“The Spring is begun” [Part 2]

The rapid spread of Paineite philosophy, the huge volume of printed copies of The Rights of Man and particularly its popularity amongst the unenfranchised provoked a reaction. The1790s were remarkable for the sheer volume of debate between Paine and his fellow radicals on the one hand, and Burke and other defenders of the British constitution on the other. Perhaps the most recognizable form in which this debate took was the huge number of satirical cartoons and caricatures it inspired. Both the WCML and PHM hold copies of many such prints.

Working Class Movement Library

Working Class Movement Library

 Tom Paine’s Nightly Pest (1792) portrays Paine asleep in France wearing a red cap of liberty as a night cap; he is dreaming of three judges’ wigs which are accusing him of “Libels, Scurrilities, Falsehoods, Perjuries, Rebellions, Treasons, &c” and listing his forthcoming punishments as “Corporeal Pain, Contempt, Detestation, Extinction from society, &c.” Even an imp of the Devil flees from the sight![1]

Working Class Movement Library

Working Class Movement Library

But the ultimate reaction of the establishment was far more serious than satire and caricature. On the 18th December 1792, in his absence as he had fled for France, Thomas Paine was tried for libel, against the King and government by a special jury in the Court of the King’s Bench before Lord Kenyon. Thomas Walker’s copy of the account of the trial, held by the WCML, was inscribed to him by Thomas Erskine, the counsel for the defence.

 The prosecution’s case was not based on a detailed philosophical critique of the principles laid out by Paine in The Rights of Man. Instead, the Attorney-General attacked the very fact that it had been written for the lower orders. He dismissed Paine’s previous works because he believed they would be “confined to the judicious reader” who would “refute as he went along.” But The Rights of Man “was either totally or partially thrust into the hands of all persons in this country, of subjects of every description; when I found that even children’s sweetmeats were wrapped up with parts of this, and delivered into their hands in the hope that they would read it […] I thought it belonged to me [..] to put a charge upon record against its author.”[2]

 Thomas Erskine made a noble attempt at a defence, condemning the exaggerated response of the authorities in comparison to Paine’s reasoned and enlightened argument, saying to the members of the jury:

 “You must all remember, gentlemen, Lucian’s pleasant story; Jupiter and a countryman were walking together conversing with great freedom and familiarity upon the subject of heaven and earth. The countryman listened with attention and acquiescence, while Jupiter strove only to convince him; but happening to hint a doubt, Jupiter turned harshly round and threatened him with his thunder.-‘Ah!’ says the countryman, ‘now Jupiter, I know that you are wrong; you’re always wrong when you appeal to your thunder.’ This is the case with me-I can reason with the people of England, but I cannot fight against the thunder of authority.”[3]

 Without waiting for the Attorney-General’s response to this, the foreman of the jury, a Mr Campbell, rose to give the verdict; guilty.[4]

 Contrary to the picture painted by the authorities, Paine did not favour insurrection; he worked to educate and to persuade by reasoned argument, not to provoke violent terror. Democracy consequently, was the best form of government in Paine’s view because it had an inherent morality to it. The exclusion from the current system of representation “implies a stigma on the moral character of the persons excluded; and this is what no part of the community has a right to pronounce upon another part. No external circumstance can justify it; wealth is no proof of moral character; nor poverty of the want of it. On the contrary, wealth is often the presumptive evidence of dishonesty; and poverty the negative evidence of innocence.”[5]

 Moreover, “the principle of an equality of rights is clear and simple. Every man can understand it, and it is by understanding his rights that he learns his duties; for where the rights of men are equal, every man must finally see the necessity of protecting the rights of others as the most effective security for his own.”[6]

 This then was the legacy of Thomas Paine; democracy was justified morally because it was by its nature a communitarian ideal which encouraged individuals to come together as a people to work for the common good of all.

 Time spent exploring the collections of the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library portrays a different sense of history than one which insists on a linear narrative of progress made possible by ‘great men’. History, and politics, is shaped by ordinary people who step out of the narrow confines of their own individual lives and who work to effect positive change with and for others and in so doing reject the restrictions imposed by the assumptions and inequalities of their own age.

 Thomas Paine is one example of this amongst many; he attacked the hoarding of power by a narrow and unrepresentative elite; he spoke up for the poorest when they were being starved by the excesses of the rich; he exposed and terrified all the might and power of the British crown and lifted up the humble. Paine was a revolutionary because he faced the sword and sceptre with a pen and paper and proved the better advocate for justice.

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 first part of the post was blogged last week.


[1] See-Ed. T Wright. The Works of James Gillray, the Caricaturist; with the History of his Life and Times (Chatto and Windus: London, 1873) P. 156

[2] Appendix-‘The Whole Proceedings on the Trial of An Information Exhibited ex officio by the King’s Attorney General against Thomas Paine’ in The Complete Works of Thomas Paine, Political and Controversial (E Truelove: London) P. 747

[3] Ibid. P. 804

[4] Ibid. P. 805

[5] T Paine. Dissertation on the First Principles of Government (London: 1795) P. 12

[6] Ibid. P. 15

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