The Roots of Thomas Paine's Radicalism

Before the publication of Common Sense on January 10, 1776, many colonists regarded the king as above public reproach, even after he removed the colonies from England's protection by declaring them in a state of revolt. The fighting with Britain had been widely seen as a family quarrel, and it's doubtful we would have declared our independence as soon as we did ' if at all. But Paine's pamphlet exposed the king as a 'royal brute' and conveyed its message in straight, hard-hitting language. Indeed, without the words of Paine, the words of Jefferson six months later might never have been, and the American cause might have collapsed later that year following Howe's rout of Washington's army in New York. Before docking at Philadelphia in the early fall of 1774, Paine had spent the first 37 years of his life struggling in the underclass of British society. He had failed as a staymaker, a husband, and an excise officer; he owned no property, had no money, had scant formal education, and came from a family of artisans. His only significant attempt at written persuasion had failed miserably. How is it, then, he was able to write the most politically-upheaving essay of the eighteenth century, and perhaps of all time, in little more than a year after his arrival in the colonies? Paine biographer John Keane has done a remarkable job helping to address this question. In his 1995 book, Tom Paine: A Political Life, Keane peels away some of the mystery surrounding Paine's earlier years. 'As Keane corrects all prior Paine biographers,' Library Journal's John Berry writes, 'Keane's bibliographic notes prove how thoroughly he has scoured every scrap of Paine scholarship from the beginning to now.' [1] Keane, in fact, identified some 620 Paine writings, at least 70 of which 'have not hitherto been available to or used by Paine's biographers.' [2] (Unless otherwise marked, all quotes in this article are from Keane's book.) If we assume Paine, the literary firebrand, developed along the lines of the classic means ' motive ' opportunity mold, we can find him developing both means and motives while living in the king's homeland before making his opportunity in America. The king's justice comes to Thetford 'From the hour of his birth,' Keane writes, 'Tom Paine felt the deathly hand of the English state.' Each year with the arrival of spring, the Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas would travel from Cambridge to Thetford accompanied by a livery of 40 mounted men. 'His arrival in Paine's hometown [Thetford] was bathed in pomp, above all because the Lord Chief Justice symbolized the power of King George II's government over outlying courts and regions.' And what was the purpose of this annual trek? To render justice. And how was justice manifested? By hanging prisoners on Gallows Hill, which stood within sight of Paine's thatched cottage. But first, there was a week of debauchery. Visitors from all over flocked to Paine's town of two thousand people to participate in drunken anticipation of what Voltaire called England's practice of murdering by law. On Sunday, a day of enforced godliness, the Lord Chief Justice walked a private path to St. Peter's Church, accompanied by the High Sheriff, the Mayor, and 'black-gowned members of the Thetford Corporation.' There, they heard somber sermons on the wrath of God and the importance of obeying His King's laws. The trials took place before packed courtrooms in the old Guildhall. The accused were poor, expected to stand mute, and often didn't know what the charges were against them. In the room where the Lord Chief Justice conducted their hearings hung a painting of Justice with the inscription, 'Judge righteously, and plead the cause of the Poor and Needy. Proverbs 31 and 9.' Petty civil offenses such as forgery and libel sometimes resulted in prisoners being sent to the American colonies for punishment. Capital offenses included burglary, stealing livestock, highway robbery, and arson. In the year of Paine's birth ' 1737 -- one man 'confessed' to stealing twenty shillings from a tavern; another man was accused of stealing a bushel of wheat 'and robbing a woman on the King's Highway.' A third victim was convicted of purchasing a stolen horse and stealing a parcel of tea. The prisoners, looking cadaverous in their shabby blue coats, listened as the Lord Chief Justice ordered them to be executed by hanging the next morning. The number of capital statutes, which stood at fifty in 1689, quadrupled during Paine's century and included such offenses as stealing a sheep or being out at night with a blackened face. Yet the politically connected could literally get away with murder. England became a country where the rich and poor lived under different laws. For the first 19 years of his life, Paine witnessed this parody of justice each spring, and watched from his cottage as convicted beggars were marched