Living to some purpose. Thomas Paine and revolutions

Submitted by cathy n on 9 June, 2009 - 12:44 Author: Pat Yarker

Born in 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk, Thomas Paine was importantly involved in the American and French Revolutions. A radical democratic republican, his writings helped alter fundamentally the language of political discourse and contributed to re-shaping the consciousness of an emerging working class. His fifty-page pamphlet ‘Common Sense on Independence’ (1776) coalesced and focused arguments which fuelled the decision of America’s thirteen colonies to break from Britain. His ‘Rights of Man’ (1791-92) furthered the development of concepts of human rights and representative government. In ‘The Age of Reason’ (1793-5) he forensically scrutinised the Bible in order to root out superstition and as he saw it reconcile religion and science. And in ‘Agrarian Justice’ (1797) he outlined elements of a welfare state funded by progressive taxation, a prospect not to be realised until the mid-twentieth century.

Paine died exactly two hundred years ago, on June 8 1809. Little in the first half of his life suggested he would play a revolutionary role on two continents. The son of a Quaker corset-and stay-maker, he attended Thetford Grammar School between the ages of six and thirteen before becoming apprenticed to his father. He learned the trade but did not take to it, though it proved a useful fallback in his early adult life. Paine absconded from his apprenticeship several times before leaving home for good and working in a variety of jobs in London and on the South Coast. An itinerant skilled artisan, he would have known poverty if not penury. He knew personal tragedy too: his wife of less than a year died in childbirth, along with their baby. Always Paine seems to have kept up his education. He read and attended lectures about astronomy, engineering, chemistry and physics. Discussion with those who advanced Newtonian science would have brought him into contact with progressive political ideas, perhaps developing an egalitarianism derived from his Quaker background. In Lewes, Sussex, a town with a republican heritage, he was active in the political clubs from 1768-1774.

Higher wages

During these years Paine worked as an excise-man, and was chosen by his fellow-workers to author a petition to Parliament for higher wages. Inflation dominated the British economy during Paine’s lifetime. Wages could never keep pace with rising prices. Paine wrote and circulated a pamphlet arguing the excise-men’s case. One of his arguments was that higher pay would prevent excise-men having to accept bribes in order to feed themselves and their families. Paine acknowledged that the rich might need to experience first-hand what it was to be poor in order fully to appreciate the force of his argument.

Thousands of excise-men backed Paine, and he spent a year lobbying MPs. But the petition failed, and he was sacked. However, in the months spent pursuing the cause, or perhaps through his interest in science, Paine had encountered Benjamin Franklin, representative in London for the American colonies. Franklin advised him to ship for America, and gave him letters of introduction to relatives in Philadelphia. On the voyage out Paine nearly died of typhoid. He had to be stretchered ashore. Recovered, he would shortly prove to be the right man in the right place at just the right time.

Early in 1775 Paine was taken on as contributing editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Among the periodicals in circulation it uniquely published a lot of original American content rather than re-printing mostly British material. Its pages were open to writing which could engage with the contemporary political situation from the colonists’ perspective. Skilfully deploying articles written by himself and others which touched on the issues of the day, including that of independence, Paine turned the magazine into the most widely-sold periodical in America. At this time those calling for the outright separation of America from Britain were a vanguard minority. Most colonists wanted reform of the relationship between the two countries. But violent conflict between British redcoats and armed colonists broke out in the spring at Concord and Lexington, and Paine became increasingly involved in pro-independence politics. To galvanise the majority into supporting a decisive break, Paine wrote ‘Common Sense’. It was published in January 1776, anonymously since every page was treason.

Common sense

In ‘Common Sense’ Paine attacked the policies of George III and castigated hereditary monarchy as an institution. He predicted monarchist France would nevertheless support an American revolt against Britain, promoted the centralisation of powers in America to give effect to the people’s will and urged the new nation to become a place of refuge for all those seeking liberty. He sketched the likely economic and military power of an independent America and so offered a vision of what an independent America could be.

The pamphlet was a sensation. It ran through twenty-five editions in the first year of publication, reaching far beyond an elite ‘political class’ to speak to hundreds of thousands of colonists. Its arguments were posed in ordinary language and clearly sign-posted. They were presented directly, confidently, approachably and memorably. They were buttressed not by Latin quotations or references to authors only a few readers might know, but by Biblical quotations everyone would recognise and by analogies drawn from common life. Paine’s matter-of-factness, restrained deployment of rhetorical devices, attention to practicalities and trick of building arguments from apparently self-evident truths all combined to validate what the title-page proclaimed. Here was common sense.

