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Society, Politics & Law

Paine: The expert view

Updated Thursday, 21st October 2004

Geoff Andrews explores the life and legacy of Thomas Paine, polemicist, republican and democrat.

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The fact that Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is more widely known in America and France than his native Britain tells you something about the different political traditions which developed in these countries.

Both America and France saw revolutions which have subsequently carried great significance for the development of modern democratic politics. Paine has an important connection to both. His book Common Sense, written in 1776, two years after arriving in America from Britain, provided a political justification for American independence that drove the revolution at that time.

After giving strong support for the French Revolution in his Rights of Man (1791/1792), he entered the French parliament before being imprisoned under the Terror. In Britain, a country still without a written constitution, he is barely remembered. In the country of his birth, his ideas of civic republicanism and constitutional government have always received a more lukewarm reception.

Yet Paine remains a crucial figure in the development of political thought in Britain. Before leaving for America, Paine had learned his political apprenticeship in Lewes, Sussex, where he worked as an excise officer.

In Lewes he became a town councillor and held forth in the White Hart public house, as a member of the ‘Headstrong Club’, one of many debating societies in Britain at that time. On his return from America in 1787 Paine, now an established writer and political thinker, became part of a wider circle of influential thinkers, whose members included William Godwin, Henry Fuseli, a Swiss painter, Joseph Priestley, the poet William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist writer. This group and others – ‘public intellectuals’ in today’s language – constituted the main circles of what might be called ‘British Enlightenment’ dissenters. Indeed some have described the range of ‘Dissenting Academies’, the expansion of coffee-houses and the beginnings of public life, which included the growth of museums and art galleries, as a ‘British Enlightenment’, to mirror the more prominent intellectual developments across the water.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, inspired by the ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire, the Reverend Richard Price, a Dissenting Minister, gave a sermon in London which enthusiastically endorsed the events. ‘Tremble all ye oppressors of the world,’ he declared, ‘…you cannot now hold the world in darkness. Struggle no longer against increasing light and liberality. Restore to mankind their rights and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.' This prompted Edmund Burke, to argue, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), that the revolution was founded on ‘abstract rights’, destructive of the civic order and warned against the danger of it reaching England. Much better, he argued, to stick with the ‘consolidated wisdom’ of long experience.

Paine’s response to Burke was the Rights of Man, written in two parts between 1791 and 1792 and which stimulated large protest movements as the decade unfolded. He set out his justification of the French Revolution on the grounds that the monarchy had been replaced by constitutional government, equal rights to all citizens, with sovereignty transferred to the people through parliament. The same should happen in Britain, Paine argued, where no constitution existed and where hereditary and monarchical government ruled. Ordinary people had no representation and were living in servitude; subjects without a voice, rather than citizens.

He wrote: ‘There never did, there never will, and there never can exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the ‘end of time’, or of commanding for ever how the world should be governed, or who shall govern it…’ Paine argued that Britain needed a modern constitution, for ‘the living, not for the dead’, which embodied the rights of the citizens, as well as the powers of government and the rules and procedures, by which the government is held fully accountable to the people.

He carries on: ‘A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of a constitution. The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, but of the people constituting a government. It is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and which contains the principles on which the government shall be established, the manner in which it shall be organised, the powers it shall have, the mode of elections, the duration of parliaments, or by what other name such bodies may be called; the powers which the executive part of the government shall have; and, in fine, everything that relates to the complete organization of a civil government, and the principles on which it should act, and by which it shall be bound’.

The publication of the Rights of Man was followed by further notable contributions from Mary Wollstonecraft - Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), widely regarded as the first argument for feminism - and William Godwin, whose An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793, is regarded as the first statement of anarchist principles. Despite different emphases, these books all contained a similar theme: guided by the ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘reason’ it was now possible to conceive of a modern society in which citizens had full rights in choosing their government based on equal representation. The antiquarian system of privilege and hereditary government, unequal representation and the subjugation of women had no place in a modern democracy.

These arguments were given a more immediate context with the political upheavals going on in Britain at the time. The publication of the Rights of Man sold around 200,000 copies following the publication of its second part in 1792. In May 1792 the British Government presented Paine with a summons for ‘seditious writings’. Paine escaped to France before he could be put on trial. However his ideas were taken up by groups such as the London Corresponding Society, (LCS) set up in 1792 and believed to be the first working class movement. The LCS campaigned for democratic representation of the people. Demonstrations they called led to major agitations and tensions with the government. Fearing Britain may be on the verge of revolution, the government issued the two ‘Gagging Acts’, against ‘treason’ and ‘sedition’ and put many of the leaders of the LCS on trial, though the Treason Trial of 1794 found them not guilty, a decision thought to be influenced by public support for the movement.

Therefore Paine did have an important influence in Britain as well as France and America. It is remarkable how his ideas were able to influence such a range of movements and events in different countries. While Britain was not yet ready to take up his arguments in similar ways to France and America, his ideas were sufficiently well received to contribute to one of the most unstable political periods in Britain, ultimately thwarted by a backlash against the radical movements and the disintegration and fragmentation of the dissident leadership. Paine spent his last years in relative obscurity in America, following a period of imprisonment in France between 1793 and 1794, the years of the Jacobin Terror, for opposing the execution of King Louis XVI.

The influence of Thomas Paine remains crucial to understanding the development of modern politics and political ideas. His work spanned such contemporary issues as economic growth and social justice, which he expounded in his last major work, Agrarian Justice, published in 1797. Here he contrasted the disparities of wealth and the political inequality that resulted from them, leading him to argue in favour of the expansion of the modern industry. Although falling short of advocating public ownership, he did favour pensions and what would now be seen as welfare policies. However, it is his work on democratic and constitutional government and national independence for which he will be primarily be remembered. His debate with Burke is still recognised as a classic dispute between radical and conservative positions on politics. But above all, he had the capacity to be in the right place at the right time, and to write in a sufficiently popular and committed way to influence large audiences. This partly testifies to his democratic principles and for raising awkward questions wherever he went: a true dissenter.





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