his craft. In 1757 he went to sea for six months aboard a privateer, The King of Prussia. A study of his sea voyages, linking England, America and France, awaits its historian. Months at sea can bring a person to another conception of the terraqueous world; indeed, Paine worked with people from around the world on board ship. In Rights of Man he protested the torture of sailors and their impressment. As early as 1745 the New England sailors were being compared to the Levellers; two years later Sam Adams wrote that the crowds of sailors opposing impressment “embodied the fundamental rights of man.” “All Men are by nature on a Level,” he explained, “born with an equal Share of Freedom.” They assert the right of resistance to oppression and they assert an axiomatic egalitarianism which Paine summarizes in Common Sense: “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation.”

Following his spell at sea, Paine returned to England in 1758. For the next sixteen years he worked variously as a stay-maker, school teacher, occasional Methodist preacher, tobacconist, and then as an officer in the Excise Service, moving from Thetford to Diss, London, Dover, Margate, and Lewes. He was twice married: his first wife died in childbirth, and his second marriage ended amicably in divorce. These were years of intellectual formation without political expression; he began thinking and studying in earnest. In London he attended scientific lectures, learning techniques of inquiry, investigation, imagination, truth, error. At the Headstrong Club, which met at the White Hart Inn in the Sussex town of Lewes, he practiced declamation and debate on behalf of justice, liberty, and rights. These became elements of his writing style. In Rights of Man he would praise his own writing for its plain talk, in contrast to Edmund Burke’s vapors, romances, complexities.

There is a tendency to say that plain talk arises from plain people, but this need not be the case. Paine’s style, straightforward as it may seem, avoids many of the speech communities around him: the slang of the street, the jargon of the trade, the cant of concealment, the dialects of East Anglia, the commoner’s nomenclature, Gaelic, the vehicular languages or pidgin talk of the wharf or the ship’s deck are not present directly in his writing. Paine laughs at Burke’s argument that hereditary leadership is necessarily wise leadership: “To use a sailor’s phrase, he has swabbed the deck, and scarcely left a name legible in the list of Kings.” Here, Paine’s sense of decorum in eighteenth-century prose requires that he consciously introduces the sailor’s language. However, when all is said and done, the source of Paine’s eloquence was emancipatory. As John Thelwall, closest of the 1790s radicals to the project of Paine, expressed it: “even the popular language of Thomas Paine would not have provoked any very alarming discussion, if the general condition of mankind had not pre-disposed them to exclaim—We are wretched!—Let us enquire the cause!”

The Case of the Officers of Excise, Paine’s first pamphlet, was published in 1772–3; its reasoned arrangement, clarity of address, and collective origins would remain characteristic of his subsequent writings. A petition to the members of Britain’s Parliament, it was not published for the general public until 1793. In London, Paine gave a copy to the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, author of gentle satires on commercial society and privatization of land (his acclaimed poem “The Deserted Village” had just been published in 1770). Paine’s pamphlet is an argument about the wage. As such, it is one of the few of its kind in eighteenth-century England, even though the wage defines the central relationship of capitalism, because it conceals paid from unpaid labor. Writing on behalf of his fellow workers, he provides a variety of arguments in favor of more pay.

His first argument was economic. A £50 annual salary for an Excise officer sounds like a lot, but, Paine noted, it amounts actually to one shilling, ninepence farthing a day: taxes, charity and sitting expenses, horse-keeping and house rent, must all be deducted from the gross amount. Moreover, that amount does not take into account “the excessive price of all necessaries of life.” The flexibility of money and the deceptions of the wage removed customary forms of compensation. “There are no perquisites or advantages in the least annexed to the employment,” such as the “cabbage” or accompanying benefits Paine would have enjoyed as a stay-maker in the tailoring trades. The absence of such perquisites introduced the problem of dishonesty and crime. Wages, Paine stated, had replaced commoning.

This takes us to his second argument, based on religion. He quotes an ancient Hebrew wise man, Agur, who was against class division between rich and poor. The rich person’s temptation was to become proud; for the poor, it was to steal. For both, estrangement of the spirit is the result. “There is a great gulf fixed” is the scripture of implacable class division. Lazarus the beggar was in heaven and the rich man Dives was in hell—forever!

