Read CHAPTER II - THOMAS PAINE of Shelley‚ Godwin and Their Circle , free online book, by H. N. Brailsford, on

“Where Liberty is, there is my country.” The sentiment has a Latin ring; one can imagine an early Stoic as its author. It was spoken by Benjamin Franklin, and no saying better expresses the spirit of eighteenth century humanity. “Where is not Liberty, there is mine.” The answer is Thomas Paine’s. It is the watchword of the knight errant, the marching music that sent Lafayette to America, and Byron to Greece, the motto of every man who prizes striving above enjoyment, honours comradeship above patriotism, and follows an idea that no frontier can arrest. Paine was indeed of no century, and no formula of classification can confine him. His writing is of the age of enlightenment; his actions belong to romance. His clear, manly style, his sturdy commonsense, the rapier play of his epigrams, the formal, logical architecture of his thoughts, his complacent limitations, his horror of mystery and Gothic half-lights, his harsh contempt for all the sacred muddle of priestly traditions and aristocratic politics, his assurance, his intellectual courage, his humanity all that, in its best and its worst, belongs to the century of Voltaire and the Revolution. In his spirit of adventure, in his passion for movement and combat, there Paine is romantic. Paine thought in prose and acted epics. He drew horizons on paper and pursued the infinite in deeds.

Tom Paine was born, the son of a Quaker stay-maker, in 1737, at Thetford, in the county of Norfolk. His parents were poor, but he owed much, he tells us, to a good moral education and picked up “a tolerable stock of useful learning,” though he knew no language but his own. A “Friend” he was to the end in his independence, his rationalism, and his humanity, though he laughed when he thought of what a sad-coloured world the Quakers would have made of the creation, if they had been consulted. The boy craved adventure, and was prevented at seventeen from enlisting in the crew of the privateer Terrible, Captain Death, only to sail somewhat later in the King of Prussia, Captain Mendez. One cruise under a licensed pirate was enough for him, and he soon settled in London, making stays for a living and spending his leisure in the study of astronomy. He qualified as an exciseman, acquiring in this employment a grasp of finance and an interest in budgets of which he afterwards made good use in his writings. Cashiered for negligence, he turned schoolmaster, and even aspired to ordination in the Church of England. Reinstated as a “gauger,” he was eventually dismissed for writing a pamphlet in defence of the excisemen’s agitation for higher wages. He was twice married, but his first wife died within a year of marriage, and the second, with whom he had started a “tobacco-mill,” agreed on its failure, apparently for no definite fault on either side, to a mutual separation. At thirty-seven, penniless, lonely, and stamped with failure, yet conscious of powers which had found no scope in the Old World, he emigrated in 1774 to America with a letter from Benjamin Franklin as his passport to fortune.

Opportunity came promptly, and Paine was presently settled in Philadelphia as the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. From the pages of this periodical, his admirable biographer, Mr. Moncure D. Conway, has unearthed a series of articles which show that Paine had somehow brought with him from England a mental equipment which ranked him already among the moral pioneers of his generation. He advocates international arbitration; he attacks duelling; he suggests more rational ideas of marriage and divorce; he pleads for mercy to animals; he demands justice for women. Above all, he assails negro slavery, and with such mastery and fervour, that five weeks after the appearance of his article, the first American Anti-Slavery Society was founded at Philadelphia. The abolition of slavery was a cause for which he never ceased to struggle, and when in later life he became the target of religious persecutors, it was in their dual capacity of Christians and slave-owners that men stoned him. The American colonies were now at the parting of the ways in the struggle with the Mother Country. The revolt had begun with a limited object, and few if any of its leaders realised whither they were tending. Paine it was, who after the slaughter at Lexington, abandoned all thoughts of reconciliation and was the first to preach independence and republicanism.

