I occasionally start reading about something, and end up surfing the web for hours, pursuing fascinating leads. So it was that last night I found myself reading about Tom Paine.
He’s a little-known figure in England, but in the USA he’s regarded as one of its revolutionary founding fathers. In fact, he’s one of the candidates for being the originator of the title: “The United States of America.”
But he was born in Thetford, England, on the edge of the English fens, in 1737. He lived there for the first 19 years of his life. In fact, he lived in England for the first 37 years of his life, working as a stay-maker (either for ladies’ corsets or ships’ masts – it seems to be a matter of some dispute which), an excise officer, a teacher, and a tobacconist (he had a tobacco shop in Lewes). While in England he wrote a 21-page pamphlet – The Case of the Officers of Excise – of which 4,000 copies were distributed around Parliament in 1774. It seems that this pamphlet drew him first to the attention of the Commissioner of the Excise, and through him Benjamin Franklin, who was living in London at that time, and who gave him a letter of recommendation to his friends in Philadelphia. He arrived in Philadelphia late in 1774, and within a couple of months had become editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, just in time for the American Revolution that began, with the battles of Lexington and Concord, in April 1775. A year later he’d published the 48-page pamphlet Common Sense, written “by an Englishman”, which recommended an American independence, and freedom from both kings and aristocrats.
I suppose the slightly startling thing about this to me is that an English outsider could arrive in America, and within a year start recommending something as radical as independence to the colonists. He must have become an anti-monarchist radical in England before he ever set foot in America. Perhaps that was because he’d had 37 years of dealing with the English aristocracy, half of them in his home town of Thetford, which was one of England’s “rotten boroughs” that were more of less owned by their MPs. Paine probably had plenty of experience of “taxation without representation.” And perhaps the American colonies were anyway regarded at that time as more or less an extension of England, only a couple of weeks sailing away.
Nevertheless Common Sense was a runaway success in the Colonies. It was read aloud in taverns and meeting places. Even now, it remains the all-time best selling American title. Later in 1776, he also wrote The American Crisis, another best-seller. And in 1781 he was sent to France to raise money for the revolution, meeting Louis XVI, and returning with 2.5 million livres in silver, as part of a “present” of 6 million and a loan of 10 million.
Around this time, he seems to have started falling out with other American revolutionaries – like George Washington -, in part for his objections to slavery. He returned to England in 1787, where he began writing The Rights of Man. When the French Revolution began in 1789, Paine soon headed back to France. Here he was granted honorary French citizenship, even though he didn’t speak French, along with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. He was even elected to the French National Convention. But he seems to have fallen out with the French revolutionaries when he argued against the execution of Louis XVI (who had, after all, provided 16 million livres for the American revolution). He was arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death in 1794, and only escaped death by a stroke of luck, as he recounted:
When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they, knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.
Somewhere about this time, Paine also met Napoleon Bonaparte, with whom he discussed an invasion of England.
Napoleon claimed he slept with a copy of Rights of Man under his pillow and went so far as to say to Paine that “a statue of gold should be erected to you in every city in the universe.” Paine discussed with Napoleon how best to invade England and in December 1797 wrote two essays, one of which was pointedly named Observations on the Construction and Operation of Navies with a Plan for an Invasion of England and the Final Overthrow of the English Government, in which he promoted the idea to finance 1000 gunboats to carry a French invading army across the English Channel.
It’s probably for this reason that a gilded statue of him (above right) was erected in Thetford in 1964, over the objections of local Conservatives with no fond memories of Mad Tom.
Thereafter, he returned to America, wrote a tract denouncing George Washington, and died penniless at 59, Grove Street, Greenwich Village, New York (now Marie’s Crisis Cafe?) on June 8, 1809, and was buried on his farm in New Rochelle. He wasn’t there for very long, however, because his body was dug up by William Cobbett, and returned to England, where the bones were kept in an attic, and lost.
An Englishman by birth, an American by adoption, and a French citizen by decree.
“The World is my country, all mankind my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
If he was around today, I suspect that Tom Paine, citizen of the world, would be a globalist, and quite likely a radical Green MEP in the European Parliament. He would have been a friend of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and quite likely an ex-smoker as well. And he would have continued to be that very worst sort of do-gooder – the kind for whom it is a religious vocation – ‘helping’ people.
All of which finally brings me to “the air around Tom Paine.” The words are from Bob Dylan’s As I Went Out One Morning (to breathe the air around Tom Paine.). In the 1960s Bob Dylan lived in Greenwich Village on Bleecker Street, which intersects Grove Street. He probably walked past 59, Grove Street many times. And as he passed, he may well have thought of himself as breathing the air around Tom Paine, or at least his last exhalation.