Paine’s third argument is philosophical. “A very little degree of that dangerous kind of philosophy, which is the almost certain effect of involuntary poverty, will teach men to believe that to starve is more criminal than to steal....” “The bread of deceit is a bread of bitterness; but alas! How few in times of want and hardship are capable of thinking so: objects appear under new colors and in shapes not naturally their own; hunger sucks in the deception and necessity reconciles it to conscience.” The sharpness of want overcomes the tenderness of conscience. He concludes on a literary note: “But poverty, like grief, has an incurable deafness, which never hears; the oration loses all its edge; and ‘To be, or not to be’ becomes the only question.”

Paine observed, based on bitter experience, that the office of the Excise men, “removes them far from all their natural friends and relations” and the occasional assistance “which even the poorest among the poor enjoys. Most poor mechanics, or even common laborers, have some relations or friends, who, either out of benevolence or pride, keep their children from nakedness, supply them occasionally with perhaps half a hog, a load of wood, a chaldron of coals….” Paine refers to actual commoning, as opposed to the theoretical variety. As ever, “the commons” is best understood not as abstract justice but as fulfillment of actual need. The criminalization of customary practices in commoning was backed up by the gallows. First-hand experience had taught Paine the evils of wage-slavery.


Right outside the door of Paine’s family home in Thetford, on Gallows Hill, the pitiable wretches (“examples of their country’s laws”) swung in the strong winds that blew in from the North Sea. The Lent Assizes met in Thetford, and the young Paine was a regular witness to the operation of state terror. A month after he was born three men swung: a former ship’s carpenter for stealing money and goods to the value of 20 shillings; “a poor stupid Creature” who stole a bushel of wheat from a barn and a woman’s purse on the highway; and John Painter, a warrener and family man, who stole a parcel of tea but protested his innocence to the end. All were heinous offenses to a regime of property. By the age of eight the lad had absorbed the diction of the gallows. When his pet bird died he composed the lines

Here lies the body of John Crow,
Who once was high but now is low;
Ye brother Crows take warning all
For as you rise, so must you fall.

The year he began his apprenticeship a woman was burned to death at the stake in Ely only ten miles away. It was a barbaric society. As Paine would later write, “Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot.” He knew whereof he spoke: his father’s Quaker meeting house stood next to the town gaol.

Paine’s birthday, January 29, 1737, was a significant date: one associated with regicide. January 29 is the eve of the anniversary of Charles I’s beheading in 1649, an act which ushered in the English Revolution. In England republicans of every stripe remembered the day, as did monarchists who called Charles a martyr. Two years before Paine’s birth, the last meeting of the Calves’ Head Club took place. A secret gathering held annually to commemorate the death of monarchy and all that it stood for, the Club had met to toast “the worthy patriots who killed the tyrant” secretly after the Restoration; its meetings were discontinued after 1735 when the London house where the assorted republicans were dining was smashed and destroyed by the mob.

Later, in America, Paine reminds his erstwhile countrymen of their past. In his Crisis Papers issued during the American Revolution Paine called for revolution in the mother country: “England is unsettled. Take heed! Remember the times of Charles the first!” “Your present King and Ministry will be the ruin of you; and you had better risk a revolution and call a Congress than be thus led on from madness to despair, and from despair to ruin. America has set you the example, and may you follow it and be free.”

Regicide was never far from his mind, especially around his birthday. Though a revolutionary opposing the puppet-show of sovereignty, the abject wretchedness of despotism, and the war-making essential to monarchy, he was also opposed to capital punishment. He never advocated the assassination of George III. In France he refused to vote for the execution of Louis XVI, remembering the example of Charles I whose execution created a royalist party where there had been none before. Alone in Paris in 1794, the 56-year-old Paine was cast into prison, escaping the guillotine only by an amazing accident. The cell doors along the prison corridor of those to be guillotined were chalked the night before, but Paine’s door was not yet closed. Swung open against the wall, in the dim light it was chalked on the wrong side. When closed at the end of the evening it displayed the unchalked side the following morning, when the executioners came calling. The angel of death had passed him by.