Paine’s pamphlet met its historical moment. Resolve to break from Britain solidified and became general. Paine would repeat the feat at the end of the same year as British forces gained the upper hand in the war. His very brief pamphlet simply entitled ‘The Crisis’ begins with the words quoted at this year’s AWL Conference: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine goes on in his characteristically plain-speaking way to articulate the reasons why America will win its war for independence. He speaks from his own experiences as a volunteer in the army. He presents the material factors favouring the American side. He avoids anything high-flown, and knows he does so: “I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as A, B, C, hold up truth to your eyes.”

General Washington ordered Paine’s words read throughout the army before its fateful Christmas crossing of the Delaware to fight and win the Battle of Trenton. Morale rose. Desertion diminished. Recruitment began to recover. The rational and resolute style of Paine’s writing had again helped advance the cause he wrote for.

Rights of Man

Paine’s words would come to the aid of another revolution. In 1790 Edmund Burke published in England a long attack on the revolution in France. He derided its elevation of individual rights, and defended hereditary monarchy and tradition. Burke had supported reconciliation with America, and Paine regarded him as a friend. But within three months, by early 1791, he had replied to Burke’s book with the first part of ‘Rights of Man’. Paine affirms that people have rights by dint of being human, and that civil rights spring from these fundamental natural (or in today’s language, human) rights. Natural rights include the rights of the mind. For Paine these were freedom of thought, speech and religion. Civil rights arise because individuals do not always have the power to exercise their natural rights. In Paine’s language, individuals deposit some of their natural rights in society, which in turn helps individuals to exercise these rights when necessary. Natural rights which an individual cannot exercise by him or herself are exchanged for civil rights. It follows this raises the issue of political rights. Paine contrasts France’s newly-written ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens’ with the British constitution. In particular he ridicules the aristocratic ruling-class in Britain and condemns the unjust and corrupt political system by which they retain power. The right to vote should not be conditional on the holding of property. He presents the American and French revolutions as harbingers of the political future. They inaugurate new politics for new times, and require a new way of understanding the world.

The content of the first part of ‘Rights of Man’ was seditious. But the British government’s initial response was low-key. They launched a dirty-tricks campaign which included commissioning a biographical hatchet-job on Paine. His ‘lowly’ origins were used against him in print and in cartoons, signalling a profound class-hatred. Reactionary crowds burned him in effigy. However Paine’s book galvanised the republican mood in what can be seen as a pre-revolutionary moment in British history. Part two of ‘Rights of Man’, published early in 1792, took an overtly revolutionary stance in its condemnation of the hereditary system. Paine wrote: “All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny.” In May the government took action against Paine’s printers and moved to have him arrested. Lord Mornington, the Duke of Wellington’s elder brother, wrote to the Home Secretary and fellow Old Etonian Lord Grenville that ‘Rights of Man’ was: “by far the most treasonable book that ever went unpunished… so, pray, hang the fellow if you catch him.”

Paine wasn’t caught. He had crossed to France to take his seat as elected representative for Calais in the National Assembly. There he spoke against the execution of the deposed King, and soon found himself suspected of counter-revolutionary sympathies as the Terror took hold. He was arrested. America’s ambassador failed to clarify Paine’s American citizenship, and he remained imprisoned and under threat of execution for a year. Either side of his imprisonment he wrote ‘The Age of Reason’ and ‘Agrarian Justice’ before returning to the USA in 1802.


Here he found himself hated rather than feted, mainly on account of his perceived atheism. In fact Paine was a deist, believing in god but not following any established religion. He lived in obscurity and poor health near New York City, mainly on a small farm which had been granted him after the war of Independence. He was denied the vote in the state election in1806 on the specious grounds that having served in the French Assembly he was not an American. As he lay dying, the local Quakers refused permission for his body to be buried in consecrated ground.

So Paine was interred on his own farm. A handful of mourners attended. These included a French woman and her two sons who lived with Paine, and two African-Americans who had walked twenty-five miles from New York to pay their respects. “Man has no property in man,” Paine had written. Among the first to oppose in print slavery in America, he had been a founder-member of that country’s first anti-slavery society.

For two short but epoch-making periods Thomas Paine had articulated the new consciousness and practice which was moving to change history. This was not, yet, a socialist consciousness. Paine saw no fundamental antagonism between the interests of capital and of labour. He endorsed free markets. He did not write about the labour movement nor develop a class-analysis. Among his contemporaries, Thomas Spence was the more radical in demanding nationalisation of land, and Babeuf the more daring in trying to establish a society based on common ownership. But Paine’s writings remained required reading among nineteenth century radicals. They were reprinted by the Chartists even as that movement provided the collective experience which would point beyond Painite radicalism towards working-class political emancipation.

