Tom Paine's “most treasonable book”

Submitted by Anon on 26 June, 2009 - 7:45 Author: Pat Yarker

In the first of two articles on Thomas Paine, Pat Yarker looks at the radical’s life, times, and ideas. The second article will discuss playwright Trevor Griffiths’ take on Paine and his ideas.

Born in 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk, Thomas Paine was an important figure in the American and French Revolutions. A radical democratic republican, his writings helped fundamentally alter the language of political discourse and contributed to re-shaping the consciousness of an emerging working class.

Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense on Independence (1776) helped fuel the decision of America’s thirteen colonies to break from Britain. His Rights of Man (1791-92) developed concepts of human rights and representative government. In The Age of Reason (1793-5) he forensically scrutinised the Bible in order to root out superstition and, as he saw it, reconcile religion and science. And in Agrarian Justice (1797) he outlined elements of a welfare state funded by progressive taxation, something not realised until the mid-twentieth century.

Paine died two hundred years ago, on 8 June 1809. Little in the first half of his life suggested he would play a revolutionary role on two continents. The son of a Quaker corset-and stay-maker, he attended Thetford Grammar School before becoming apprenticed to his father at 13. He learned the trade but did not take to it, though it proved a useful fallback in his early adult life. Paine absconded from his apprenticeship several times before leaving home for good and working in a variety of jobs in London and on the south coast. An itinerant skilled artisan, he would have known poverty if not penury. He knew personal tragedy too: his wife of less than a year died in childbirth, along with their baby.

Paine always kept up his education. He read and attended lectures about astronomy, engineering, chemistry and physics. Discussion with those who advanced Newtonian science would have brought him into contact with progressive political ideas, perhaps developing an egalitarianism derived from his Quaker background. In Lewes, Sussex, a town with a republican heritage, he was active in the political clubs from 1768-1774.

higher wages

During these years Paine worked as an excise-man, and was chosen by his fellow-workers to draw up a petition to Parliament for higher wages.

Inflation dominated the British economy during Paine’s lifetime. Wages could never keep pace with rising prices. Paine wrote a pamphlet arguing the excise-men’s case. One of his arguments was that higher pay would prevent excise-men having to accept bribes in order to feed themselves and their families. Paine said that the rich might need to experience first-hand what it was to be poor in order fully to appreciate the force of his argument.

Thousands of excise-men backed Paine, and he spent a year lobbying MPs. But the petition failed, and he was sacked. In the meantime however Paine had met Benjamin Franklin, representative in London for the American colonies. Franklin advised him to ship for America, and gave him letters of introduction to relatives in Philadelphia. On the voyage out Paine nearly died of typhoid. Recovered, he would shortly prove to be the right man in the right place at just the right time.

Early in 1775 Paine was taken on as contributing editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Uniquely, the magazine published a lot of original American content rather than re-printing mostly British material. Its pages were open to writing which could engage with the contemporary political situation from the colonists’ perspective. Skilfully deploying articles written by himself and others which touched on the issues of the day, including that of independence, Paine turned the magazine into the most widely-sold periodical in America.

At this time those calling for the outright separation of America from Britain were a vanguard minority. Most colonists wanted reform of the relationship between the two countries. But violent conflict between British redcoats and armed colonists broke out in spring 1775 at Concord and Lexington, and Paine became increasingly involved in pro-independence politics. To galvanise the majority into supporting a decisive break, Paine wrote Common Sense, published in January 1776, anonymously since every page was treason.

In Common Sense Paine attacked the policies of George III and castigated hereditary monarchy as an institution.

He predicted monarchist France would nevertheless support an American revolt against Britain, promoted the centralisation of powers in America to give effect to the people’s will, and urged the new nation to become a place of refuge for all those seeking liberty. He sketched the likely economic and military power of an independent America and so offered a vision of what an independent America could be.

common sense

The pamphlet was a sensation. It ran through twenty-five editions in the first year of publication, reaching far beyond an elite “political class”.

Its arguments were posed in ordinary language and clearly sign-posted. They were presented directly, confidently, approachably and memorably. They were buttressed not by Latin quotations or references to authors only a few readers might know, but by Biblical quotations everyone would recognise and by analogies drawn from common life. Paine’s matter-of-factness, restrained deployment of rhetorical devices, attention to practicalities and trick of building arguments from apparently self-evident truths all combined to validate what the title-page proclaimed. Here was common sense.

Paine’s pamphlet met an historical moment. Resolve to break from Britain solidified and became general.