In the nineteenth century the anniversary of the regicide, January 30, was no longer much observed. On the other hand, the birthday of Tom Paine, January 29, became the occasion for banquets, drinks, and celebrations by American reformers from William Lloyd Garrison in the nineteenth century to C. Wright Mills in the twentieth.


In November 1774 Paine arrived in Philadelphia so sick that he had to be carried off the ship. He found “the disposition of the people such that they might have been led by a thread and governed by a reed.” His metaphor was taken literally, the reed and thread of the former corset-maker becoming the means to stiffen the backbone of the disenchanted, in preparation for the revolutionary break.

His first articles written in Philadelphia were on India, the focus for British imperialism, and against slavery. Britain has, he stated, done little but “rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get;—like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodigality’s sake. The blood of India is not yet repaid, nor the wretchedness of Africa yet requited. Of late she has enlarged her list of national cruelties by her butcherly destruction of the Caribbs of St. Vincent’s.” The reduction of India was “an extermination of mankind,” and England’s “cruelties in the East-Indies will never, never be forgotten....”

Fourteen months after arriving in the New World, Paine published Common Sense, with its themes of unity, independence, and equality. To attain them the government of Great Britain must be overthrown by force. Already he defends the “rights of all Mankind.” Indeed for Paine, the rights of mankind and of the free and independent state of America were inseparable. Fully aware of proletarian energies (sailors, emigrants, servants, slaves, journeymen), Paine reminded his readers that the country “is every day tottering on the brink of commotion and disturbance.” He warns that “the mind of the multitude is left at random.” Another kind of line is being drawn, a class line, and it gives ominous meaning to one of his most powerful images: “the least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.” He sees society in two parts. The male and the female are divisions of nature, he says; the good and the bad are the divisions of heaven, but the class division between rich and poor parallels the division of king and subject.

The shock and power of the pamphlet arises from its ridicule of kingship—“the principal ruffian of some restless gang”—and of English kings in particular, starting with William the Conqueror in 1066, “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti ... a very paltry rascally original.” Paine made the high and mighty look not only human but criminal. This was no carnival, turning the world upside down as a temporary joke or relief: he was in earnest, and so were his propertied and less courageous backers like Benjamin Rush. The pride of kings has laid “the world in blood and ashes.” The crime of kingship was a crime of despotic rule going back to the origins of states and classes.

The people’s war, Paine asserts, will be fought with the people’s means. Soldiers will elect their own officers. Even the mobilization of munitions procurement was based on the organization of the domestic kitchen. At the time he was drafting Common Sense he was also showing “the practicality of a Salt-Petre Association for voluntarily supplying the public Magazines with Gun-powder.” By conducting experiments using saucepans and soup bowls to extract from the soils of the stable, barn, and cellar, a treasure could be collected which “to a free people [is] more valuable than the mines of Peru or Mexico,” namely potassium nitrate. To Paine, then, revolution was a practical matter, and its means (popular mobilization) were closely related to its purposes (popular sovereignty). Revolution was also a cosmic force, its principles in consonance with those of the universe. In this respect it can be compared to the south Andean notion of pachakuti. In the Quechua and Aymara language, pacha means earth or cosmos, kuti means a turning over. It combines sacred and profane notions. Both the Bolivian and the Zapatista movements are based upon the re-membering of a past mutilated by colonialism. Paine frequently referred to the planet earth and its revolution around the sun. Here “Revolution” concerns recurrence as well the restoration of balance in a world that is otherwise out of whack.

While in London in 1758 Paine had bought a pair of globes, one terrestrial, the other celestial. He took lessons on their use from the Scottish astronomer and mechanic James Ferguson. Paine’s six months at sea had contributed to his knowledge of the stars. He knew the difference between the rotation of the earth and the revolution of the earth, and never wrote far from his globes, or far from their science.