His pamphlet, Common-Sense (1776), achieved a circulation which was an event in the history of printing, and fixed in men’s minds as firm resolves what were, before he wrote, no more than fluid ideas. It spoke to rebels and made a nation. Poor though Paine was, he poured the whole of the immense profits which he received from the sale of his little book into the colonial war-chest, shouldered a musket, joined Washington’s army as a private, and was soon promoted to be aide-de-camp to General Greene. Paine’s most valuable weapon, however, was still his pen. Writing at night, after endless marches, by the light of camp fires at a moment of general depression, when even Washington thought that the game was “pretty well up,” Paine began to write the series of pamphlets afterwards collected under the title of The American Crisis. They did for the American volunteers what Rouget de Lisle’s immortal song did for the French levies in the revolutionary wars, what Koerner’s martial ballads did for the German patriots in the Napoleonic wars. These superb pages of exhortation were read in every camp to the disheartened men; their courage commanded victory. Burke himself wrote nothing finer than the opening sentences of the first “crisis,” a trumpet call indeed, but phrased by an artist who knew the science of compelling music from brass:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

“Common-sense” Paine was now the chief of the moral forces behind the fighting Republic, and his power of thinking boldly and stating clearly drove it forward to its destiny under the leadership of men whom Nature had gifted with less trenchant minds. He was in succession Foreign Secretary to Congress and clerk to the Pennsylvania Assembly, and we find him converting despair into triumph by the magic of self-sacrifice. He it was who in 1780 saved the finances of the war in a moment of despair, by starting the patriotic subscription with the gift of his own salary, and in 1781 proved his diplomatic gift in a journey to Paris by obtaining money-aid from the French Court.

Paine might have settled down to enjoy his fame, after the war, on the little property which the State of New York gave him. He loathed inaction and escaped middle age. In 1787 he returned to England, partly to carry his pen where the work of liberation called for it, partly to forward his mechanical inventions. Paine, self-educated though he was, was a capable mathematician, and he followed the progress of the applied sciences with passion. His inventions include a long list of things partly useful, partly whimsical, a planing machine, a crane, a smokeless candle and a gunpowder motor. But his fame as an inventor rests on his construction of the first iron bridge, made after his models and plans at Wearmouth. He was received as a leader and teacher in the ardent circle of reformers grouped round the Revolution Society and the Corresponding Society. Others were the dreamers and theorists of liberty. He had been at the making of a Republic, and his American experience gave the stimulus to English Radicalism which events in France were presently to repeat. His fame was already European, and at the fall of the Bastille, it was to Paine that Lafayette confided its key, when a free France sent that symbol of defeated despotism as a present to a free America. He seemed the natural link between three revolutions, the one which had succeeded in the New World, the other which was transforming France, and the third which was yet to come in England.

Burke’s Reflections rang in his ears like a challenge, and he sat promptly down in his inn to write his reply. The Rights of Man is an answer to Burke, but it is much more. The vivid pages of history in which he explains and defends the French Revolution which Burke had attacked and misunderstood, are only an illustration to his main argument. He expounds the right of revolution, and blows away the cobweb argument of legality by which his antagonist had sought to confine posterity within the settlement of 1688. Every age and generation must be free to act for itself. Man has no property in man, and the claim of one generation to govern beyond the grave is of all tyrannies the most insolent. Burke had contended for the right of the dead to govern the living, but that which a whole nation chooses to do, it has a right to do. The men of 1688, who surrendered their own rights and bound themselves to obey King William and his heirs, might indeed choose to be slaves; but that could not lessen the right of their children to be free. Wrongs cannot have a legal descent. Here was a bold and triumphant answer to a sophistical argument; but it served Paine only as a preface to his exposition of the American constitution, which was “to Liberty what a grammar is to language,” and to his plea for the adoption in England of the French charter of the Rights of Man.

