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tv   Rise and Fall of Thomas Paine  CSPAN  January 17, 2022 12:00pm-1:26pm EST

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studentcam.org. >> c-span's american history tv continues now. you can find the full schedule for the weekend on your program guide or at c-span.org/history. it is now my pleasure to introduce our speaker, dr. richard bell. dr. bell has presented many outstanding programs for smithsonian associates on topics relating to early american history and the american revolutionary period over the course of the past several years. most recently a program last month on month on baron von steuben and the valley forge winter. dr. bell is professor of history at the university of maryland. he holds a ba from the university of cambridge and a phd from harvard. he has won more than a dozen teaching awards including a 2017 university system of maryland board of regents faculty award for excellence in teaching which is the highest honor for teaching faculty in the maryland
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state system. in addition he has held many research fellowships at yale, cambridge and the library of congress and is the recipient of the 2018 national endowment of the humanities public scholar award and the 2021 andrew carnegie fellowship. he is author of the book "stolen: five free boys kidnapped into slavery and their astonishing odyssey home." this book was a finalist for the 2020 george washington prize and the 2020 harriet tubman prize. dr. bell is a trustee of the maryland center for history and culture and a fellow of the royal historical society. it is a delight to have him back with us for another program. so without further delay, please welcome dr. richard bell. welcome, rick. >> thank you, mary. i hope you can hear me okay and see me okay. i'm going to go ahead and share my screen now.
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that might take a couple of seconds to get ready. so let's get cracking. when thomas jefferson met thomas paine in paris in 1787, he begged him to sit for a portrait. jefferson collected portraits of celebrated men, and in 1787 there were few men as celebrated as tom paine, the author of "common sense," the 46-page pamphlet that had catalyzed the independence movement and overthrown the british monarchy and the colonies. paine agreed to be painted and jefferson hung the little portrait in pride of place on the walls of monticello, his house in virginia. that was 1787. now fast forward 40 years to 1828. thomas jefferson is dead, and
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his family are selling off his possessions. when the auctioneers dig out tom paine's portrait from the bottom of a box, they find his canvas torn and battered. there are knife holes through tom paine's eyes. there are stab marks in his chest as if some children in jefferson's family have been allowed to vandalize it. the fate of tom paine's painting is i think an apt metaphor for tom paine's own extraordinary life. the man toasted around the world in the 1770s and 1780s as the hero of the american revolution ended his days as a discredited pariah, unceremoniously cast aside. the ugly fate of that painting at monticello is also our first
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clue that thomas paine has never sat comfortably in the pantheon of america's founding fathers. a working class immigrant and sometime manual laborer, paine sticks out from the rest like a sore thumb. painlessly plain spoken but devilishly smart. paine was far more radical and ideological than jefferson and any other leaders of the american revolution. as a radical, he had a lot to say, basically self-taught paine went toe to toe with a generation of american, british and french intellectuals and statesmen, staking out very public and massively controversial positions on republicanism, on democracy, on social justice, on religious
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freedom and on human rights. paine's unwavering beliefs and unwavering commitment to speaking bluntly about those beliefs and directly made him far more enemies in his life than friends. and as the fate of his painting implies, paine's fall from public favor in the 1790s and 1800s was dramatic and dizzying. paine's widely publicized critiques of the british monarchy, of the french aristocracy, of george washington, of jesus and of the bible all brought down the wrath of the dominant classes upon him. concerted smear campaigns on both sides of the atlantic succeeded in turning the hero of
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the american revolution into the most despised public figure in the 18th century world. those attacks on him were devastating. and the story of paine's demise and his death in 1809 is, to my mind, one of the most tragic of any public figure in that period. along the way he would be spied on, spat at, shot at, tried and convicted in england, imprisoned and nearly executed in france and then defamed and denounced in the united states. it's an astonishing story, and paine's life pulsated with risk and novelty and drama and surprise at every turn. so let's get stuck in.
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tom paine was english. he was born in norfolk in eastern england in 1737. his father was a corset maker and he and young tom rarely saw eye to eye. like all of young men with difficult dads, tom left home when he was 19, set out for london. he was tall and slim, soft spoken and a bit embarrassed about his country boy accent. he had been raised as a quaker like his dad. that group's interest in commerce, their concern for political and social justice and their turn-the-other-cheek morality surely rubbed off on him. but in london he drifted away from quakerism, dabbling in anglicanism and in methodism to other types of protestant christianity. though he found no permanent religious home or community.
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money was tight, and after awhile, paine did what a lot of other poor folk in london ended up doing when times got hard, he signed up to become a sailor. he was about to embark on his first voyage on a ship called "the terrible" when his dad arrived on the docks to talk him out of what would have been a life shortening career choice. being a sailor is dangerous work. paine left london soon afterwards, moving to the town of lewis on england's south coast, and there he got involved in a debating group who called themselves the head strong club and even scribbled out a few political, satirical and anti-monarchical pieces for the local paper there, sometimes signing those pieces with a pen name, a pseudonym. try and guess what his pseudonym was.