Thomas Paine thought globally; America was his Archimedean point. He was of that English generation of mechanics and artisans whose inventions transformed the material infrastructure and industrialized labor. Paine himself dreamt up, invented and modeled a single-spanned, iron bridge, and tried to realize it across the Schuylkill, the Thames, and the Seine. In Crisis No. 8 (26 February 1780) he wrote that “Natural philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, carry the mind from the country to the creation, and give it a fitness suited to the extent.” This ability to think both locally and globally was evident throughout his prose, for example in his 1772 The Case of the Officers of Excise: “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.” In Crisis No. 5 (March 21, 1778) he writes: “Had it not been for America there had been no such thing as freedom left throughout the whole universe.” His passion for America left him reaching for superlatives: “the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” “a new method of thinking hath arisen,” “posterity ... will be affected to the end of time,” “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” “[C]ontemplating a subject that embraces with equatorial magnitude the whole region of humanity,” he writes, “blends the individual, the nation, and the world.” This is revolutionary scaling.

“Counter-revolution,” like the “United States of America,” was a phrase or neologism invented by Paine. He did not find a place for himself in post-revolutionary America, or during its counter-revolution, so he returned to England. George Washington needed his pen during the American Revolution in 1776–83, but abandoned Paine to the guillotine during the French Revolution in 1793–4. Paine called Washington “an apostate or an impostor,” the choice of term depending on whether it was felt that Washington had either abandoned good principles – or that he ever had any in the first place.

The great debate about the French Revolution, and revolution generally, began, paradoxically, with an Irishman (Burke) creating the conservative style and arguments, and an Englishman (Paine) responding with the fresh eloquence of the radical. The first round in the debate was Dr. Richard Price’s sermon, “Discourse on the Love of Country,” on November 4, 1789, the anniversary of the Compromise of 1688. Price was a Welsh Dissenter and philosopher, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, and an advocate of American Independence. He upheld liberty of conscience, resistance to abusive power, and the rights to choose our own governors, cashier them for misconduct, and frame government for ourselves. Round two was Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790. In lurid, erudite, extravagant, hyperbolic writing it denounced the French Revolution. George III said “every gentleman should read it.” Infamously Burke called the people “the swinish multitude” and drew the class line against people such as Paine: “The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honor to any person.”

Paine the corset-maker did not take the bait. Round three came with Paine’s Rights of Man, Part One of which was finished on his 54th birthday, January 29, 1791. Priced at 3 shillings, it became a publishing phenomenon. It defended the French Revolution, linking it to the American Revolution and to ideas of popular sovereignty. To this day it provides a readable introduction to the events of French Revolution, laying out the main arguments against monarchy and hereditary rule; it created, too, a new style of writing that was accessible to the population as a whole. It made kingship appear ridiculous, and Burke pompous and irrelevant. In February 1792 Paine issued Part Two of Rights of Man. In it, Paine’s class hostility was vivid (“All monarchical governments are military. War is their trade, plunder and revenue their objects.”), the meaning of constitution clear (“a constitution is not an act of a government, but of a people constituting government”), and his internationalism universal (“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good”). What made Part Two so dangerous to the existing capitalist regime in Britain was its forthright translation of equality in economic terms, and its overall tone of democratic confidence. “The graceful pride of truth knows no extremes, and preserves, in every latitude of life, the right-angled character of man.”

The British government fought back against Paine’s book, and against widespread dissent, with every weapon at its disposal. A proclamation against “wicked and seditious writing” was issued; the book police patrolled every nook and cranny; spies dogged Paine’s every step; a loose word at a tavern became the basis of prosecution; the government hired scurrilous writers and bought mobs; Paine was burnt in effigy. In December 1792 he was outlawed, but by that time he had fled England to take the seat in the French Assembly to which he had recently been elected.

Hannah Arendt recognized the importance of the several meanings the constitution has had in American life. Thomas Paine developed two of them: the acts by which a people constitute themselves as a body politic; and a written document. The awe or blind worship towards it may thus be either a revolutionary event of self-determination or a kind of totem with institutional backing of law and jurisprudence. To Paine, “[t]he continual use of the word Constitution in the English Parliament, shows there is none; and that the whole is merely a form of government without a Constitution, and constituting itself with what powers it pleases.” To worship the constitution may be to cherish the potentialities of democratic action and not at all the somnolence of sanctimonious idolatry. It is vain to govern beyond the grave, each generation must “begin the world over again.” In the twenty-first century it is obvious that the acts of constitution must focus on housing, health, water, and food.