Paine lived an internationalist and supported revolutionary demands for a more equal social order. Against the dominant ideology of his day he promoted mass political participation. He demonstrated by what he wrote and by how he wrote it that enfranchisement of ordinary people was not ripening, it was overdue. Paine helped politicise this wide public by offering his writing not as instruction or exhortation, but as recognition.

For information about events commemorating Paine’s life and death:

A share in revolutions: Trevor Griffiths and Thomas Paine

Pat Yarker surveys the work of the writer Trevor Griffiths, whose most recent screenplay makes use of a fictionalised Thomas Paine to renew the call for “ a revolution in the state of civilisation”

Playwright and screen-writer Trevor Griffiths consciously uses his art to intervene politically in the events of our time. Born in Manchester in 1935 of Irish and Welsh descent, Griffiths is perhaps best-known for writing the original screenplay for ‘Reds’, Warren Beattie’s 1981 film about John Reed and the Bolshevik Revolution. His politically-acute work has stretched over more than four decades. During this time he has been concerned not only to explore moments of history which he sees as especially significant for the working-class, but also to render these “usable”. That is, to remind the class-audience about what happened and why, and to do so in ways which allow it to draw contemporary conclusions that will advance its interest.

Griffiths’ early play ‘The Party’ asked what form and direction the revolutionary party should take in the aftermath of the events of May 68. It did so by presenting on the main stage of the National Theatre a closely-argued debate between New Leftists and a Trotskyist (based it is said on Gerry Healey). In ‘Occupations’, whose immediate context was the workers’ takeover of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Griffiths staged a clash between two versions of Marxist political action and motivation as embodied by Italian CP leader Antonio Gramsci and a representative figure from the pre-Stalinist Comintern. Commissioned to write one episode of the BBC’s 1974 costume-drama series ‘Fall of Eagles’ about the lead-up to World War One, Griffiths was able to unfold before millions at a time of major union militancy the events and arguments of the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, which culminated in the Bolshevik/Menshevik split. As Labourism ran into the sand in the later 1970s Griffiths wrote a TV series, ‘Bill Brand’, scrutinising the fate of a newly-elected left-leaning Labour MP. The series explored the relationship in the struggle for socialism between those inside Parliament and those outside it, and explored the limits imposed by social democracy.

Continuing potential

As Thatcherism consolidated, Griffiths’ 1981 screenplay ‘Country: A Tory Story’ anatomised the ruthless manoeuvrings within the ruling-class to ensure its continued hegemony despite the landslide Labour victory in 1945. ‘Oi For England’ the following year engaged with the rise of racism in riot-torn contemporary Britain, linking it explicitly to organised neo-fascist attempts to draw in rebellious white youth. In Reaganite America Griffiths wrote ‘Real Dreams’, examining the continuing potential of revolutionary hopes. As the Cold War drew towards its culmination, Griffiths’ 1987 screenplay ‘Fatherland’ used the thriller-format to scrutinise capitalism’s hollow claims to moral and political superiority, and the betrayals of Stalinism. In the 1990s Griffiths wrote scripts and screenplays about the first Gulf War, Nye Bevan, and the legacy of Thatcherism, and involved himself with community theatre-projects.

Some ventures, notably an early 1970s play about Tom Mann and the successful Liverpool Dock Strike of 1911, a film about the ANC, and a non-realist play set simultaneously in the aftermath of the General Strike and of the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, have never reached screen or stage.

‘These Are The Times’, Griffiths’ screenplay about Thomas Paine, looks set to share a similar fate. The cost of production has been estimated at $200M. To ensure some degree of visibility and impact for this work, Griffiths published the screenplay in 2005. A truncated and adapted version was broadcast on radio last summer, and the Globe Theatre in London will stage a revised version, called ‘A New World’, in September this year.

More art than biography

‘These Are The Times’ opens with Paine’s arrival in that New World, and uses Paine’s life from that moment to examine how a revolution comes to be made, and how making one effects the lives of some of those involved. Much more a work of art than a biography, Griffiths explores the complex interaction between individual and social context with an eye for ironies, but also with due weight given to triumph, honesty and integrity. Class-issues are foregrounded rather than veiled. In the newly-victorious United States of America (a designation Paine coined) Paine is sidelined by the money-grubbing merchant-class for attempting to expose corruption. When he arrives in revolutionary France, tellingly unable to speak the language, Paine’s interpreter explains to him and us the difference in class-composition between the bourgeois Jacobin and the worker-based Cordeliers Clubs. Political discourse is always shown to be rooted in class-positions, and a character’s attitude to property, money and sexuality can be read as a marker of their politics. Although his works sell by the hundreds of thousands, Paine never makes money from them. He gives his royalties from ‘Common Sense’ to help clothe Washington’s Army. While Burke receives in secret a vast pension from the Tories for selling-out his progressive principles and attacking the ideas of the French Revolution, Paine has ‘Rights of Man’ published for sixpence to ensure the widest number may read it.