Paine felt that he had made one Republic with a pamphlet, why not another? He had the unlimited faith of his generation in the efficacy of argument, and experience had proved his power. As Carlyle, in his whimsical dramatic fashion, said of him, “He can and will free all this world; perhaps even the other.” Godwin, as became the philosopher of the movement, set his hopes on the slower working of education: to make men wise was to make them free. Paine was the pamphleteer of the human camp. He saw mankind as an embattled legion and believed, true man of action that he was, that freedom could be won like victory by the impetus of a resolute charge. He quotes the epigram of his fellow-soldier, Lafayette, “For a nation to love liberty, it is sufficient that she knows it; and to be free it is sufficient that she wills it.” Godwin would have sent men to school to liberty; Paine called them to her unfurled standard. It is easy to understand the success of Paine’s book, which appeared in March, 1791. It was theory and practice in one; it was the armed logic which had driven King George’s regiments from America, the edged argument which had razed the Bastille. It was bold reasoning, and it was also inspired writing. Holcroft and Godwin helped to bring out The Rights of Man, threatened with suppression or mutilation by the publishers, and a panting incoherent shout of joy in a note from Holcroft to Godwin is typical of the excitement which it caused:

“I have got it if this do not cure my cough it is a damned perverse mule of a cough. The pamphlet from the row But mum we don’t sell it oh, no ears and eggs verbatim, except the addition of a short preface, which as you have not seen, I send you my copy. Not a single castration (Laud be unto God and J. S. Jordan!) can I discover Hey, for the new Jerusalem! The Millennium! And peace and eternal beatitude be unto the soul of Thomas Paine.”

The usual prosecutions of booksellers followed; but everywhere the new societies of reform were circulating the book, and if it helped to send some good men to Botany Bay, copies enough were sold to earn a sum of a thousand pounds for the author, which, with his usual disinterestedness, he promptly gave to the Corresponding Society. A second part appeared in 1792; and at length Pitt adopted Burke’s opinion that criminal justice was the proper argument with which to refute Tom Paine. Acting on a hint from William Blake, who, in a vision more prosaic and veridical than was usual with him, had seen the constables searching for his friend, Paine escaped to France, and was convicted in his absence of high treason.

Paine landed at Calais an outlaw, to find himself already elected its deputy to the Convention. As in America, so in France, his was the first voice to urge the uncompromising solution. He advocated the abolition of the monarchy; but his was a courage that always served humanity. The work which he did as a member, with Sieyes, Danton, Condorcet, and five others, of the little committee named to draft the constitution, was ephemeral. His brave pleading for the King’s life was a deed that deserves to live. He loved to think of himself as a woodman swinging an axe against rotten institutions and dying beliefs; but he weighted no guillotines. Paine argued against the command that we should “love our enemies,” but he would not persecute them. This knight-errant would fling his shield over the very spies who tracked his steps. In Paris he saved the life of one of Pitt’s agents who had vilified him, and procured the liberation of a bullying English officer who had struck him in public. The Terror made mercy a traitor, and Paine found himself overwhelmed in the vengeance which overtook all that was noblest in the Revolution. He spent ten months in prison, racked with fever, and an anecdote which seems to be authentic, tells how he escaped death by the negligence of a jailor. This overworked official hastily chalked the sign which meant that a prisoner was marked for next batch of the guillotine’s victims, on the inside instead of the outside of Paine’s cell-door.

Condorcet, in hiding and awaiting death, wrote in these months his Sketch of human progress. Paine, meditating on the end that seemed near, composed the first part of his Age of Reason. Paine was, like Franklin, Jefferson and Washington, a deist; and he differed from them only in the courage which prompted him to declare his belief. He came from gaol a broken man, hardly able to stand, while the Convention, returned to its sound senses, welcomed him back to his place of honour on its benches. The record of his last years in America, whither he returned in 1802, belongs rather to the history of persecution than to the biography of a soldier of liberty. His work was done; and, though his pen was still active and influential, slave-owners, ex-royalists, and the fanatics of orthodoxy combined to embitter the end of the man who had dared to deny the inspiration of the Bible. His book was burned in England by the hangman. Bishops in their answers mingled grudging concessions with personal abuse. An agent of Pitt’s was hired to write a scurrilous biography of the Government’s most dreaded foe. In America, the grandsons of the Puritan colonists who had flogged Quaker women as witches, denied him a place on the stage-coach, lest an offended God should strike it with lightning.