“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good” he wrote in Rights of Man. On November 4, 1791 in London, celebrating the anniversary of the English Revolution of 1688 and replying to speeches in his honor, he proposed “The Revolution of the World,” a toast that echoed throughout the world, and down centuries. To name but a few examples: eighteenth-century Ireland, nineteenth-century India, and twentieth-century Indonesia.

Paine had a huge impact on Ireland and many close links with it. The Belfast volunteers toasted Thomas Paine in 1791: “May his principles of common sense establish the rights of man.” In that year alone ten thousand copies of Rights of Man were distributed throughout the country, replacing the Psalter and the prayer book in Cork. Wolfe Tone called the book “the Koran of Belfast.” In Ulster the British assessed the situation, Brigadier General Knox writing the Duke of Abercorn: “There is great alarm here as to the state of the country. The north is certainly inoculated by Paine, who persuades every man to think himself a legislator and to throw off all respect for his superiors.” After the United Irish were proscribed, some went to America, others to Paris. There in 1793, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who cast away his title in exchange for Citizen Edward, lodged with Paine, saying “there is a simplicity of manner, a goodness of heart, and strength of mind in him, that I never knew a man before possess.” Paine’s American publisher was an Irishman who promoted Irish invasion plans. On a personal level Paine’s trajectory followed that of these revolutions, suffering defeat with the counter-revolution. With the failure of the French invasion of Ireland Paine drank away his sorrows with the Irish exile, Napper Tandy. Before leaving for America Paine met the brilliant young Irish revolutionary, Robert Emmet, whose speech in the dock in 1803 was memorized by the young Abraham Lincoln. Reportedly, Paine was Lincoln’s favorite author.

In India, the key figure in the dissemination of Paine’s work was Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809–31), appointed lecturer in 1828 at the secular Hindu College in Calcutta. He urged his students to read Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, parts of which were translated into Bengali. An American publisher exported a thousand copies into Calcutta. Derozio’s students were inspired and radicalized, breaking caste taboos by (for example) eating with one another, irrespective of caste. Derozio caused a backlash by conservative Hindus, and was discharged in 1831. His students were on the vanguard of cultural nationalism. Derozians adhered to the motto, “He who will not reason is a bigot, he who cannot reason is a fool, and he who does not reason is a slave.”

In 1945 the national liberation fighters in Indonesia addressed K’tut Tantri, “We, the guerrilla fighters of Java Timor, know only too well the suffering and torture that you have been subjected to by the Japanese, just as we know how the Dutch persecuted you for so many years.” Formerly Muriel Pearson, K’tut Tantri was born on the Isle of Man, and was a Hollywood painter and Bohemian hotelier in Bali who refused to knuckle down under Dutch imperialism, and who refused to flee from the Japanese invasion. After her release from prison at the end of the Second World War, the anti-imperialist guerrillas stated that “It is our great hope that K’tut Tantri will join the Indonesian Revolution, and become to us the Mrs. Thomas Paine of Indonesia.” Left between “laughter and tears,” she made her choice and became an important courier, journalist, and broadcaster as ’surabaya Sue,” speechwriter to Sukarno in the Indonesian war of independence, which she actively compared to the American Revolution of 1776. Like Paine she was British by birth, fled her country of origin, was controversial, an independence fighter, was labeled extremist by her enemies, and narrowly escaped execution. Like him, too, the USA turned against her, denying her a passport in 1949, the same year that the FBI ordered the removal from public libraries of Howard Fast’s influential wartime biographical novel, Citizen Tom Paine, as well as his one-volume selection of Paine’s Works.


“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,” Paine wrote in Rights of Man, though in 1792 this is exactly what the British government was doing. Consequently, it was a period of intense, exciting revival of debate about communing as a practice and communism as a theory. William Godwin’s An Inquiry into Political Justice (1791) was an over-intellectualized promotion of communism, while James Pilkington’s The Doctrine of Equality of Rank (1795) was published in a year of dearth and high grain prices, and Thomas Spence’s tracts also found fertile ground.

