A Paine in the arse of monarchism

We republicans should emulate Tom Paine by fighting for freedom rather than sneering at flag-wavers.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

It is just over 200 years since the ‘father of the American revolution’, after a brief, final period of drunkenness and disappointment, died in a cottage in New York aged 72. As ignominious as the end was, however, Thomas Paine’s work, especially Common Sense (1776) and Rights of Man (1791-2), remains a touchstone for republicans. There’s little doubt that is needed, too. Especially now, when what passes for republicanism is frequently so riven with snobbery and anti-masses prejudice that it makes a mockery of its radical-democratic antecedents.

Of course, much of what Paine said about monarchy does remain familiar. In Common Sense, for instance, he argued that there is no justification for monarchic rule either in scripture or, perhaps more importantly, in nature. Men are born free, he says; they have natural rights. And monarchic rule is a violation of natural law. But this often violent imposition of a monarchic rule – Paine calls William the Conqueror that ‘French bastard’ (1) – upon a subject people is made doubly worse by its self-justifying perpetuity. Or as Paine put it: ‘To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity.’ (2) And in a sentence that Queen Elizabeth II is sure to have kept hidden from Prince Charles: ‘One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.’ (3)

Yet what separates Paine from today’s republicans is not the critique of hereditary right. Indeed, an attenuated version of that critique, passed through the miasma of self-esteem and fairness, lives on in various complaints about ‘inherited privilege’. No, what really separates the contemporary moaning about the unfairness of it all from the robust Painite critique is the Paine’s animating impulse. That is, Paine was criticising monarchy, for the same reason that he was opposed to the House of Lords: it stood in the way of man’s ability to exercise his own freedom as a citizen, to elect his rulers rather than have them imposed upon him, and it inhibited his capacity to live according to his own reason. Hence, as he put it in Common Sense, the citizens of a republic will be able to glory in ‘the liberty of choosing an house of commons from out of their own body’. (4)

This freedom-loving spirit is more apparent still in Rights of Man, Paine’s defence of the French Revolution against the blandishments of proto-conservative Edmund Burke. Paine once again criticises the hereditary right to rule of monarchs, or as he put it, ‘the rights of the dead over the living’. But his reason for doing so is clear: ‘Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it… Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generation which are to follow.’ (5)

That Paine’s anti-monarchism was informed by a demand for democracy and liberty is hardly surprising. Common Sense was written during America’s attempt to throw off the yoke of British imperialism; and Rights of Man was full of the joys of the French Revolution. A popular desire among self-reliant individuals, from shopkeepers to artisans, to realise an unprecedented degree of freedom was a reality for Paine – this was his audience, just as he was its spokesman. Little wonder he was so critical of Burke’s dismissal of the mass of disenfranchised as ‘the mob’, or the ‘swinish multitude’, destined by their inherent, nature-ordained inadequacy to be downtrodden. Yes, Paine admitted, many people may be ‘followers of the camp than of the standard of liberty’, but that will come (6). One can witness, he continued, ‘the characters of men forming’ during revolution. Indeed. Of the unarmed revolt of Paris citizens against 30,000 members of the French guard in July 1789, Paine noted that ‘the Bastille was attacked with an enthusiasm and heroism, such only as the highest animation of liberty could inspire’ (7).

If in France and America, the republican revolution was fact, in England it existed at least as a possibility. And little wonder. When Paine returned to England from America in 1787, he confronted a society in which five per cent had the vote and the economy was drained by war and trade embargoes. Yet while liberty was absent, dissent was not. In 1792, the secretary of war sent his deputy adjutant-general up north to ascertain the state of army. He did not like what he found. In Sheffield, for instance, he ‘found that the seditious doctrines of Paine and the factious people who are endeavouring to disturb the peace of the country had extended to a degree very much beyond my conception’ (8). Another official reports that in Durham, ‘No King’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equality’ were daubed on the market cross. The then prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, even received news from North Shields that a ‘mob’ were driving naval seamen and officers through the town.

Historian EP Thompson writes: ‘pitmen, keelmen, cloth-dressers, cutters: not only the weavers and labourers of Wapping and Spitalfields, whose colourful and rowdy demonstrations had often come out in support of [English radical John] Wilkes, but working men in villages and towns over the whole country claiming general rights for themselves. It was this – and not the French Terror – which threw the propertied classes into panic.’ (9)

And panic they did, stationing troops around the country, and suspending habeas corpus. In 1792, the government even issued a royal proclamation against seditious publications, principal among which was Rights of Man – which sold in the region of 200,000 copies in just a few years. At Paine’s subsequent trial (which because he had left for France was conducted in his absence), the Attorney General complained that Rights of Man was being ‘being thrust into the hands of subjects of every description, even children’s sweetmeats being wrapped in it’.

It is a strange but unhappy reversal. The republicanism of Paine was informed by the popular determination to be rid of monarchical and aristocratic tyranny. Today’s republicanism, bereft of any real sense of the importance of liberty – of conscience, of speech – is now often little more than a means to feel superior to, well, the swinish multitude.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics UK


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