WHO WAS TOM PAINE?
By Howard Fast
This is abridged from Mr. Fast's introduction to the volume "The Selected Work of Thomas Paine," which he edited for Duell, Sloan & Pearce, with whose kind permission we publish it here.
"THERE is not an idea in it (the Declaration of Independence) but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. . . ." So wrote the Federalist John Adams.
Jefferson, the well-loved and trusted leader of the democratic forces in America, had been for some time the foremost target of the anti-democratic Federalists. He knew how to take mudslinging; quietly, he answered:
"I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had never been expressed before. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject. Neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiments, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind."
The italics are mine; but it is no accident that, so many years after, Jefferson refers to the ideas incorporated into the Declaration of Independence as common sense--the title of Paine's first and far-reaching major work. And the phrase "expression of the American mind" is one of the most important clues, not only to the writings of Paine and Jefferson, but to the whole democratic system that sprang from their times.
The difference, however, between the writings of Paine and Jefferson, is the difference between an almost uneducated working man and the foremost philosopher of the culture of democracy that the eighteenth century produced. The question most often asked about Paine is how he did it, a question no one asks concerning Jefferson; so much of a fetish has the idea of formal education become.
We don't know too much of Paine's early life. An intense and clean objectivity was so much a quality of Paine's writing that he himself as an individual comes to light only in the briefest snatches. And when, many years later, serious biographers undertook an investigation of the boy who had fathered the incredible man, they found almost nothing on which to base any conclusions.
Much we can surmise. He came of the lowest landless class when class divisions were knife-sharp. As a child, he saw too much, and most of it hurt; if there was any real happiness in his childhood, he would have recalled more of it than he did, not shunned it as a bad dream. He had some schooling at the charity school at his native English village of Thetford; how much we don't know. Early, he learned his father's trade of corset making; and that he hated it is proved by the fact that so much of his early life was an attempt to escape it. Twice, young Tom Paine attempted to run away to sea, to ship aboard a privateer. Well, that was one of the few ways out; but it was like leaving Nazi Germany by way of a concentration camp, and the boy must have been desperate indeed.
There was a period of London wandering--which ended in Paine's apprenticing himself to a staymaker. Many such periods appear in Paine's pre-American life; they must have been times of futile desperation, attempts to escape the rat cage that always closed him in at the end. But they were periods of education too. London of the latter eighteenth century was, for at least half its population, as close an approximation of hell as is possible to create on this earth. The enclosure laws of the previous two centuries had created a huge landless population that gravitated toward the urban centers, mostly toward London, to form a half-human mob, not peasants, not craftsmen--the first tragic beginnings of a real working class. But the primitive capitalism of the time could not absorb even a fraction of the mob. Starvation, thievery, murder, and drunkenness were the order of the day. Paine went as low as the people, suffered with them, attempted their avenues of escape, and thereby came to understand them. Admirers of Paine attempt to make him a teetotaler; his enemies make him out a drunkard. He was neither.
That was Paine's pre-American life, up and down, hope and despair. Staymaking, revolt, wandering--desperate ventures at other trades. At the age of twenty-two, Paine married a servant girl; less than a year later she died: another chapter that Paine was loath to recall. At the age of twenty-five, he escaped staymaking--into one of the most unenviable trades in Britain, that of an exciseman. Tax collecting in a country of wholesale smuggling and tax evasion was not a happy business. He stood it for a while, and then, as before, went back, hopelessly, to staymaking. He tried other trades, cobbling, some cabinet-making; but the degree of hopelessness was the same. Always back to staymaking. Again desperation, and again a return to tax collecting.
This was the time of Paine's second marriage. He was a boarder with a tobacconist in Lewes, and when the shopkeeper died, Paine married his daughter, Elizabeth Ollive. Whether he was motivated by love or pity, we don't know, but he took on the responsibilities of the girl, the widowed mother, and a shop that was fast going into bankruptcy. Stretch the ends as he would, they could not be made to meet; and from this came Paine's first groping effort toward organization and his first written work, The Case of the Officers of the Excise. Wages of tax officers had been fixed more than a century before, and the rising spiral of prices had made these men long and silent sufferers, forced finally to choose between dishonesty or starvation. Paine organized them, pled their case in a petition to Parliament. The plea was refused.