Paine had lived in London during the debates of 1772 for the repeal of the laws against forestalling, the practice of withholding grain from the market to force prices up—this was a classic moment in the attempt to defeat the “moral economy” and replace it with laissez-faire. During the American war Paine sat on the price-fixing committees, established in Philadelphia, against war profiteering. During this aggressive formation of capitalist laissez-faire, William Ogilvie in Essay on the Right of Property in Land (1781) argued that the commons and wastes should be distributed to the poor, while James Murray’s Sermons to Asses (1768) renewed the redistribution theory of jubilee, and Richard Price’s Observations on Reversionary Payments (1771) opposed enclosure.

Three global forces of the time made these debates urgent. One was the invasion of the Ohio valley and the robbery of the lands, forests, and waters of the Iroquois. This was done in the name of civilization and inevitability. The second was the Enclosure acts in England, passed in the name of progress and improvement in the period 1760 to 1830. The third was the 1793 Permanent Settlement in Bengal, which privatized and commodified the land. “The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and on the other hand, it appears to be abject when compared to the rich,” Paine writes in Agrarian Justice. “Civilization therefore, or that which is so called, has operated two ways, to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.”

The English edition of Agrarian Justice appeared in 1797. Its publication was provoked by a Sermon delivered by Richard Watson, the Bishop of Llandaff, whose “Apology for the Bible in a Series of Letters, Addressed to Thomas Paine,” was written in answer to Paine’s The Age of Reason. “It is wrong to say God made rich and poor,” Watson sniffed; “He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.” It does not surprise us that William Blake, the London artisan poet, damned Watson as “a State trickster” with “cloven foot.” But at a time when an international campaign was attempting to smear Paine as an atheist, it is interesting to find Blake, the Christian antinomian, writing in his defense: “To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life.” Blake believed that Paine’s “Energetic Genius” led him to perform miracles: “Is it a greater miracle to feed five thousand men with five loaves than to overthrow all the armies of Europe with a small pamphlet?”

The Duke of Grafton’s successful efforts at land privatizations no doubt encouraged the same in his neighbor Lord Cornwallis, formerly commander of British armies in America, who returned to his Suffolk estates to lick his wounds following the British surrender to the American revolutionary forces at Yorktown in 1781. Cornwallis instigated the “Great Gleaning Case” of 1788, in which the court in Steel v. Houghton (Mary Houghton, an agricultural laborer, gleaned on his lands in Timworth, a few miles south of Thetford) declared unequivocally against the law of Moses and centuries of customary practice by declaring that “no person has, at common law, a right to glean in the harvest field.” It was such criminalizing of customary access to the means of production and subsistence that played a decisive role in the creation of the proletariat. Paine returned to England in September 1787 and journeyed to Thetford to visit his mother. One doubts that he crossed paths with Cornwallis, though one easily pictures him (it was harvest time), if not passing Mary Houghton at Timworth, then encountering other crowds of gleaners singing on the way to and from the fields.

In war Paine did not conceal his class fury. He warned the British in New York, “as you do so shall you be done by,” reminding them that “[t]here is not a single Nobleman’s country seat but may be laid in ashes by a single person.” Moreover, the ships on the Thames, the East India House, and the Bank, “neither are nor can be secure from this sort of destruction.” He records a deep experience, as old as human agriculture itself, in Part Two of Rights of Man. He is explaining the meaning of the phrase “the landed interest.” The phrase conceals the class relationship: who does the work, who takes the product. The landed interest are the aristocrats and their “pillar,” the House of Lords. But Paine reminds us:

Were that pillar to sink into the earth, the same landed property would continue, and the same ploughing, sowing, and reaping would go on. The aristocracy are not the farmers who work the land, and raise the produce, but are the mere consumers of the rent; and when compared to the active world are the drones, a seraglio of males, who neither collected the honey nor form the hive, but exist only for lazy enjoyment.

He knew whereof he spoke. That is the context for Paine’s tremendous description:

Every individual, high or low, is interested in the fruits of the earth; men, women, and children, of all ages and degrees, will turn out to assist the farmer, rather than the harvest should not be got in; and they will not act thus by any other property. It is the only one for which the common prayer of mankind is put up, and the only one that can never fail from want of means. It is the interest, not of the policy, but of the existence of man, and when it ceases, he must cease to be.