Paine would repeated the feat at the end of the same year as British forces gained the upper hand in the war. His very brief pamphlet simply entitled The Crisis begins with the words quoted at this year’s AWL Conference: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine goes on to articulate the reasons why America will win its war for independence. He speaks from his own experiences as a volunteer in the army. He presents the material factors favouring the American side. He avoids anything high-flown, and knows he does so: “I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as A, B, C, hold up truth to your eyes.”

General Washington ordered Paine’s words read throughout the army before its fateful Christmas crossing of the Delaware to fight and win the Battle of Trenton. Morale rose. Desertion diminished. Recruitment began to recover. The rational and resolute style of Paine’s writing had again helped advance the cause he wrote for.

rights of man

Paine’s words would come to the aid of another revolution. In 1790 Edmund Burke published in England a long attack on the revolution in France.

He derided its elevation of individual rights, and defended hereditary monarchy and tradition. Burke had supported reconciliation with America, and Paine regarded him as a friend. But within three months, by early 1791, he had replied to Burke’s book with the first part of Rights of Man.

Paine affirms that people have rights by dint of being human, and that civil rights spring from these fundamental “natural” (or in today’s language, human) rights. For Paine natural rights include the rights of the mind — that is, freedom of thought, speech and religion. In Paine’s language, individuals deposit some of their natural rights in society, which in turn helps individuals to exercise these rights when necessary. Natural rights which an individual cannot exercise by him or herself are exchanged for civil rights. From this follows an issue of political rights.

Paine contrasts France’s newly-written Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens with the British constitution. He ridicules the aristocratic ruling class in Britain and condemns the unjust and corrupt political system by which they retain power. The right to vote should not be conditional on the holding of property, he says. He presents the American and French revolutions as harbingers of the political future. Those revolutions inaugurate new politics for new times, and require a new way of understanding the world.

The first part of Rights of Man was seditious. But the British government’s initial response was low-key. They launched a dirty-tricks campaign which included commissioning a biographical hatchet-job on Paine. His “lowly” origins were used against him in print and in cartoons, displaying a profound class-hatred. Reactionary crowds burned him in effigy. However Paine’s book galvanised the republican mood in what can be seen as a pre-revolutionary moment in British history.

Part two of Rights of Man, published early in 1792, took an overtly revolutionary stance in its condemnation of the hereditary system. Paine wrote: “All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny.” In May the government took action against Paine’s printers and moved to have him arrested. Lord Mornington, the Duke of Wellington’s elder brother, wrote to the Home Secretary and fellow Old Etonian Lord Grenville that Rights of Man was: “by far the most treasonable book that ever went unpunished… so, pray, hang the fellow if you catch him.”

Paine wasn’t caught. He had crossed to France to take his seat as elected representative for Calais in the National Assembly. There he spoke against the execution of the deposed King, and soon found himself suspected of counter-revolutionary sympathies as the Terror took hold. He was arrested.

America’s ambassador failed to clarify Paine’s American citizenship, and he remained imprisoned and under threat of execution for a year. Either side of his imprisonment he wrote The Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice before returning to the USA in 1802.


Back in the USA Paine found himself hated rather than feted, mainly on account of his perceived atheism. In fact Paine was a deist, believing in god but not following any established religion.

He lived in obscurity and poor health near New York City, mainly on a small farm which had been granted him after the war of Independence. He was denied the vote in the state election in 1806 on the specious grounds that having served in the French Assembly he was not an American. As he lay dying, the local Quakers refused permission for his body to be buried in consecrated ground.

So Paine was interred on his own farm. A handful of mourners attended. These included a French woman and her two sons who lived with Paine, and two African-Americans who had walked twenty-five miles from New York to pay their respects. “Man has no property in man,” Paine had written. Among the first to oppose in print American slavery, he had been a founder-member of that country’s first anti-slavery society.

For two short but epoch-making periods Thomas Paine had articulated the new consciousness and practice which was moving to change history. This was not, yet, a socialist consciousness. Paine saw no fundamental antagonism between the interests of capital and of labour. He endorsed free markets. He did not write about the labour movement, nor develop a class analysis. Among his radical contemporaries, Thomas Spence was the more radical in demanding nationalisation of land, and Babeuf the more daring in trying to establish a society based on common ownership.

But Paine’s writings remained required reading among nineteenth century radicals. They were reprinted by the Chartists even as that movement provided the collective experience which would point beyond Painite radicalism towards working-class political emancipation.

Paine lived as an internationalist and supported revolutionary demands for a more equal social order. Against the dominant ideology of his day he promoted mass political participation. He demonstrated by what he wrote, and by how he wrote it, that enfranchisement of ordinary people was overdue. Paine helped politicise this wide public by offering his writing not as instruction or exhortation, but as recognition of truth.


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