with solemn hypocrisy to their deaths. Local aristocratic rule Poets and early Paine biographers described Thetford in lyrical terms, conveying an image of pristine beauty. In Thetford, there is 'beauty buried everywhere,' wrote biographer Moncure Conway, quoting Robert Browning. But this was grossly misleading. Not only did the annual executions darken this image, so did the dominance of an aristocratic family, The Graftons. The Grafton estate stood near Thetford and encompassed a land area 40 miles in circumference. At the center of the estate stood a magnificent brick house built around a central court. Its interior epitomized dissipation, consisting of portraits of the king, a conservatory, a Venetian gilt table, Spanish painted cabinets ' the finest furnishings available. Outside were walled gardens, lush pathways, and an octagonal temple from which the Graftons watched their racehorses and purebred hounds exercise. During Paine's teenage years, the second duke of Grafton decided the view of the surrounding countryside from his pink bedroom was marred by the presence of Euston Village. He decided to 'cleanse' the landscape and have the entire village relocated. He even had the Little Ouse River redirected to suit his tastes. Functioning as one of the 'great oaks that shade a country,' the Graftons, along with other aristocratic families throughout England, 'dispensed a rich harvest of patronage in the form of salaried jobs, tenancies, and, through the borough, licenses, building contracts, and provisions for elections and charity dinners. Uniting in their persons practically all executive power, they acted as the satraps of the community, watching and controlling its public life . . . " To get elected to Parliament, the Graftons simply bought the votes they needed. After awhile they didn't even need to do that; over a 70-year span beginning in 1733, all Thetford parliamentary candidates representing the Graftons ran unopposed. (Could the unsavory meaning of 'graft' be connected to the Graftons?) Anglican mother, Quaker father Paine's father, Joseph, a Quaker, was expelled from the Society of Friends for marrying Frances Cocke, an Anglican and a confirmed member of the Church of England. The expulsion was more like a cold-shouldering than a complete dismissal, for Joseph was still registered as a Quaker at burial. Both of their children, Elizabeth and Thomas, were baptized as Anglicans; Elizabeth died in her seventh month, a reflection of the 20% infant mortality rate. Thus, Paine, through his parents, received his moral training from the crossfire of two antagonistic Christian sects. In addition to some formal indoctrination, Paine had his mother and a pious aunt to further his education in Anglicanism. His father regularly took him to a tiny Quaker meetinghouse, a fittingly drab building adjacent to the town lockup. At these Sunday meetings, 'Paine encountered men and women who practiced the art of subverting established religious and social conventions and shunned the authority of the state.' Quakers were convinced that church and priest alike were unnecessary. They regarded all believers, both men and women, as equals, and addressed everyone as 'thee' or 'thou,' no matter how exulted. One can speculate that as a youth, Paine must have heard his father tell him of George Fox, the Quaker founder and charismatic visionary, who 'denounced the professional clergy, . . . recommended the study and admiration of nature; condemned slavery, war, and capital punishment for crimes against property . . . [and] championed the rights of women.' From staymaker to sailor Paine's formal education came to an end at age 12, when his father removed him from school to begin a seven-year apprenticeship in the staymaking trade. Staymaking was a tedious art, quite suited to the patience of a Quaker. Thetford had been fiercely protectionist for over 150 years, attempting to keep out challengers and assure markets for local tradesmen. During Paine's apprenticeship, the walls began to crumble, and competition grew more intense. Paine and other apprentices no longer had a government-guaranteed livelihood. Facing an uncertain future economically and restless with youthful energy, Paine took off for sea at age 19. England was engaged in another war with the French at the time (1756), and privateers beckoned young Englishmen to serve king and country. In London, he signed on as a crewmember of the Terrible, a privateer under command of Captain Death. The Terrible sailed into the Channel and was annihilated by the French privateer Vengeance. Most of Terrible's crew was killed, and every officer save one died, including the captain. Fortunately for American history, Paine's father stopped him from boarding the Terrible hours before it left Execution Dock on the Thames. But two months later he was out to sea on another privateer, King of Prussia. He fought the French successfully for six months