From the first word to the last, the existence of the individual is, at bottom, a collective labor of the whole. Here, society is not an abstraction of market relations; it is an actual and mighty phenomenon of collective human labor. We hear in this passage, not the signs of the utilitarianism to come, but the divine theology of the labor theory of Winstanley. The harvest was the central event of the year. The diction is that of English Protestantism (“fruits of the earth”): the repetition of distinctions of rank (“high or low,” “all ... degrees”); the invocation of and allusion to the central prayer of Christianity (“give us this day our daily bread”). Doubtless as a youth Paine entered into harvest labor. Homo faber, Thomas Paine was a man of the hammer and the scythe, as well as needle and thread. He continued his joke against Edmund Burke about “swabbing the deck” clean of monarchs to include aristocracy: Burke, he said, “has mowed down and thinned the House of Peers, with a scythe as formidable as Death and Time.”

Two hundred years later an East Anglian harvester explained the centrality of harvest in the lives of the working:

There was still no money about. People seemed to live without it. They also lived without the Church. I’m sorry about this but it is true ... The holy time was the harvest. “Tell me your harvest bargain,” the farmer said to the harvesters. So the men chose a harvest lord who told the farmer how much they wanted to get the harvest in ... We reaped by hand. You could count thirty mowers in the same field, each followed by his partner, who did the sheaving ... The lord sat atop of the last load to leave the field and then the women and children came to glean the stubble ... we all went shouting home. Shouting in the empty fields—I don’t know why. But that’s what we did. We’d shout so loud that the boys in the next village would shout back.

Blake, some two centuries before, had heard something similar and in 1797 added an instrumental arrangement

They took [the sheaves] into the wide barns with loud rejoicings & triumph
Of flute & harp & drum & trumpet horn & clarion

The composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued to tramp the fields at harvest time listening to the people’s songs.

The strongest expression of the theme of the commons comes in Paine’s short 1795 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, Opposed to Agrarian Law and to Agrarian Monopoly. Recent scholarship has tended to downplay its importance, discrediting socialist theories. In 1970 Gwyn Williams noted that it is often overlooked that the pamphlet was a response to Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals. Twenty years on Gregory Claeys noted that it was still the most neglected of Paine’s major works. Written in the winter of 1795–6 and published in 1797, Agrarian Justice had a well-defined polemical and political context as well as a disastrous economic and social one. 1795 was a year of starvation in England and France alike, and of desperate responses: food rioting was widespread. State-driven political and military violence was rampant, prison construction flourished, and regional army barracks were built.

The pamphlet’s political context was, more generally, the French Revolution, and in particular the Babeuf conspiracy, which was uncovered in May 1796; its leaders were guillotined a year later. Babeuf is traditionally held to have been the founder of modern communism, uniting the urban insurrectionary coup with the theory of Agrarian Law that landed property should be equal to all. Paine opposed the attempt at insurrection, while John Adams had articulated his fears of Agrarian Law in 1776. In France, to advocate it was punishable by death.

John Thelwall compared the “gigantic mind of Thomas Paine” to Licinius and Gracchus, authors of the agrarian law of ancient Rome. In Agrarian Justice, Paine develops the argument that “all individuals have legitimate birthrights in a certain species of property.” Here is where he distinguishes natural from artificial property, personal property from capital. Paine asks us to consider the Indians of North America, because among them “those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe” do not exist. Poverty, he deduces, is man-made, created by civilization. Paine relies on his own empirical encounters with American Indians. In 1777 he led a diplomatic delegation to Easton, Pennsylvania, to meet with scores of members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy led by Chief Last Night. The earth is “the common property of the human race,” he writes. Its cultivation without indemnification has created poverty and wretchedness. The landed interest took the property of the dispossessed, partly by “the agrarian law of the sword.”

“The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is the reverse of what it ought to be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.” This was a common scene in the slave trade and one which Paine probably witnessed first hand, in the epidemic which ravaged the cargo of indentured servants carried in the ship bringing him to America in 1774. “Uncivilization,” as he called it, produced such atrocities. “When, in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government.” He finds that the number of poor people actually increases with the advance of so-called civilization; they are becoming “an hereditary race.”