AGAIN the old pattern in Paine's life, the shop in debt, bankruptcy, Paine fleeing to escape the debtor's prison, Paine going down and down and down, the shadow-land bottom layer of society, the gin mill. Paine left his wife; or perhaps she left him. That part of his life remained closed, and he never opened it. Paine disappeared into the maw of beggar's London. Paine reemerged, passage money to America in his pocket, to confront Benjamin Franklin, demanding help from the great man, and a letter of introduction to an American.
Even with these few sketchy facts, we can begin to understand what made the man, Thomas Paine, and what forces gave birth to the flaming documents he wrote--documents that moved more men to more earth-shaking results, politically, than any up to that time and even since that time, if we except the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
The single most important clue to Paine's writings is that they are dynamic. Let us see what is meant by that and whether we cannot relate the meaning to both the man and his experiences. Before Paine ever wrote a word, there were political philosophers in plenty: Voltaire, Locke, Milton, Cromwell, Rousseau, to name only a few. In America, long before Paine's time, such popular leaders as William Penn and Roger Williams had put the most advanced social and political theory of the age into practice, and what's more had, within limits of time and space, made those theories operate successfully. But there was a most important difference between the writing of these men and Paine's writing--indeed, between Paine's writing and the writing of so many political philosophers who came after him. And the difference may be summed up in this fashion:
They wrote abstractly of the pattern of change; Paine wrote realistically of the method of change. They were philosophers who created political philosophy; Paine was a revolutionist who created a method for revolution. They moved men to thought; Pained moved men to thought and action. They dealt with theory and ideals; Paine dealt with the dynamics of one force playing against another.
Note how these factors in Paine's writing are forecast by the events during the first thirty-seven years of his life. Paine's belief was in change; this was his faith, that all is dynamic and subject to change, that nothing is immutable. That is the pattern of both his life and his writing, subjectively and objectively: an unconquerable desire to substitute good for bad, hope for despair. Paine was never content with his lot, nor was he ever content with the lot of his fellow man. He believed it could be better. Follow the pattern: he believed there were better things to occupy a man than corset-making or cobbling. He believed that the lot of tax collectors could be bettered, if they worked actively toward that betterment. He saw poverty, the deepest kind of poverty, and he felt that a thing so evil should be wiped from the face of the earth. He never accepted anything but change.
And in November of 1774, he came to America, where change was the order of the day. He came to an America that was rumbling and quivering like a volcano about to erupt, and he put his ear to the ground and listened.
Let us glance, very briefly, at the America Paine came to. It was not a single, unified nation, but thirteen separate colonial areas--areas, however, with many things in common: they were being exploited by the same overseas empire; they spoke--the majority of them--the same language; they all suffered from the colonial status to which they were relegated; and they each of them possessed democratic movements in one stage or another of development.
In contrast with England, Paine found here in America comparatively little class differentiation. Land was so abundant that there was no real landless class, only a flux that went onto the land, away from the land, and back to it. There was merchant class fast being ruined by British trade restrictions; a planter class that was also being ruined by the colonial policy of the British. Thus, under outside pressure, these two united firmly with the free farmers and artisans, presenting an almost solid front. Almost because more than ten percent of the 3,000,000 Americans were Tories bound to the British by blood and class, exploiting the Americans as colonials, thinking of themselves always as British, depending upon the redcoat army to secure them their property. The America Paine came to was an armed and embattled people, who flared into guerrilla warfare only five months after he set foot on our soil.
Much of what America was and what it promised to be, Paine put into Common Sense. And he wrote it down there with the terrible sense of urgency which a man feels who has come on sudden and splendid good fortune--such good fortune that every waking moment plants the fear that all this wonder may slip from his grasp.
That was what drove Paine. He stepped off a boat and into the ripest and most gorgeous revolutionary opportunity that had existed. He looked around him, and the more he looked, the more he realized. The prophet of the common man stepped into the land and era of the common man. The fine gears of history, so often haphazard, now purposefully meshed.