before disembarking on August 20, 1757. With money earned from his share of King of Prussia's booty, Paine pursued his interest in natural science, browsing London's bookstores, purchasing a pair of globes, and attending the Royal Society lectures of James Ferguson and Benjamin Martin, two of England's most notable itinerant lecturers. Paine learned that Ferguson offered private and small-group lessons on using a globe, and in this manner the two men met. He made friends with both scientists, regularly attending their lectures on the general philosophy of Newton, astronomy, and various topics in physics. Though there was little explicit political content in the lectures, Paine's attendance brought him into 'a new culture of political radicalism that rejected throne and altar.' Other attendees were mostly self-educated shopkeepers and artisans who placed a high value on knowledge, but because of their sex, class, or dissenting religion were denied access to official channels of learning at Oxford or Cambridge. Methodism, marriage, and the Excise Corps When Paine's money ran out, he set up a modest staymaking business in Sandwich, about 75 miles southeast of London. As impressed as he was with science, Paine nevertheless found himself intrigued with Methodism. John Wesley and his Methodist preachers were taking their message to commoners, just as Ferguson and Martin had been doing with Newtonian science. Founded as a sect within the Church of England two decades earlier, Methodism used a plain-talking Christian rhetoric that frightened the Anglican hierarchy. To Paine, who dallied in preaching and saw how Wesley's movement was attracting the underclass in droves, 'Methodism demonstrated that the excluded majority were a social force to be reckoned with . . . [C]ommoners did not need to be talked down to, ignored, pushed aside, or hanged for criminal offenses.' In September 1759, Paine married commoner Mary Lambert, and in less than a year he was a widower, his young wife and child having died during delivery. Paine seemed permanently numbed by the tragedy and had few close female friends for the remainder of his life. Encouraged by his father-in-law's experience as a member of the excise corps, Paine returned to his parents' house in Thetford to begin the time-consuming process of preparing for a career as an exciseman. Fourteen months later he secured his first appointment as an apprentice officer assessing brewers' casks in Grantham. By August 1764 he had secured a better-paying position in the small market town of Alford, where his duties included collecting revenues from coffee and tea dealers and watching out for smugglers. It bothered Paine to be collecting taxes from small merchants, but in an age when 'most people lived in fear of pauperization,' he was thankful to have a secure job. To the people he collected from, 'the Excise was a thousand-eyed greedy monster devouring common folk' for the sake of despotic state rulers. To avoid antagonizing their victims, many excisemen shortchanged the government by 'stamping' or what today might be called cribbing ' doing things such as falsifying reports and taking bribes. Paine's supervisor, William Swallow, had a history of bullying junior excise officials, and to cover his own theft, accused Paine of stamping and got the Excise Board to fire him at the end of August 1765. The acid taste of crow Humiliated by a corrupt state, Paine went back to the staymaking business in a small village near Thetford. Through one of his father's contacts, he was able to submit a petition for reinstatement to the Excise Board, all the while knowing some kind of behind-the-scenes deal was being struck to get his appeal approved. 'Paine accordingly confessed to the 'justice' of the Excise Board's decision to sack him [and] thanked it for being so lenient.' After his reinstatement on July 4, 1766, Paine went to London to wait for an excise vacancy to open up. With the breakdown of educational licensing by church and state, Paine was able to get a job teaching reading and writing in one of the many new private schools flooding the market. Teaching paid poorly ' twenty-five pounds a year, about half of what he made as an exciseman ' but he liked it because he was providing marketable skills to children from low-income families. In London, he also renewed his association with James Ferguson, who was later to introduce him to Benjamin Franklin ' a meeting that would change the world. The Headstrong Club in Lewes After politely declining one excise vacancy, Paine accepted the next offer, a position in the Sussex town of Lewes. He found the town alive with activity ' it had a cricket team, a circulating library, a busy coffeehouse, a regular visiting theater group -- and the woman who was to become his second wife, Elizabeth Ollive. In the spring of 1768, Paine took lodging in the room above the snuff and tobacco shop of Samuel and Esther