Griffiths makes Paine a man of courage, dedicated to telling the truth as he sees it despite potential disadvantage to himself. One character observes he has “a talent for saying the right thing at the wrong time”. This combination of moral and political courage is a recurring feature of Griffiths’ central male characters (and Griffiths’ work is male-centred.) His portrayal of Paine seems to me prevented from being sentimentally heroic partly because Paine is not the only one shown to live this way, partly because the adverse consequences of doing so are not sugared, and partly because it accords with the historical record. Paine did attempt, for example, to persuade the French National Assembly to exile rather than execute the deposed King Louis. In effect, he tries to hold back the approaching Terror. Doing so helped ensure he would fall under suspicion, be imprisoned and risk execution himself.

In America Paine’s contribution to the Independence struggle was effaced and all-but-forgotten for decades. Griffiths has Paine scan a long wall in the White House hung with portraits of the Founding Fathers. His picture is not among them. The screenplay is an act of restoration, and a bulwark against contrived official forgetting.


Griffiths frequently includes Paine’s own words in the screenplay, and those of contemporaries preserved in the historical record. These mesh skilfully with the invented dialogue, closing the gap between Paine’s times and our own even as the on-screen images declare the distance. Paine is and is not like us. The social forces shaping his era, and which Griffiths dramatises, remain recognisably those which shape ours. The battles for democracy, and for equality of rights, are not yet fully won. Capital remains dominant. Our knowledge of the outcome of the events his characters experience enables Griffiths to set up resonant ironies or comment silently. Victorious, General Washington is shown sitting for his portrait draped in a Roman toga, the embodiment of political spin. Members of the new American ruling-class, accused by Paine of running the country as “a god-damn business”, are visually linked to lavatories and to hogs. The desire to achieve a just and properly-ordered society is symbolised in the precision timepieces, compasses and orreries made by Paine’s pro-independence friend Rittenhouse.

By using such visual symbols, and by returning to verbal motifs throughout the screenplay, Griffiths thickens the texture of the work. We are helped to believe in this world and its people, and to care about them. At the same time we are encouraged to think about what we are shown. Griffiths uses a range of techniques to offset any tendency to become fully-absorbed only in the narrative. Franklin addresses us directly at the outset, tutoring us in the material realities of colonial America and presenting the driving idea: “When the world changes, it’s people do the changing, masses of ‘em… it’s not just a famous handful involved…” By dividing the screenplay into two almost-equal halves and then setting up correspondences and contrasts across the divide, Griffiths prompts us make connections and so begin critically to assess what we are seeing and hearing. The clash of ideas, values and political interests which the screenplay develops and explores is made available for our own intellectual as well as emotional engagement.

Griffiths also shapes our view of Paine by what he leaves out. For example, he ignores Paine’s backing in the 1780s for the Bank of Pennsylvania, which would become the Bank of America. Griffiths chooses to focus on Paine’s involvement in the revolutionary years in America and France, and on his commitment to republican, egalitarian and democratic principles. His Paine is a character in a shaped work of art, whose truth overbears biographical fidelity, as was the case in Griffiths’ earlier portrayal of Gramsci in ‘Occupations’. Griffiths justifies his approach in a foreword to that play, arguing he is trying in his dramatisation of historical characters to present the most characteristic and central features of a social crisis. His Gramsci or Paine, his Tom Mann or Nye Bevan, may not be faithful to all the known facts, but they are true to the essential meaning of these people in history.


Comrades can make up their own minds. Griffiths’ formal skill and subtlety are always at the service of the dialectic in the given work, its developing argument. They help make this live in the memory, and resonate. They also add a vital extra dimension, that of tying the historical argument to our own time. Griffiths’ Thomas Paine might be dismissed because his politics are pre-socialist, or because the language of human rights he helped develop has been co-opted by liberals, or because President Obama reinforced his rhetoric on Inauguration Day with a little Paine’s own. I think Paine should be read as an exemplar of the kind of activity and attitude required of revolutionaries now. We need something of the same inventiveness, commitment, endurance and willingness to speak plainly from principled conviction in order to connect with the class whose interests we would further.

These Are The Times: A Life of Thomas Paine by Trevor Griffiths; Spokesman Books £15-

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