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it was common sense. to pay the bills, paine tried his hand at shop keeping, corset making like his dad, teaching, being a tax collector, and he did also finally go to sea as a sailor. but in all of these different occupations tom paine was an unrelenting failure. his personal life was not much better. he lost his first wife in childbirth, and he divorced his second wife. by 1774 paine was 37 years old, and yet he had little to show for himself. he was bankrupt and suffering from typhoid. when he had met benjamin franklin one day back when paine had still lived in london, franklin encouraged this struggling young man to go and start a new life
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in the american colonies. so in 1774 tom paine did just that. clutching a very brief cursory letter of introduction from franklin who barely knew him, paine booked passage to philadelphia. turning his back on the country, england, that had brought him nothing but despair and disappointment. paine's health deteriorated so much on that long voyage across the ocean that he staggered off the ship in philadelphia half dead and he didn't know a soul. when his health finally returned fully six weeks later, tom paine set about reinventing himself. so he added an e to the end of his last name. p-a-i-n becomes p-a-i-n-e, a signal to himself as much as anyone else that he wanted to start fresh. he began contributing a few
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column inches to a local newspaper. and within a few months, he was able to use that brief experience as well as that cursory letter of introduction from ben franklin, philly's favorite son, to get himself a job in philadelphia, editing a new gentleman's magazine there at a salary of 50 pounds a year. and it was, i think, as editor of and contributor to this magazine, this pennsylvania magazine that tom paine would hone the skills that he would later use to write "common sense." think about it. editing a gentleman's magazine, a literary and political magazine immersed tom paine, a newcomer, in the world of colonial politics. editing this magazine also gave tom paine his first dedicated
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set of readers, a public, a reading public whose opinion he soon learned how to manipulate. in fact, one of paine's favorite tactics as editor and lead contributor to this pennsylvania magazine was to print articles in it that seemed to be about some harmless subject, like how to deal with an ant infestation but on closer inspection, turned out to be about politics. so, for instance, in a piece he published in the pennsylvania magazine called "an easy method to prevent the increase of bugs," he slowly reveals that his advice to house owners on how to exterminate their unwelcome visitors is, of course, really an analogy that compares the british army marching through new england at the time to bugs. in fact, the pennsylvania
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magazine was filled with anti-british barbs and quips like that one, some more carefully disguised than others. this makes sense. remember who paine is. paine had turned on england long ago. the careers and marriages he made there caused him only ruin and regret. galvanized by what had happened in lexington and concord in april of 1775, tom paine would write "common sense" to persuade ordinary americans that they should declare their independence from britain. as he was writing that pamphlet in the fall of 1775, tensions with britain were escalating quickly. popular emotions had been aroused not only by the 1773 tea act and the 1774 coercive acts
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that followed it, but more recently by the battles at lexington and concord and then at bunker hill. there was a lot of anger and confusion in the air as he was writing. although, to be clear, no one was talking openly yet about independence. not until tom paine's pamphlet burst on the scene. so tom paine is going to be one of the very first people to make a very argument that all colonial grievances should be focused on independence, not reconciliation, better terms and conditions, but independence. it's going to matter. let's spend some time now examining how tom paine builds the case for independence in the pages of that pamphlet, "common sense." bear in mind that paine's great gift was for language.
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he designed each paragraph of his pamphlet "common sense" to be read aloud to other people. he also adopts the rhetorical tricks that the best preacher of the day might have recognized, even as paine offers a secular, enlightenment-driven view that human beings have the power to better themselves and to change the world. and remember, the change that paine wants his readers to make is to break with britain, now and forever. and in "common sense" he makes independence something previously unthinkable and improbable. he makes independence seem suddenly imminent, necessary and urgent. what's so clever about how paine writes in this famous pamphlet is that the arguments he makes are not self-evident truths. what he says is actually not
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common sense at all, he just tells you that it is. in fact, he's able to make you rethink what you thought you knew. and he uses the plain-spoken language of an outraged tavern-goer to make you do so. take one of paine's very first arguments in "common sense." i think it's simply outrageous. in a world in which kings and princes rule almost every square foot of western europe, tom paine declares all kings and princes, all of them, to be illegitimate and despotic and demands that all of them be swept away. paine denies the heritage of their noble blood lines and calls them all a band of power-hungry ruffians who sit on thrones simply because an ancestor of theirs killed the previous dynasty of kings.
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tom paine calls william the conqueror, one of the most famous english kings of the previous centuries, a bastard from france, which is pretty rude. now, as good americans, you're all a few steps ahead of me, right? because you have all noted that, well, tom paine is not exactly lying, is he? monarchies, of course, do descend generation by generation from original acts of violence and subordination and, yes, the histories of england, france and other european countries are littered with invasions and conquests in which one king is simply killed or removed by an upstart young man who thinks he can do better. but so what if paine is technically correct about all this?
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remember, remember in the 1770s when he's writing, kings and princes are all the western world really knows. no one can yet imagine a realistic alternative to governing large countries and their growing empires. kings at least provide stability. kings father princes, and those princes become the next kings. this is a system that works, and it's worked for hundreds of years. so to suggest that colonists should break from the king of england and set out on their own requires a great deal of confidence. i think in spanish the word is cajones, right? requires a great deal of confidence. in fact, paine's cajones are so big that he doesn't limit himself to the simple treason of attacking king george.
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no, paine attacks all kings as illegitimate. in fact, he doesn't even bother to mention king george iii by name, referring to him in passing as the royal brute, bold stuff from tom paine. or take another major argument from "common sense." with fighting already under way at lexington and concord and bunker hill, paine tells readers of "common sense" that they should not make peace with england. reconciliation now, he says, is a dangerous doctrine. really? in the opening months of 1776, did any sane person really think that a tiny colonial militia could ever beat and banish the most powerful navy that the world had ever seen and a significant army?
