A New World

Off to the Globe Theatre last evening for the new play on Thomas Paine by Trevor Griffiths, A New World. I have to say it was a bit of a disappointment. Part of the problem was the weather—it was absolutely pouring during much of the performance, and, coupled with the Globe’s frequently dodgy acoustics, this made much of the dialog unhearable. Not to mention the loud noise of the pitter-patter on the slickers that the Globe sells cheap in the event of downpours such as this one. The real problem was the play itself—the production values, as always, were great, John Light, who plays Paine, was fine, often stirring, and there was a great bustle much of the time.

The problem was deeper—Griffiths has written a straight history here, but without the philosophic context. We’re told that Paine was a great man, and we hear bits and pieces of his writings, and we see him engaged with both the American and French revolutions. But we don’t get a clue about his seminal importance, or about why Paine changed the world, and for the better. To be fair, Paine had such an eventful life that it’s difficult to get it all in a two and a half hour production. But what was left out was much of the meat, and the key to why Paine was important—one of the most important men who ever lived, in fact. It was still an enjoyable evening at the theatre—but also a frustrating one. If you knew something about Paine, you were probably bothered by what was left out; if you didn’t know much about Paine (which is certainly the case here in the UK), you left the theatre no wiser, really. I almost hate to say this, but this would have been a more interesting play if Tom Stoppard had written it. That way we wold have had endless conversations about the philosophical and political issues that Paine dealt with–and these were intensely important at the time, and still are.

Richard Attenborough has been trying to raise funds for a movie of Paine’s life for decades now. Attenborough also is behind this production, which actually seems to be adapted from the screenplay that Griffiths is developing for Attenborough (Griffiths was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Reds). What a movie Paine’s life would make! I bet Craig T. Nelson would make a great elder Paine, with Ed Norton playing the younger Paine. As a young man, he apprenticed to his father’s trade as a staymaker, making corsets. He later ran away to sea and joined a successful privateer. His stays in London and Lewes before moving to the colonies were characterized by a range of activities, including attending Royal Society meetings in London. His peripatetic and not very successful businesses career included several years as an excise agent for the Crown, and after the death in childbirth of his first wife, his second marriage was never consummated, ending in a permanent separation. He made his way to the colonies (barely surviving the voyage) bearing the endorsement of Benjamin Franklin, whom Paine had met in London. In America Paine added an “e” to the spelling of his name, engaged in what he is now best now for, pamphleteering, and served in Washington’s army during the first years of the campaign. After the war, Paine engaged in anti-slavery activities (apparently writing the preamble to the Pennsylvania law that abolished slavery, the first of many in the United States), continued to write on behalf of the new American government, and pursued his scientific interests.

Following his return to England 1787, Paine spent most of his time writing pamphlets on various subjects, and designing and seeking funds for the construction of a single arch iron bridge. Paine received patents for his bridge in England, Scotland and Wales, and was able to develop a model for public view. (A version of the bridge was later built on the river Weir in Sunderland, although it appears Paine never received any funds from this.) Bridge design epitomized 18th century engineering technological and engineering investigations, given the importance of river traffic during this period. In 1791 he published the first instalment of Rights of Man, primarily as a response to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution. This book was also wildly successful (and, incidentally, has never been out of print), and led the English government to attempt to prevent its publication and circulation.

Fleeing to France in 1792, he was tried in absentia for seditious libel in England, and convicted, during which time he published the second instalment of Rights of Man. This laid out the foundations of the modern welfare state—including universal suffrage and state care for those over fifty. Initially he was welcomed by the new French government, to which he was appointed a member, but later fell out of favour by virtue of his support for the Girondists and his opposition to executing the deposed King. During the Reign of Terror, Paine narrowly escaped the guillotine he was meant to face by the efforts of his fellow prisoners while he almost died of fever. During his year in prison, he did manage to have The Age of Reason published, and it became Paine’s third best-seller, astonishing for a work whose main characteristic was an attack on organized religion, particularly Christianity. Eventually freed in 1794, he remained in France (apparently never learning to speak French) before finally returning to the United States in 1802, and published his fourth book, Agrarian Justice, an attack on land holdings, in 1797.