Ollive, Elizabeth's parents. At 31, with flashing black eyes, a brisk mind, 'a bounce in his step, his conversation, and even in his signature,' [3] Paine was about to accelerate his political education and learn to express his convictions with greater confidence. Though he participated in local self-government, by far his most robust political experience came as a member of the Headstrong Club. The club was an informal debating society that met once a week at the White Hart Inn, the hub of Lewes social life. Paine, Keane tells us, 'reveled in this circle.' Although there is no historical record of what the men debated, given what we know of Paine and the times generally, it's not hard to imagine them getting heated over such topics as English nobility, the British state, the demagogue but pro-liberty John Wilkes -- and flinging the doors open to commentary on the American colonies. In spite of Paine's denials later in life that he ever published anything before leaving for America, the evidence that he did is too compelling. There are several plausible reasons for his denials, including the likelihood that he wanted to protect family and friends from reprisals for his incendiary political writings. Historians credit Paine with authoring a cutting satire appearing in the Sussex Weekly Advertiser called 'The Trial of Farmer Short's Dog Porter.' Three local judges didn't like the way a farmer named Short had voted in a recent parliamentary election, so they had ordered his dog Porter to be hanged. A second marriage and a petition to Parliament In Paine's six-year stay in Lewes, he fashioned a reputation for debating and penning biting verse, and made many friends, including a boy who later became his first favorable biographer, Thomas Clio Rickman. [4] But trouble was never far away in Paine's life. A year after moving to Lewes, his landlord, Samuel Ollive, died, and at the request of Ollive's widow Esther, Paine agreed to help run the store. With her urging, he got to know her pretty daughter Elizabeth, then 20, who ran a small boarding school for women in town. On March 26, 1771, at age 34, Paine and Elizabeth exchanged vows. Three years later, they filed for personal bankruptcy and separation. Their marriage was stressed by lack of money, Paine's absence as an excise officer, and the conditions of excisemen generally. The officers were underpaid, overworked, tempted into fraud, and threatened by smugglers. Someone came up with the idea of getting a wage increase for the officers and contacted Paine in the summer of 1772 to write a petition to Parliament on their behalf. He developed his case in a 21-page pamphlet he completed a few weeks before Christmas. With contributions of three shillings each from the country's 3,000 excisemen, William Lee of the Sussex Weekly Advertiser printed four thousand copies of the pamphlet, and Paine spent the winter months in London on unapproved leave trying to win favor for their position. He sought out Excise Board members, Members of Parliament, and makers of public opinion, including the Irish satirist playwright, Oliver Goldsmith. Although he received some encouragement, the petition went nowhere with Parliament. Not only did the ministry refuse to acknowledge it, the petition angered some Excise officials who accused him of writing pseudonymous articles in the Whitehall Evening Post attacking corrupt magistrates. When Paine returned home in April, he was greeted by an unhappy wife and an official letter of dismissal. Paine meets Franklin In late summer 1774, the London Chronicle reprinted Ben Franklin's Causes of the American Discontents before 1768. Paine very likely read the essay because he was in London at the time seeking an appointment with Franklin through James Ferguson. The rebellious colonies probably appealed to Paine, who no doubt was ready to revolt himself against a thoroughly corrupt state. Perhaps he imagined America as a land of White Hall Inns where freedom lovers were uniting a nation against tyranny. Franklin's genial personality, humble origins, and love of science resonated with Paine, and Paine's fiery eyes and quick wit impressed Franklin. At the end of September 1774, Paine boarded the London Packet bound for Philadelphia, carrying with him a letter from Franklin to his son-in-law Richard Bache. The letter kindly asked Bache to help Paine find employment 'as a clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor, all of which I think him very capable.' Paine, the commoner, who knew how to persuade the common folk and had seen the virtue in doing so, proved himself very capable indeed.


2 Keane, John, Tom Paine: A Political Life, Grove Press, NY, 1995. p. 538 3 Fruchtman Jr., Jack, Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom, Four Walls Eight Windows, NY, 1994. p. 27 4 Ibid., p. 31

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George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.