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it is madness to think that. so why not make peace? safe in the knowledge that all the colonists' grievances against england would eventually evaporate as time passed. why not make peace safe in the knowledge that the colonists' debts would eventually get paid, that this hated king would soon shortlily die, and his unpopular cabinet would soon be forced from power? why not make peace, patch things up, wait it out? because paine won't let you see the problem like that. paine in "common sense" puts the burden of proof elsewhere, not upon the colonists to prove why they should be independent. he puts the burden of proof upon the british to prove why
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americans should stay shackled to them for even a second longer. bold stuff from tom paine. so in these ways, folks, "common sense" is a sort of declaration of independence, by which i mean it's a new kind of argument that denies all precedence by smacking the rule book about how you make arguments out of opponents' hands and ignoring every previous thing thought or said in favor of continuing on as dependent colonies. in the pages of "common sense" tom paine doesn't cite any classical authors, he doesn't quote people who disagree with him, he doesn't mention any constitutional theories about what is possible and what is not possible. paine won't stand for any of that. we have it in our power, he writes, to begin the world again.
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as i think you can start to see, as i hope you can start to see, much of paine's persuasive power rests not exactly in what he says, but in the way he says it. for instance, paine works hard to convince readers that the colonists are caught up in an epic struggle, not a small, silly domestic dispute about taxes and tea that will soon blow over, no. paine tells readers of "common sense" that the cause of america is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. with independence, paine argues, america will become a bright beacon for a republican government whose light will spread across the world. for god sake, he says, let us come to a final separation
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because the birthday of a new world is ahead. and folks, who doesn't like birthdays? independence, paine argues, is just common sense. to paine there is something politically and geographically unnatural about america's dependence on a distant island for government. to be always running three or 4 thousand miles with a tale or petition and then waiting four or five months for an answer, which when obtained requires five or six months to explain it in, will in a few years be looked upon as folly and childishness, paine writes. who can argue with logic like that? it's impossible. like any good self-help book, and "common sense" is a self-help book, paine concludes
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"common sense" by telling colonists how to take the next step. america, he says, should abandon britain and establish its own continental, republican form of government, a government that should be elective, representative and accountable. to do all this paine suggests that colonists write a proper declaration of independence, a manifesto that would summarize, as he put it, the miseries we've endured and the peaceful methods which we have ineffectively used to seek redress. paine even proposed what he called a continental conference to discuss and decide the precise future form of government for this new country, a country he christened the united states of america. and he was not shy about sharing
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his own preference that this country's new republican government should embrace a broad franchise, two elected assemblies and a rotating presidency to be chosen from among members of this congress, he suggested. paine drafted this pamphlet, "common sense" in the fall of 1775. and it first appeared in philadelphia bookshelves on january 10th, 1776 priced at two shillings, a price that paine thought was too high. nevertheless, he found plenty of readers right away. and that first printing sold out within two weeks. printers rushed to print more and turn a quick profit while demand was high. in all, we know that 25 editions of "common sense" were published in 13 american cities and towns,
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helping it to become the best-selling pamphlet of the year. its effect on people that read it was widely described as dramatic. by march of 1776 a report was making the rounds in britain that back in america "common sense" is read to all ranks. and as many as read it, so many become converted. though perhaps an hour before were violent against the least idea of independence. what they're saying there is they're hearing reports from america that people who want nothing to do with the cause of independence are reading this pamphlet and suddenly and immediately and decisively turning in favor of independence, that its effect is that powerful. it's like a drug. paine's friend benjamin rush later recalled that the pamphlet's effects were sudden
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and extensive upon the american mind. it was read by public men, repeated in clubs, spouted in schools. and in one instance, delivered from the pull -- pulpet instead of sermon by a clergyman in connecticut. noticeably phrases lifted from "common sense" began to turn up in all sorts of petitions written by ordinary americans that now called for independence. throughout the colonies, letters to newspapers would quote "common sense." editors of those papers reprinted excerpts from "common sense." and hundreds of newspaper readers wrote in to praise the pamphlet's style and contents. who is the author of "common sense" asked a reader in rhode island. i can hardly refrain from
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adoring him. he deserves a statue of gold. tom paine, by the way, published it anonymously at first. hence the mystery, who is the author of "common sense?" while "common sense" soon spawned several rebuttals by loyalists, those rebuttals were no match for this pamphlets brute but lyrical power. many skeptics were eventually won over. john adams had first described "common sense" as a poor, ignorant, malicious, shortsighted, crapulous mass, as a piece of crap. even john adams had to acknowledge this pamphlet's extraordinary power. after the war was won, much
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later, adam wrotes that without the pen of the author of "common sense," the sword of washington would have been raised in vain. indeed, this little 46-page pamphlet would soon push the members of the second continental congress to adopt independence as the fundamental objective of their escalating war with britain. their july 1776 declaration of independence owed an obvious debt to "common sense." although tom paine himself had no hand in drafting the declaration. because by then, paine was no longer in pennsylvania. he had joined the continental army on its march toward new york to try to capture that city from the british. but the british would soon put the continental army on their back foot, forcing them to retreat back to new jersey towards their headquarters in philadelphia.
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paine was with them as they advanced forward. then he was with them as they fell back, working as an aide to comp throughout that dispiriting summer and fall campaign. it was as the continental army fell back to trenton that tom paine authored the first and most famous of the six essays known as "the american crisis." these are the times that try men's souls. paine wrote in that 3,000-word owed to patriot fearlessness. the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of their country. but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.