By this point Paine had become extremely unpopular in both England and the United States. In England, he had been declared an outlaw and under sentence of death following his conviction for seditious libel. In America, his attack on George Washington (which was not completely unjustified, since Washington apparently did nothing to get Paine out of French prison when he had the opportunity to do so), and the attack on Christianity in The Age of Reason, ensured that he was no longer a popular figure. He was even denied the right to vote. But Paine remained undaunted, even refusing a deathbed conversion in 1809 while he lay dying when pestered by priests. What a pain in the neck! What a movie!

The traditional view of Paine was that after an undistinguished career in England he somehow appeared, out of the head of Zeus, as a radical thinker in America. Griffiths’ play perpetuates this view to some extent, although it does make some nods to Paine’s interests in science and engineering—but these aren’t really developed as being integral to Paine’s character. Craig Nelson (yes, a different Craig Nelson), in his admirable biography of Paine published in 2007, argues, however, that Paine was not radical by Enlightenment standards—rather, he was square in the mainstream of much enlightenment thought. Paine, according to Nelson, is an example of what the Enlightenment produced in England, but even more so in America—-the self-made man who prospers from self-improvement.

As Nelson points out, Paine was born into the segment of the population that came to refer to themselves as “mechanics”—the purveyors of manufacturing and industry before the Industrial revolution. Paine spent several years in London attending lectures at the Royal Society and other scientific organizations. He spent time in coffee houses, forming friendships with other mechanics who were engaged in similar pursuits (and coming into contact with Franklin in the process). He bought himself a set of globes and various scientific instruments. His scientific interests were well-known at the time both in England and in America. He became an accomplished public speaker and debater. None of these attributes were unusual in late 18th century England or America. Following the colonist revolt, Paine returned to science, developed several inventions (for which he obtained patents), and pursued his interests in bridge design. His close friendships included the chemist Joseph Priestly.

It was precisely this segment of society, both in England and in America, that embraced the Enlightenment fully. The growth of the merchant class in England (and Scotland) and America was driven by mechanics who developed and embraced new technologies, new forms of business, new ideas of science, and new ideas of government. They were endless tinkerers. Their intellectual mentors were men such as Newton, and Hooke, and Franklin—especially Franklin. These were men who conversed regularly with one another through letters, or in coffee houses in cities such as London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Philadelphia. They represented the emergence of a meritocracy, and if this concept became popular in England, it found a virtual home in America. No wonder Americans were ready to listen to Paine’s arguments in favour of the natural rights of men to govern themselves, and against the evils of hereditary monarchies. Paine’s genius lay in his ability to present these views to as wide an audience as possible. Jon Katz, in a long article eminently worth reading, has suggested that Paine should be regarded as the moral father of the internet, and he’s right.

John Adams, second President of the new United States of America, had little regard for Paine, whom he considered a radical and a rabble-rouser. Here is how Adams described Paine in 1805:

I know not whether any Man in the World has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a BitchWolf, never before in any Age of the World was suffered by the Poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.

For most of his life, this was often the view of Paine from those in power. Paine happily reciprocated, regarding Adams as a potential despot, on the basis of Adams’ support for the Alien and Sedition Acts, which represented the first (but, sadly, not the last) attempts by members of the American federal government to limit the rights of its citizens.

Paine was the most influential political writer of the 18th century. He was not a political philosopher, such as Hobbes, or Hume, or Locke. Paine was a proselytizer. He crystallized American and European discussion of two of the defining political questions of the age—why should we need kings? Why should not the creation and operation of government be the work of all men, and not a select few? Paine’s influence derives not solely from the fact that he was able to effectively articulate arguments that all men had the right to govern themselves, but also because he was able to explain these issues in a way that all men, not just the Republic of Letters, could take part in the discussion. As a result, Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason were the best selling books of the 18th century. Paine chose not to profit from the books, donating proceeds to the American and French governments instead. Proceeds from Common Sense went to purchase mittens for Washington’s troops. Unsurprisingly, Paine was broke for much of his life.

After his 1774 arrival in the colonies he became, almost by accident, editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, which shortly thereafter became the most widely-read publication in the colonies. Paine’s writings, even before the publication of Common Sense, had a notable impact on the debate regarding whether America should declare itself independent from England. (America was not then “The United States of America”, a term actually coined by Paine.)