Paine died, a lonely old man, in 1809. His personal character stands written in his career; and it is unnecessary to-day even to mention the libels which his biographer has finally refuted. In a generation of brave men he was the boldest. He could rouse the passions of men, and he could brave them. If the Royalist Burke was eloquent for a Queen, Republican Paine risked his life for a King. No wrong found him indifferent; and he used his pen not only for the democracy which might reward him, but for animals, slaves and women. Poverty never left him, yet he made fortunes with his pen, and gave them to the cause he served. A naïve vanity was his only fault as a man. It was his fate to escape the gallows in England and the guillotine in France. He deserved them both; in that age there was no higher praise. A better democrat never wore the armour of the knight-errant; a better Christian never assailed Orthodoxy.

Neither by training nor by temperament was Paine a speculative thinker; but his political writing has none the less an immense significance. Godwin was a writer removed by his profoundly individual genius from the average thought of his day. Paine agreed more nearly with the advanced minds of his generation, and he taught the rest to agree with him. No one since him or before him has stated the plain democratic case against monarchy and aristocracy with half his spirit and force. Earlier writers on these themes were timid; the moderns are bored. Paine is writing of what he understands, and feels to be of the first importance. He cares as much about abolishing titles as a modern reformer may feel about nationalising land. His main theory in politics has a lucid simplicity. Men are born as God created them, free and equal; that is the assumption alike of natural and revealed religion. Burke, who “fears God,” looks with “awe to kings,” with “duty to magistrates,” and with “respect to nobility,” is but erecting a wilderness of turnpike gates between man and his Maker. Natural rights inhere in man by reason of his existence; civil rights are founded in natural rights and are designed to secure and guarantee them. He gives an individual twist to the doctrine of the social compact. Some governments arise out of the people, others over the people. The latter are based on conquest or priestcraft, and the former on reason. Government will be firmly based on the social compact only when nations deliberately sit down as the Americans have done, and the French are doing, to frame a constitution on the basis of the Rights of Man.

As for the English Government, it clearly arose in conquest; and to speak of a British Constitution is playing with words. Parliament, imperfectly and capriciously elected, is supposed to hold the common purse in trust; but the men who vote the supplies are also those who receive them. The national purse is the common hack on which each party mounts in turn, in the countryman’s fashion of “ride and tie.” They order these things better in France. As for our system of conducting wars, it is all done over the heads of the people. War is with us the art of conquering at home. Taxes are not raised to carry on wars, but wars raised to carry on taxes. The shrewd hard-hitting blows range over the whole surface of existing institutions. Godwin from his intellectual eminence saw in all the follies and crimes of mankind nothing worse than the effects of “prejudice” and the consequences of fallacious reasoning. Paine saw more self-interest in the world than prejudice. When he came to preach the abolition of war, first through an alliance of Britain, America and France, and then through “a confederation of nations” and a European Congress, he saw the obstacle in the egoism of courts and courtiers which appear to quarrel but agree to plunder. Another seven years, he wrote in 1792, would see the end of monarchy and aristocracy in Europe. While they continue, with war as their trade, peace has not the security of a day.

Paine’s writing gains rather than loses in theoretic interest, because the warmth of his sympathies melts, as he proceeds, the icy logic of his eighteenth century individualism. He starts where all his school started, with a sharp antithesis between society and government.

“Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections; the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing; but government even in its best state is a necessary evil.... Government, like dress, is the badge of our lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.”

That was the familiar pessimism which led in practical politics to laissez faire, and in speculation to Godwin’s philosophic anarchism. Paine himself seems for a moment to take that road. He enjoys telling us how well the American colonies managed in the early stages of the war without any regular form of government. He assures us that “the more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government.” But he had served an apprenticeship to life; looking around him at the streets filled with beggars and the jails crowded with poor men, he suddenly forgets that the whole purpose of government is to secure the individual against the invasion of his rights, and straightway bursts into a new definition: “Civil government does not consist in executions; but in making such provision for the instruction of youth and the support of age as to exclude as much as possible profligacy from the one and despair from the other. Instead of this the resources of a country are lavished upon kings ... and the poor themselves are compelled to support the fraud that oppresses them.”

