“The Spring is begun”*

Thomas Paine at the People’s History Museum and Working Class Movement Library (Part 1)

In the early stages of the American Revolution, a young and obscure British emigrant penned the following lines of a song entitled Liberty Tree:

“But hear, O ye swains (tis a tale most profane),
How all the tyrannical powers,
King, commons, and lords, are uniting amain,
To cut down this guardian of ours.
From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,
Thro the land let the sound of it flee:
Let the far and the near all unite with a cheer,
In defence of our LIBERTY TREE”.

For forty years, from the first printing of Common Sense in January 1776 to his death in 1809, Thomas Paine was the principal player of the radical trumpet, extending his influence from the fledgling United States to the accelerating reform debate in Britain during the 1790s and to revolutionary France. He was without a doubt the most influential radical writer of his day. Whilst he did not precipitate a revolution in Britain, nor even affect an immediate reform of Parliament, his ideas, and the penetrative rhetoric with which he expounded them, were not forgotten by the radicals who heard them in secret readings, who listened to his disciples in mass public meetings, and who harboured their well-thumbed cheap editions of The Rights of Man well beyond the government repression which followed its first printing.

Both the People’s History Museum (PHM) and the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) convey political and social history ‘from below’. Both collections offer a rich and eclectic introduction to the life and work of Thomas Paine, conveying an insight into the significant influence he had, both in inspiring radicalism and incurring the opposition of the establishment.

The highlight of the collection at the PHM is the writing table upon which Paine wrote the Second Part of The Rights of Man (1792). This was the pinnacle of Paine’s work with its scathing attack on the principles of hereditary government, its defence of representative democracy and most importantly, its plan for a ‘Welfare State’ offering poor relief, free education and pensions.

Thomas Paine's Desk, People's History Museum

Thomas Paine’s Desk, People’s History Museum

The desk was owned by Thomas ‘Clio’ Rickman, a radical bookseller and printer and a close friend of Paine’s with whom the latter lived in 1792 whilst he was writing The Rights of Man Part Two. The Paine Collection at the WCML includes Rickman’s 1819 biography of Paine, and the founders of the library Eddie and Ruth Frow wrote a biographical piece on Rickman himself. Even after Paine’s exile to France and the repression of Prime Minister William Pitt’s ‘Reign of Terror’ in which Paine’s works were banned, Rickman continued to print such radical pamphlets.  He even named his six sons Paine, Washington, Franklin, Rousseau, Pentarch and Volney.[2]

Clio Rickman's Life of Thomas Paine, Working Class Movement Library

Clio Rickman’s Life of Thomas Paine, Working Class Movement Library

Rickman was proud of his association with Paine but even prouder of his friend’s unique contribution to the radicalism of the age. He wrote: “Paine was not one of the great men who live mid great events, and forward and share their splendour; he created them, and, in this point of view, he was a very superior character to Washington.”[3]

The Rights of Man soon became the most influential pamphlet of the time; by 1793 there were 200,000 copies of Part Two in circulation, in a population of 10million. The WCML holds many of these different editions, some of which were sold for only a few pennies, allowing ordinary working people to afford a copy and pass on the message from inside its pages. Indeed the library owns the Manchester reformer Thomas Walker’s personal copy, in which Walker attached a copy of the resolution made by the organisation for the Society for Constitutional Information, of which he had founded the Manchester branch.  The resolution declared “That the thanks of this society be given to Mr. THOMAS PAINE, for his most masterly Book, intitled, the RIGHTS OF MAN.”

Moreover the WCML collection demonstrates how Paine was influential beyond his own lifetime. The Office of the Chartist Co-operative Land Society published a volume of Paine’s political writings in order to spread knowledge of Paine’s contribution to radicalism within the working class. Alongside Paine’s writings was printed a copy of the People’s Charter adopted in 1842, the preface of which was written by the Executive Committee of the National Charter Association, in which they stated that:

“A grand aim of all who aspire to the honour of social or political reformers should be to diffuse knowledge, to enlighten the national mind, and thus create that healthy, truthful public opinion, without which, the labours of the reformer are vain, and which, when wisely directed, will bless humanity with the conjoint reign of justice, liberty, and reason.”[4]

This was what Paine himself had in his own mind; he wanted ordinary people to reason for themselves and challenge the status quo as independent political actors in their own right. Even over thirty years after Paine’s death, the radicals’ heirs were maintaining this legacy by declaring that there was no better way to “promote the weal of the Chartist movement” than “in publishing, in a neat and cheap form, the works of Thomas Paine.”[5]

Political Works of Thomas Paine, Published by the Chartist Co-operative Land Society, Working Class Movement Library

Political Works of Thomas Paine, Published by the Chartist Co-operative Land Society, Working Class Movement Library

This blog was written by Rob Thompson, a student at St John’s College Oxford, who has just completed a two-week placement with the Unlocking Ideas project. The second part of the post will be up in the next few days.

* T Paine. ‘The Rights of Man Part the Second: Combining Principle and Practice (1792)’ in Ed. E Foner. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (Library of America: New York, 1998) P. 657

[2] E and R Frow. ‘Thomas “Clio” Rickman, Poet, Bookseller and Radical Publisher’ in Thomas Paine Society Bulletin (No. 2 1992) P. 6

[3] T C Rickman. The Life of Thomas Paine, Author of Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, Letter to the Addressers, &c &c (Thomas Clio Rickman: London, 1819) P. 9

[4] The Executive Committee of the National Charter Association. ‘Preface’ to The Political Works of Thomas Paine (T M Wheeler at the Office of the Chartist Co-operative Land Society) P. 1

[5] Ibid. P. 2

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