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general washington ordered these stirring words from "the american crisis" by thomas paine to be read to his frost-bitten, exhausted troops as they made ready to retreat back across the delaware river into pennsylvania. though by this time, paine had left the army's ranks, having served long enough to discover that he was thoroughly unsuited to a soldier's life. "the american crisis" essays cemented paine's reputation as a gifted, polemicist and as a chief protagonist of the american independence movement. yet tom paine was broke, having made precious little money from "common sense" or any of the american crisis essays. so paine now took on several new writing jobs after returning to philly, none of which paid a fortune or gave him much satisfaction.
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the only bright spot in his life in these years came in 1784 when the state of new york awarded him a 300-acre farm in new rochelle in gratitude for his services to the new nation, a farm that the state of new york had confiscated from a loyalist family that it had turned out. a year later, at general washington's insistence, congress supplemented new york's gift with an additional $3,000, providing this immigrant, former corset maker, with a modest degree of financial security for the first time in his life. and with that financial independence, paine found the freedom to embark on a long or
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strange campaign to get a single arch iron bridge built across the schuylkill river, a project he hoped would kick start infrastructure modernization projects across the new nation. he went back and forth to england and france to look for funding and patrons for this bridge project, but sadly, he turned up empty-handed each time. by the time he admitted his bridge project was a failure, it was 1791. by then paine was living in london once again and was vowing to renew his radicalism and to resume his writing career by penning a pamphlet that could do for the political consciousness of the british people what "common sense" had recently done for the american colonists. the first part of this new work,
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"the rights of man," appeared on the shelves of british book stores in april of 1791. dedicated to george washington, the hero of the american revolution, "the rights of man" attempted to stir in britain the same sort of revolutionary radicalism seen in america and in france, echoing his previous attacks on the monarchy and futile aristocracy. this new work, "the rights of man" dares british leaders to embrace republicanism, come on in, the water is lovely, calling on british leaders to restore an elected head of state, an elected legislature, a written constitution, and a universal franchise for all adult men. radical stuff. like "common sense" before it,
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"rights of man," his new work, burned with outrage and sparkled with diamond-hard prose aimed at the sort of working people who usually ignored high politics. in this new work, "the rights of man," the only books he cited were the bible and the book of common prayer. now, there's a long tradition of republican dissent in england that goes back centuries. and paine's ideas in favor of a republic instead of a monarchy were in some ways quite derivative. but it was paine's attempt to disseminate those ideas to the masses in plain spoken language that they can actually understand that made this new work, "the rights of man," so momentous when it was published and so, of course, controversial. and "the rights of man" sold
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like gangbusters. 50,000 copies in the first three months in england alone. even the british prime minister, william pitt the younger found time to read it. and he confessed to a friend that paine is quite right, but what am i to do? i'm the prime minister. as things are, if i were to encourage tom paine's opinions, i should have a bloody revolution on my hands. those fears of an english revolution soon escalated as more and more english readers began demanding the sorts of civil rights that paine had championed. and as news arrived in london of the beheadings in revolutionary france and the rise of robespierre there, determined to
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prevent that sort of radical leveling from leaping the english channel from france and turning the english working classes into murderous guillotining mobs intent on executing rich people, prime minister william pitts' administration now hastily passed a series of homeland security laws to limit free speech rights, to imprison anyone who talked openly of challenging the king or parliament. i am for equality. no kings, one londoner shouted in a coffee house. he was promptly sent to prison for 18 months for that speech act. and pitts' government that had pass ed these laws went after tom paine himself, the author of "the rights of man" with all they
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had. pitts' government funded a smear campaign in the press that defamed tom paine as ugly, smelly and cruel, as a wife-beater, as impotent in his marriage bed and as having, instead, a fetish for having sex with cats. the papers published cartoons rendering tom paine as a three-headed, fire-breathing monster. hundreds of letters to the editor, many of them suspiciously identical in word and image denounced tom paine in the english papers as a liar, as a traitor and as a terrorist. mad tom, the british papers now -- tabloids now called him. government agents took to trailing him wherever he went.
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and across the english country astro turf crowds of paid thugs paraded tom paine's body in effigy, burning it in town squares. bugger off to france if you like their revolution so much, a writer in "the times of london" urged. in september of 1792 the now 57-year-old paine did just that, he buggered off to france sailing from dover in england to cala in france to escape the long arm of his britannic magistery's government. three months later in december, that british government took -- i'll start that again. three months later that british government puts tom paine on trial in absentia on charges of seditious libel. and in his absence they found him guilty.