It is amazing how much good Paine can extract from a necessary evil. He has suddenly conceived of government as the instrument of the social conscience. He means to use it as a means of securing a better organisation of society. Paine was a man of action, and no mere logic could hold him. He proceeds in a breathless chapter to evolve a programme of social reform which, after the slumbers of a century, his Radical successors have just begun to realise. Some hints came to him from Condorcet, but most of these daringly novel ideas sprang from Paine’s own inventive brain, and all of them are presented by the whilom exciseman, with a wealth of financial detail, as if he were a Chancellor of the Exchequer addressing the first Republican Parliament in the year One of Liberty. He would break up the poor laws, “these instruments of civil torture.” He has saved the major part of the cost of defence by a naval alliance with the other Sea Powers, and the abolition of capture at sea. Instead of poor relief he would give a subsidy to the children of the very poor, and pensions to the aged. Four pounds a year for every child under fourteen in every necessitous family will ensure the health and instruction of the next generation. It will cost two millions and a half, but it will banish ignorance. He would pay the costs of compulsory education. Pensions are to be granted not of grace but of right, as an aid to the infirm after fifty years, and a subsidy to the aged after sixty. Maternity benefit is anticipated in a donation of twenty shillings to every poor mother at the birth of a child. Casual labour is to be cared for in some sort of workhouse-factories in London. These reforms are to be financed partly by economies and partly by a graduated income-tax, for which Paine presents an elaborate schedule. When the poor are happy and the jails empty, then at last may a nation boast of its constitution. In this pregnant chapter Paine not only sketched the work of the future; he exploded his own premises.

The odium that still clings to Paine’s theological writings comes mainly from those who have not read them. When Mr. Roosevelt the other day called him “a dirty little Atheist,” he exposed nothing but his own ignorance. Paine was a deist, and he wrote The Age of Reason on the threshold of a French prison, primarily to counteract the atheism which he thought he saw at work among the Jacobins an odd diagnosis, for Robespierre was at least as ardent in his deism as Paine himself. He believed in a God, Whose bounty he saw in nature; he taught the doctrine of conditional immortality, and his quarrel with revealed religion was chiefly that it set up for worship a God of cruelty and injustice. From the stories of the Jewish massacres ordained by divine command, down to the orthodox doctrine of the scheme of redemption, he saw nothing but a history derogatory to the wisdom and goodness of the Almighty. To believe the Old Testament we must unbelieve our faith in the moral justice of God. It might “hurt the stubbornness of a priest” to destroy this fiction, but it would tranquilise the consciences of millions. From this starting-point he proceeds in the later second and third parts to a detailed criticism designed to show that the books of the Bible were not written by their reputed authors, that the miracles are incredible, that the passages claimed as prophecy have been wrested from their contexts, and that many inconsistencies are to be found in the narrative portions of the Gospels.

Acute and fearless though it is, this detailed argument has only an historical interest to-day. When the violence of his persecutors had goaded Paine into anger, he lost all sense of tact in controversy, and lapsed occasionally into harsh vulgarities. But the anger was just, and the zeal for mental honesty has had its reward. Paine had no sense for the mystery and poetry of traditional religion. But what he attacked was not presented to him as poetry. He was assailing a dogmatic orthodoxy which had itself converted poetry into literal fact. As literal fact it was incredible; and Paine, taking it all at the valuation of its own professors, assailed it with a disbelief as prosaic as their belief, but intellectually more honest. His interpretation of the Bible is unscientific, if you will, but it is nearer to the truth of history than the conventional belief of his day. If his polemics seem rough and superfluous to us, it is only because his direct frontal attacks forced on the work of Biblical criticism, and long ago compelled the abandonment of most of the positions which he assailed. In spite of its grave faults of taste and temper and manner, The Age of Reason performed an indispensable service to honesty and morals. It was the bravest thing he did, for it threatened his name with an immortality of libel. His place in history is secure at last. The neglected pioneer of one revolution, the honoured victim of another, brave to the point of folly, and as humane as he was brave, no man in his generation preached republican virtue in better English, nor lived it with a finer disregard of self.