And pamphleteering was an established form of intellectual and political exchange during the 18th century. Paine was participating in an established literary tradition. Common Sense itself was a remarkable and unprecedented publishing phenomenon—-in its first year of publication, an estimated 250,000 copies were published (rising to about 500,000 over the next several years, including counterfeit editions), in a country of 3 million. It was translated into multiple languages, and was a best-seller in France. Paine’s pamphlets during the war (collectively given the title The Crisis), especially in the winter of 1776-1777, were of critical importance for maintaining support for the conflict during the early (and darkest) days of the war. The line “These are the times that try men’s souls” derives from the first of these, at a time when Washington’s army was in danger of collapsing.

But it was Common Sense that established Paine’s reputation. Prior to its publication, the majority of colonists (as well as the majority of delegates to the second Constitutional Convention, which convened in late 1775, and culminated in The Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776) were still in favour of some sort of negotiated settlement with England over the issues of taxation and the rights of colonists, according to Nelson. Following its publication in January 1776, sentiment swung strongly towards total independence from England.

What were Paine’s arguments? First, he argued for the superiority of representative government over a monarchy. Paine’s arguments here mostly focussed on the evils of monarchy and aristocracy, or any social system where power resided in hereditary privilege. (One wonders what he would make of the raging nepotism in today’s media.) The second argument focussed on why this was the appropriate time to break from England, and throws in lots of statistics on subjects such as the cost of maintaining navies. But Paine’s main argument, that America’s parent country was Europe, not England, had a particular resonance among Paine’s readership. While most of the leaders of America (and the revolution) were of English descent, Paine suggested that only about one-third of the colonists were of English descent—Paine believed the majority had come from a broad range of European countries. There’s a bit of sleight of hand here—there were significant numbers from Scotland and Ireland at that point, but Paine specifically does not call them English. In Pennsylvania, where Paine lived, Germans made up a third of the population by 1770. Paine would be including slaves in the population as well, and at 1770 there would have been about 700,000 slaves in the colonies. But, whatever Paine’s numbers, the arguments all carried weight, and had an immediate impact at the optimal time for the emerging nation.

Paine called himself as “a citizen of the world,” although he also insisted that he was an American citizen. But Paine spent most of his life in England and in France, not leaving for the colonies until his 37th year in 1774. He returned to England in 1787, from which he then had to flee following publication of Rights of Man in 1792. He went on to live in France for ten years, before returning to America in 1802, where he died in 1809. One is reminded of Nietzche’s comment to his mother that he wasn’t sure if he was a good German, but he hoped he was a good European.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Paine’s death, and the two Thomas Paine societies, the one here and the one in the US, have been having all sorts of events to commemorate the occasion. And not a moment too soon, either, considering the pressure on the rights that Paine held dear by any number of governments, including that of the United States, a government (and a country) which is unlikely to have ever emerged without Paine.

In Jack Shepherd’s wonderful short play, In Lambeth, Paine and William Blake are having a conversation in Blake’s garden the evening before Paine flees for Paris, while angry royalist mobs roam the streets. (The meeting really did take place.) Paine says of himself:

I’ve been called a firebrand! A fanatic! A traitor! A devil! Now that seems just a bit of an overstatement to me. I’m a fairly ordinary and above all a reasonable man. And I want the country to be governed in a reasonable way. And that’s all I want. But if that means turning the word upside down, then I’m the man to do it! And if it then entails taking the world by the ankles and giving it a God-almighty shake, then by jumping Jesus I’ll do that too!

And he did.

The above stamp is the only one ever issued anywhere to celebrate Paine, as far as I can tell. It was issued in 1968, and designed by Robert Greissmann, after a painting by John Wesley Jarvis.

(Full disclosure–much of this cribbed from an earlier post, to be found here)

4 replies »

  1. I have been watching The History of Britain and Paine was certainly covered in the themes of loss of empire, revolution (French and American), his writings and legacy.

    Sam W should have been given an award for pushing for the theatre roofless…

    …whilst Wimbledon finally was awarded one.

    Got to love the British weather!

  2. I’m sure he was covered. But form the perspective of the British government, he was on the wrong side! They were deparate to prevent what had happened in France from repeating in Britain.

    and yes, it’s fun that it’s roofless, and I think he did get something, but when it’s pouring rain and you can’t hear the actors because the rain is so loud, it’s a bit distracting!

    I do love the weather here. Although not as much as the food.

  3. How is it possible Thomas Paine hasn’t made it onto the gallery of Scholars and Rogues? I mean, c’mon, those might be the two best words to describe the man.