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and in his absence, they sentenced him to exile after the fact. he had already gone. paine would spend the next decade in france and would never return to the land of his birth. paine arrived in france armed with not one, but four letters of introduction from benjamin franklin who was well known in france. as a result tom paine quickly gained entree to france's highest circles. almost immediately he took on a position representing calais in the revolutionary national assembly, a position to which he had been elected months earlier in honor of his authorship of "the rights of man." but that did not go as expected. paine spoke little french, and he had trouble keeping up as the
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french revolution rapidly radicalized and accelerated. paine made the great mistake of speaking up in favor of sparing king louie xvi from the guillotine, arguing instead it would be humiliating enough to banish the king to exile in the united states. but that did not go over well in france. especially given paine's earlier critiques of monarchy and power. where is your boldness now, the french said to him. as robes pierre led france into what we call the reign of terror, paine despaired, and then he picked up his pen. he drafted the first part of "the age of reason," the third great work for which this man is still remembered today and completed that manuscript and
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got it to a printer only six hours before french police came to his door to drag him to a paris prison cell for his dissenting views, not radical enough. this third one, "the age of reason" part one is in some ways his masterpiece, an astonishing virtuoso denunciation of atheism which he saw as the lighter fuel for the most violent, most extreme and most uncontrollable excesses of this unfolding french revolution. in defense of religious face in the context of a french revolution run amuck, paine wrote eloquently about how a loss of faith in god could extinguish human compassion,
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selflessness, morality, ethics, virtue and grace and could turn society into nothing but a gathering of beasts. this conception of the power of faith was a pretty mainstream view in the 1790s, only really controversial in france itself because of the spread of atheism there over the past few years. christianity, paine told leaders, was the lifeblood of republican democracy, and the bible's old testament provided a set of useful commandments that could instill public and private ethics. paine also had praise for the new testament, describing jesus christ as a virtuous and amiable man who had preached social
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justice, but had paid for his convictions with his life. so far so good, right? the trouble was that paine kept going. "the age of reason," his third work, is controversial because of everything else he had to say about christianity in particular and about organized religion in general. paine was not a fan. jesus christ, he wrote, was not divine. he was just a man. the bible, paine went on, was not the revealed word of god. it was just a book written by some priests. as paine saw it, the bible was full of indecipherable riddles, irrationalism and fabulism like the bizarre story of the talking snake whose chat with eve ends with her eating an apple and
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destroying humanity. the churches that taught this sort of nonsense, paine said, were dangerous deceivers, institutions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief. for my own part i disbelieve all of them. still, paine was clear that despite all of this he was not trying to deny the existence of god. on the contrary, paine wrote, i believe in one god and no more. and i hope for happiness beyond this life. i believe in the equality of man, and i believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, love and mercy
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and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy, but i do not believe in the creed professed by the jewish church, by the roman church, the turkish church, the protestant church, nor by any church that i know of. my own mind is my own church. this, folks, is almost the dictionary definition of deism, a variety of spiritual belief that was very common in highly educated circles in both britain and america in the 1790s. and it's a type of faith that we now call maybe intelligent design or something like that. edward gibbon, david hume and thomas jefferson were also self-declared deists like tom paine. though those other dudes had the good sense to keep quiet about
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that in public and only announced that fact in private to their highfaluting philosophical friends. but that's not tom paine's style. paine, of course, used pages of "the age of reason" to shout his deism from the rooftops of paris, using his gift for plain-spoken language and polemical turn of phrase to take that gospel to the masses. and he had all too much success. in britain, sales of "the age of reason" part one surpassed all records, in fact, breaking records set by "the rights of man" two years earlier. church leaders now denounced paine with acid and thunder. "the age of reason" attracted at
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least 50 rebuttals, charging its author, tom paine, with being either an infidel, which is wrong, or a deist, which is fair enough or, most ironically, a filthy atheist. not even close. doggerel verses saying the same flooded the press, not only in britain, but also in america which was in the midst of a major evangelical revival at the time known to most of us as the second great awakening. all the while, paine himself languished in an eight-by-ten-foot cell on the ground floor of the luxembourg prison, a former royal palace in paris now repurposed by french revolutionaries for political prisoners. there by candlelight tom paine passed the time scrawling out a
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sequel to the first part of "the age of reason." and he wrote quickly, as one by one, guards let his fellow his fellow descending inmates to their executions. part two of the age of reason was still unfinished. when the american ambassador in paris, james monroe, finally secured tom paine's release after ten long, terrifying months behind bars. paine had grown weak and ill in prison, ravished by typhus, by fever, by festering wounds in his belly that would not heal. so paine finished round 2 in the ambassador's residence, publishing it, part 2, in february of 1975.
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though it shared the same big ideas, it was not a part of part 1. listen to a description and the unfortunate effect of paine on his legacy. part 2 of reason is a snide, sneering and obsessive rant with none of the first age of reasons or indication of the spiritual to be found in natural philosophy. if there is a reason for paine's reputation to be sullied beyond englishmen wanting monarchy and americans wanting christianity, which is the catastrophic rancor in the age of reason part 2. another example of the reign of terror's psyche.
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but still, tom paine had further to fall, especially in the estimation of the citizens of the united states, his adopted homeland. while he convalesced, tom paine spoke to his former friend, the president george washington. and in that opening letter, tom blamed him personally for failing to rescue him sooner from prison. and then tom paine kept going, accusing washington, the father of the country, of everything from mismanagement to corruption. paine said washington's military strategy during the revolutionary war had been to do nothing and washington himself was selfish, friendless, indifferent, hypocritical and possessed of a cold
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hermaphrodite devoid of principle. when this was sent to washington on washington's birthday found its way into the pages of the american press, readers there were rightly incensed. and paine's reputation as an american patriot was irreversibly damaged. in that time he convalesced. he watched the revolution burn itself out, and of course he wrote, i saw all sorts of things during his long recuperation,
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but one of the things he wrote deserves our attention now before we follow paine home. the thing he wrote that i'm talking about is called agrarian justice. paine wrote it in 1775 and 1776. even though it is not nearly as well known as common sense, rights of man or age of reason, the ideas that agrarian justice contains have actually been incredibly influential. because those ideas represent the first full-scale practical proposals to develop what, in the 20th century, would come to be called the welfare state. written as a rebuttal of a famous english clergyman's sermon praising the division between rich and poor as a sign of god's wisdom, agrarian justice by thomas paine proposes
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to limit the size of that division between rich and poor by taxing the highest earners and investing heavily in a social safety net with the proceeds. paine imagines reforming the tax system and government spending priorities in britain and by extension in america or france or anywhere else to provide seven basic entitlements that together might shield the nation's poorest and most vulnerable from the ravages of market capitalism. let me show you what i had in mind. there were proposed grants of four pounds a year to help parents afford to send their children to school. second, he proposed one-time payments of 50 pounds to everyone in the nation on their
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21st birthdays. third, he proposed much smaller, one-time payments to newly married couples and further small payments for each child they brought into the world. fourth, he proposed eliminating all taxes on poor people earning below a minimum annual income. fifth, he proposed a government-run back-to-work scheme that could find temporary employment for those out of work and that could provide room and board if needed. sixth, he proposed pensions of six pounds a year for seniors over the age of 50 that would then rise to 10 pounds a year for those who made it to the age of 60. seventh, he proposed a one-time death benefit to surviving spouses to cover the cost of funerals. drawing on his experiences back in england of being a tax collector many decades earlier, paine even costed all of this out.