Paine proposed, as a solution, that the state distribute a lump sum to everyone on their twenty-first birthday, enough to buy a cow and a few acres, in other words enough to live on, a subsistence. He also advocates a similar sum being granted to everyone on reaching retirement, on their fiftieth birthday, such subventions to be paid from an inheritance tax. In Rights of Man Paine had defended himself against the charge of levelling. Nevertheless, in Agrarian Justice, he observed that a

revolution in the state of civilization is the necessary companion of revolutions in the system of government ... Despotic government supports itself by abject civilization, in which debasement of the human mind, and wretchedness in the mass of the people, are the chief criterions. Such governments consider man merely as an animal; that the exercise of intellectual faculty is not his privilege; that he has nothing to do with the laws but to obey them; and they politically depend more upon breaking the spirit of the people by poverty, than they fear enraging it by desperation.

This is a decisive insight: poverty is deliberately created for political purposes.

While Paine advocated the household production of gunpowder, another contrasting style of innovation was practiced by the British war machine, which produced gunpowder at its arsenal in Walthamstow, east London. Before becoming the Divine who attacked Paine on behalf of class society, Richard Watson was a professor of chemistry, and it will not surprise us to find that he was a colleague and correspondent of Cornwallis. In 1787 he found a way of improving the manufacture of gunpowder so that a cannon ball weighing 68 lbs could be fired 273 feet instead of the usual 172. This innovation was worth more than £100,000 a year. Let us listen at a royal levee to Watson’s obsequious mewlings, “On my saying that I ought to be ashamed of myself inasmuch as it was a scandal in a Christian bishop to instruct men in the mode of destroying mankind, the king answered, ‘let not that afflict your conscience, for the quicker the conflict, the less the slaughter.’” Unpacking this simple anecdote, we see that hideous modern combination where science and religion promote the state and war. Such a murderous knot of fake spirituality and murderous technology is the essence of modern savagery leading directly to, for instance, the twentieth-century bombings from Guernica to the Enola Gay. Against it, Thomas Paine took up his pen to slice through the horrid knot, again and again and again. The war machine with its miniature companion, the death penalty, brutalized human beings as conquest and criminalization expanded the regime of expropriated property. “War is the art of conquering at home.”

Paine concluded the second part of Rights of Man as follows: “It is now towards the middle of February,” he says. “Were I to take a turn into the country, the trees would present a leafless winterly appearance. As people are apt to pluck twigs as they walk along, I perhaps might do the same, and by chance might observe, that a single bud on that twig had begun to swell.” This gentle sentence is the key to Paine: notice how in the logic and the grammar of it the author follows the reader. Furthermore, the sentence expresses the first step in reaching an accurate conclusion about the real world, the scientific method begins with the making of an observation. Then comes the second step, reasoning.

I should reason very unnaturally, or rather not reason at all, to suppose this was the only bud in England which had this appearance. Instead of deciding thus, I should instantly conclude, that the same appearance was beginning, or about to begin, everywhere; and though the vegetable sleep will continue longer on some trees and plants than on others, and though some of them may not blossom for two or three years, all will be in leaf in the summer, except those which are rotten.

Nations and individuals are his matter. Some people can flower, i.e. learn, flourish, speak and act, some quicker than others, some not at all. Likewise, some nations can throw off despotism. “What pace the political summer may keep with the natural, no human foresight can determine. It is, however, not difficult to perceive that the spring is begun.” The essential point, popular sovereignty, is introduced at last as an adjective and the seasons or the summer, the turning of the earth on its axis towards the sun, is the real world of us all—“the political summer.” The paragraph ends with the powerful word “spring,” here as one of the seasons, and as we now think about it as one of the stages in revolutionary transformation. But spring is also a verb, a very active one, sudden, a leap. And this is what revolutionaries do—they jump and they surprise, here, there, all over. They do it together, and nowadays we do it by commoning.

Paine guides us; he helps us think. But we do the thinking. The only thing in the passage which might give us pause—it is two centuries old—is that we live in post-enclosure time: our country, our world, is closed, shut up. His had not yet been, or not completely. So we pause ... and remember, as he wrote in Rights of Man, “the greatest forces that can be brought into the field of revolutions, are reason and common interest.”

February 2009

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