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he did the math. he demonstrated to readers of agrarian justice that all of this was actually quite inexpensive, and it could all be readily paid for if the british parliament would implement a graduated income tax, put in place an estate tax on the largest fortunes, downsize the british military budget, which was enormous. it would be worth it, paine explained, almost giddy with excitement. all it would take would be a few pieces of new tax policy to rid britain's streets of beggars and ragged and hungry children. investing in young people would pay back huge dividends longer term. a nation under a well-regulated government should permit none to
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remain uninstructed, paine wrote. it is a monarchical and aristocratic government only that requires ignorance for its support. what i'm laying out here from the pages of agrarian justice is an extraordinary social justice manifesto for any 18th century person to imagine. and, importantly, it is not pro-marxism. quite the opposite. it is a non-marxist plan that lays no limits of how much money or property anyone can acquire. rather, paine simply insists those with the most should modestly compensate those with the very least.
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still, paine's ideas went nowhere at the time. his name was already mud in legislative circles in london, and he had just insulted the president of the united states. those who read agrarian justice, and it was hardly the best seller that some of his past works have been, dismissed paine's design for a world beyond want was fanciful, leaving his blueprint for the modern welfare state in britain, france and new deal america to discover for themselves. let's wrap up. tom paine sailed for america in
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1802 after president john adams, one of his fiercest critics, lost his reelection bid to thomas jefferson, a democrat like paine. still, coming to america turned out to be a bitter homecoming. when paine disembarked in baltimore, the city's principal hotels refused to accommodate. since he had been away from america, radicalism had become a dirty word in america. the bloody excesses of the french revolution were in great part to blame. when the french revolution had begun back in 1789, many americans had at first welcomed it as a sister struggle to their own. but after robes pierre had begun
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guillotining elites, many patriot leaders turned coldly hostile to the events unfolding in paris. so when tom paine, the former member of the french national assembly, turned up on our shores in 1802, many american conservatives took to trying to smear him as a drunk and to discredit his political views. openly accusing him of being an agitator who only came back to bring down the federal government of the united states and kick back a rein of terror. most of his conservative enemies used paine's conservative religious beliefs to try to destroy his political
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reputation. newspapers written by editors supportive of washington, john adams and other members of their federalist party called paine a lying, drunken, brutal infidel. they called hloathsome thomas paine. getting back on his feet almost killed tom paine. he laid plans to set up an agricultural export business, selling wood from america to europe. but his gout got in the way, paralyzing his hands, limiting his mobility, and forcing him to seek nursing care in new york instead. and on days when he dared to take a walk around manhattan, people in the street would shout things at him.
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he still had some friends and many admirers, particularly among working people. but life in america, in new york in particular, for him was fraught with tension and with risk. so whenever he was well enough, he would retreat to his rent-free cottage in new rochelle outside of the city and try to write. his subject now was party politics. and paine took quickly to the task of attacking john adams, alexander hamilton and the aristocratic federalist party they led in one newspaper column after another, and to defending jeffersonian democrat republicans as champions of liberty. but to his great disgust, this proved to be utterly thankless work. while jefferson himself seems to
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have held paine in high regard throughout his life, jefferson's colleagues in the democrat republican party regarded tom paine as an embarrassment. they kept their distance from him. they did their best to disassociate themselves and their party from a man they now regarded as radically out of step with an electorate that had grown decidedly more conservative and far more pious while paine had been away in revolutionary europe. paine's last political tirade appeared in print on the 25th of august, 1808. by then there wasn't much of paine left to be scared of. he couldn't keep food down anymore. he suffered incontinence, agonizing pain in his limbs and he was seized by terrors.
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if he woke up in his room and found himself alone, he would become frightened and begin to scream. he was dying. he wrote a will, and in it he inquired hopefully about the prospect of being buried among quakers. the crusading christians in whose meeting houses he had grown up. but they refused. and so when tom paine's miserable decline finally ended at 8:00 a.m. on june the 8th, 1809, his executors took him instead up to new rochelle and buried his body under a walnut tree on the farm once given to him by the state of new york for his role in creating the united states. but so much had happened since that fight for independence.
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that farm of his was almost deserted on the day of his burial. not a single political leader attended his funeral. only six people turned up. one who did was madam bonville, paine's french immigrant housekeeper. another who did was her american-born son benjamin. she later described placing herself at the end of paine's grave as the earth was thrown down on his coffin and telling her son, stand you there at the other end as a witness for a grateful america. a week later it was she and benjamin who paid for the small gravestone jammed into the earth on that spot.
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the gravestone's inscription was as simple as it was short. it said, "thomas paine, author of common sense." mary, back to you. >> that's great. rick, thank you so much. that is such a sad story, really. it's amazing. what a wonderful talk. anyway, if you put in your screen share, i'm going to get out my document here, and -- there we go. let's see. we've been getting lots of good questions coming in, so -- right at the very beginning when you were talking about common sense, you showed the pamphlet, and at the bottom of it, it says, printed and sold by r. bell. so several people have asked, who is this r. bell?
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>> so, you know, i'm an r. bell. >> right. that was one of the questions. is there any connection? >> let me reveal to you that i'm a time lord, and i've been alive 300 years and would really like to go to sleep. this is actually robert bell. he is no relation to me, as far as i know. and he is a printer and book seller, i think, on third street in philadelphia, if i remember correctly. his was one of a small number, let's say five, book sellers and printers in philly at the time. ben franklin's operation would have been another one. and it's robert bell who publishes the first edition. but because there is no copyright back then, robert bell's competitors soon buy a copy, turn it into typeset, and then print their own to compete against him. so robert bell is fiercely trying to hold onto that early advantage. i have to tell you, i'm obsessed with common sense.
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i teach it pretty much in all my classes. i have this assignment i do with the students which i'm pathetically proud of. it uses one of these databases we have now which we didn't when i was in school, which digitizes a whole ton of these papers. for example, the words common sense together, you can scroll through them and see who used that phrase and what context. i have an assignment where i tell my students that writers over the years have said that everyone in america read "common sense," right? it was almost universally read. and people have tried to count the number of readers of "common sense." speculated, it's 300,000 or something like that.
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but no one has actually bothered to prove that, they just asserted that it was read this widely. so i have my students use this newspaper database to see what they can figure out about who actually read "common sense." should we believe the hype that everyone read it? or can we find proof that some people did and some people didn't. i have them think about where it's advertised, i have them thinking of how many bookstores it's available in, what its price point is, whether two shillings is a lot of money, or how can you tell if two shillings is a lot of money. people are reading it aloud for people who can't read it themselves, and they have to use this database like bread crumbs to help them find answers to this question. i mention this, mary, because every semester i do this assignment, let's say i get 100
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papers about this. there will always be at least five which will refer to the printer of common sense as their professor richard bell. because they get confused about it, too. >> okay. thank you, rick. so another participant is commenting. so the genesis of paine's intense desire for american independence and opposition to english monarchy is his desire for a fresh start in the new world. isn't there more than that? did he have anything more to gain personally? >> yeah. there is, of course, more than that. so what i do want to begin with, though, is the personal stuff, right? personal stories, our own life stories, matter in the way we interpret the world, right? so paine goes through a series of difficult moments in england, forcing him -- or pushing him eventually to leave england. that's a sign of how much he is not happy with his life in england. so he associates that people, that country, that politics with
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everything he's left behind, right? he personally has made a break from britain. and we shouldn't discount that as like cheap psychology. it matters a great deal. certainly there is more to it than that. he will make some money from publishing common sense. not nearly as much as you think, in part because everyone is ripping him off and publishing their own versions and he's not seeing the profits of it, but also because he published it relatively cheaply. after the first edition, he cut the price in half, so his profit margins go out the window right away. and thirdly, he makes a very public show. when it's discovered that he is the author and that it's not actually an anonymous thing, that he's the real author, he's outed, basically, by people who think that discovering that this
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course that he's author will undermine the power of common sense, that it wasn't written by benjamin franklin or john adams. it makes paine a celebrity, and he embraces that and makes a big show of saying, you know the money i've made the past six months, guess what i've done with it? i have donated it to the common army to make mittens for the soldiers to wear this winter. it's also a patriotic gesture and further confirmation that he personally is not profiting nearly as much as you might think from "common sense." the last point, of course, is he's writing this at a time when things are escalating rapidly. he's not just coming to america in 1740 and saying, we should declare independence. he's coming to america in 1774 and 1775 when all of the newspapers are full of lexington and concord and bunker hill and one british aggression after
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another. there's so much frustration in the air, and he thinks he's got a path forward, a solution to offer for what all americans should do with that frustration, which is channel it in one direction. that's his contribution. but let's be clear, he's reading the political winds. he's not just doing it for his own gain. >> right. thank you. what were his views on slavery in america, and did he ever write anything on slavery or the rights of women? >> those are two related questions. we do have some of his writings on the position of women, although he wrote so many things anonymously, we were not always sure he is the author of things we think he's the author of, so there's been some contention of whether we accurately are ascribing him to views that some anonymous pieces put forward. but those anonymous pieces long ascribed to paine often do have
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a proto feminist mark to them, which is to say he's pretty good on women by the standards of a white 18th century man. now, there are plenty of more radical feminists that see him as conservative. mary wolstencroft, 1772, but he's not that to most women. you would expect to see some of the same stuff. you would expect him to be denouncing slavery as monstrous, unconstitutional, et cetera, et cetera, although i personally am not aware of any time where he writes about slavery or calls it out. it just seems to be like a blind spot to him. so maybe i'm just not looking in
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the right places. maybe he did write about it and i haven't read that. but i would also point out that he's writing in philadelphia in the 1770s. and philadelphia's enslaved population is at an historic low in the revolutionary war years. there had been slavery in philadelphia and pennsylvania since the 1680s, but it's never been on the scale of a south carolina or a virginia. so it's also in philadelphia, it's urban slavery, which just has a different texture to agricultural slavery out in the plantations. so there are plenty of
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injustices that are called out. slavery is not in his face as if he lived in another place at another time. >> you were mentioning philadelphia, and one of the questions was why was philadelphia, in your view, such an intellectual center of the late 18th century with paine, priestly, ben franklin? any thoughts on that? >> it's certainly hard to agree with that, but i agree with the premise that it is those things. just quickly, folks, back in the 1600s, boston is the largest town or city in america, which is to say not very large at all. for most of the 1700s, philadelphia will be the largest town or city in america, and in most of the 1800s and afterwards, it will be new york. so the 18th century, the revolutionary era, is philadelphia's century. so the simple fact of its scale,
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that it's the largest place, that it's a magnet for money and for people also means it's a magnet for ideas and dissent and conversation. of course, its quakequaker heri is a place where people of different faiths can live side by side, you would think it would extend into intellectual diversity as well if people from different backgrounds and attrition live next to each other. but i think you're right, the scientists and philosophers live in pennsylvania in the 1800s. new york is not yet the city it will become later. franklin's presence there makes a big deal. franklin is a generator and a magnet for other smart, intelligent people to come and rub shoulders with him, so he's a big part of this. >> great. thank you. some kind of kinectic questions
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here. do you think thomas paine was a visionary thinker or more an effective communicator to other's ideas, and did tom paine have any help in creating common sense? did others provide ideas and help him refine it prior to publication? >> the idea that there are geniuses who sit in a room or a cave and get no external, you know, stimulation is probably false and mythical. i think all of us, our best ideas, come from interacting with other people, right? that's probably true for paine as well. that's why i mention, for instance, something that many people don't know about him, that he was part of a very radical debating club back in england, the headstrong club, right? he's been assigning himself common sense on newspaper essays he wrote back in england.
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his editorship of the pennsylvania magazine is a training ground for him, not just in how to persuade people but also to find out what americans care about and how to write to them in a language that they want to read every month. so he sees himself, i think, as an apprentice and as a sponge for sort of cultural standards and intellectual and political developments. he knows he's not writing in a vacuum. to come back to your question, mary, i do think a significant portion of what's so magnificent about tom paine are his gifts as a writer in the same way some other people of the age, like thomas jefferson, are just endowed with extraordinary gifts as writers. ben franklin, too, has an extraordinary gift as a writer. what separates paine, of course, is he's largely self-taught. he's not been sitting in a fancy library somewhere like jefferson had for quite a while. he's much more of a sort of "good will hunting" figure, a
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guy who goes to his local library and learns a lot. he's more like franklin than jefferson in that regard, which i admire a great deal when a working man can make that sort of journey. so he called himself a writer. does he have some ideals? i think in some ways, yes. that's why at the end of my talk, mary, i will talk about some of his lesser known work where he lays out a compelling scheme to reform social policy, which probably does have inspiration in other writers, but again, he's bringing things together, explaining it very clearly, making the rationale. and because he used to be a tax collector, mary, also pressing it out and saying, guys, we can afford this. so i appreciate that mix of idealogy and pragmatism there. >> and what is part of this
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agrarian justice, we have a few questions -- in your description of tom paine you used words we suggest as modern times. how would you assess tom paine's reputation and influence today? >> i think someone is trying to get me fired from smithsonian associates. i'm going to tread very carefully. >> tread carefully, but i think people can see that there are connections, definitely, here. >> i think that's right. all i will say is that across all places at all times in all centuries, new ideas face great scrutiny. and some people embrace them, perhaps because they seem like the right ideas, or perhaps because they seem like they personally might benefit from going in a new direction, and
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other people push back against new ideas, perhaps because they're new or perhaps because they're going to affect them adversely. and it seems that many of paine's ideas can rightly be understood as a challenge to orthodoxy, to conventional wisdom to the status quo. he is, by most 18th century standards, a radical. so, of course, radicals always have a tough time in every place in every century. and in that regard, tom paine is nothing unusual here. if there's anything unusual about tom paine, it's that he keeps at it for decades and decades and never really is silenced or shut down. my final slide, i have the big 3 works, which we associate with him. he's not a one-hit wonder, mary. if that's what any of us did with our lives, we could die very happy knowing wade
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transformative effect on world history. but he also writes "the age of reason" and "the rights of man" which in their own way have an equal effect. he is over our radicalism, so that makes him someone worthy of our attention. >> great. this will be our final question for the evening, rick. why did the french allow paine to have a paper when he was in prison to right "the age of reason part 2." >> that's a specific question. i'm sure that was common practice. there are no tvs and radios in cells back then. this was a former palace as well, so there was at least an attempt to suggest by radical revolutionaries who are holding him that we are not monsters, we are civilized here, and we've got the great tom paine here, even if we choose to execute him
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next week. he's still the great tom paine until we do, so it would be barbaric to hold his tools from him. i think it would be right for a person of a certain standing, for instance, whether they could read or write in the first place, to be given pen and paper. perhaps they didn't understand what he was doing with that pen and paper and what the consequences of that would be. >> okay, great. well, that concludes our program for tonight. we have run out of time, but rick, thank you again for such a wonderful, fantastic program. with that said, i'll say good night to everyone and enjoy the rest of your evening. weekends on c-span2 are an intellectual feast. every saturday american history tv documents america's story. and on sundays, booktv brings you the latest in nonfiction books and authors. funding for c-span2 comes from these television companies and more, including charter

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