Thomas Paine: a prophet for today?

Denis Desert writes of an author and philosopher who encouraged society to fight against the erosion of freedom

Some years ago, when I was teaching at an adult education centre, the group was discussing the changes that have taken place in society in recent years. One member, a retired civil servant of some standing, remarked, 'The trouble is that we are becoming a nation of conformists, followers of the rule book and box tickers!' This view is picked up by some commentators who use the label Neo Puritanism' to describe this trend. This very un-British stance has, to my mind, parallels to the situation that prevailed under National Socialism of Germany in the Thirties. I suggest that the move toward a conforming society was predicted both in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World of 1931 and in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four published in 1949. Huxley puts into the mouth of one of his characters, 'Most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution:

Rocking the boat

This leads me to turn to Thomas Paine who reacted against servitude and conformity of any sort and promoted revolution as the necessary means by which freedom was to be achieved. He was a rocker of boats who challenged vigorously anything that shackled the freedom of humanity. Paine was born in Thetford in 1737 to an Anglican mother and a Quaker father. He was sent to the local grammar school but withdrawn at the age of twelve to assist his father as a corset maker. The young Thomas had a keen mind and the life of a corset maker did not appeal. His marriage in 1759 ended tragically with the death of his wife in childbirth. He went on to become an excise officer where he caused trouble by publishing a pamphlet in which he was critical of the low rate of pay in the service. This led to his dismissal.

By 1773, now in his late thirties and at a loose end in London, fortuitously he met the diplomat and journalist Benjamin Franklin who became known as the 'First American'. They shared a common understanding of the rights of humanity and also the possibility of ending slavery. It so happened that Franklin published the influential Pennsylvania Magazine, a medium through which radical and challenging views were expressed. Franklin suggested that Paine, now thirty-seven, might find the way of life in the new world conducive. This led Paine, armed with letters of introduction from Franklin, to go to America and life as a journalist in Pennsylvania. He was taken on as a writer for the Pennsylvanian Magazine contributing articles centred on justice, human rights and the abolition of slavery.

This was at a time when the colonists were getting restive and impatient of the yoke of the British government. Paine quickly picked up the aspirations of the Americans and their hopes of self-determination. But Paine was no diplomat; he made his views plain in no uncertain terms. He published articles severely critical of slavery and also the corruption that prevailed throughout the colony.

American Revolution

Rebellion was very much in the air, leading to an armed confrontation between the British military and the colonists at Lexington in 1775. Paine strongly supported the move to independence and wrote a substantial pamphlet, Common Sense, in which he championed the cause of independence for the American colonies. George Washington had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the continental army at a time when morale was low. It was at this point that Paine published the first part of his Common Sense pamphlet in 1776, The American Crisis. The work began with the stirring words, 'These are the times that try men's souls: Washington saw this publication as a medium to inspire and hold together his disintegrating force. He ordered it to be read to his troops. This pamphlet earned the author the appellation, 'Father of the American Revolution:

In spite of Paine's contribution to the American Revolution over the seven years of its duration and his appointment to official positions by Congress, his undiplomatic outspokenness won him enemies. The strong opposition of influential figures led Paine to return to England in 1787.

Further controversy

Back in England, it was not long before he engaged controversy. He strongly supported the French Revolution and was incensed by Edmund Burke's attack on the French upheaval. This led to Paine publishing his Rights of Man in 1791. In it he underlined the main causes of civil unrest: poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and war. His belief in the intrinsic dignity of all human beings led him to underline that the powerful were not to ride roughshod over the vulnerable. He saw the only way to free the underprivileged from exploitation was through revolution. He advocated the replacement of the monarchy with republicanism. The establishment did not receive the work well, banned it and accused the author of treason. This put him in peril of arrest, imprisonment and possibly execution. The poet-artist William Blake, who had become a friend of Paine, strongly urged him to leave England for France.

Waning reputation

In France Paine was warmly welcomed by the revolutionary regime as one who supported their cause. In spite of his lack of French he was appointed to the National Convention. However, his outspokenness got him into trouble once more. He condemned sending Louis XVI and the aristocracy to the guillotine. This led him to a spell of imprisonment. But

he put the time to good use by starting his second major work, The Age of Reason. In this work he declared his opposition to organized religion and propounded his view that Scripture in both testaments contained much that was mythological and irrational. His release from prison was secured by the American Ambassador.

Paine remained in France until 1802 when he returned to the United States. But his former reputation had been forgotten and his reputation was smeared by his deistic views and the Biblical criticism propounded in The Age of Reason. So much of what he had written alarmed many Americans whose perception was rooted in the Puritanism of the English Separatists who settled in New England in the seventeenth century. Such people hardly warmed to Paine's words: `It is from the Bible that man has learnt cruelty, rapine and murder; for the belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man: His religious views are perhaps put in a nutshell in his words, `The opinions I have advanced...are the most clear and long established conviction that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account of Jesus being the Son of God, and dying to appease the wrath of God... are all fabulous [fables]. The only true religion is deism...the belief in one God and the practice of what are called moral virtues: Disillusioned, he relapsed into poverty, drunkenness and illness and died in 1809. In his obituary published in the New York Citizen, his life was assessed thus: He had lived long, did some good and much harm: At his funeral there were no more than a handful to see him lowered into the grave.

His own man

Thomas Paine was anything but a conformist. He was very much his `own man: He was raised in an underprivileged community and, no doubt his early formation was coloured by his father's Quakerism with its focus on human dignity, freedom and radical thinking. These concepts developed as he matured and became expressed in his writings and certainly profoundly influenced the American colonists to fight for their independence from the British control.

So has this remarkable man who `did some good and much harm' anything to

convey to our age? My perception is that he has. I indicated at the beginning of this article that some commentators on the social scene are using the term `Neo-Puritanism' to describe the tendency of British society to impose increasingly strict and often gratuitous rules. While guidelines and laws are essential to a civilized society, the government and bureaucrats appear to be putting measures in place that undermine the essential freedoms that enable us human beings to live creative and fulfilled lives. It was these freedoms for which Paine fought in the eighteenth century and was expressed in the Declaration of Independence engineered by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Jefferson, who became the third president of the United States, famously said, `The price of freedom is eternal vigilance:

A free people

As a nation we have historically prided ourselves on being a free people and not slaves. This concept has coloured our society and has drawn refugees, including my own Huguenot family, to our land. I agree with those who see neo-Puritanism as infecting our society. Our Church is not immune from this trend and is possibly losing its grasp on our hallmark, the via media, with its understanding of tolerance, balance and common-sense. It saddened me to read in a national newspaper in June that it is possible for clergy to be `defrocked' should they join certain political parties. To my mind conformity and fundamentalism of all forms requires society to sing from the same boring hymn sheet while the protagonists of freedom are prepared to accept that in a creative and humane social order individuals and groups must be free to choose their own forms of expression. Freedom, manifestly, is at the heart of our faith and is enshrined in the collect for peace the office of Morning Prayer, `O God... Whose service is perfect freedom:

In a short article it is not possible to detail specific areas where our freedoms are being infringed. Be it enough to point to a recent interview reported in a national newspaper with a practising Anglican, Dominic Grieve, until recently attorney general. He expressed concern about the way in which Christianity is being generally excluded from our society. He stated, Christianity is a powerful force for good: Clearly he sees the faith as being an intrinsic component in our way of life and in preserving our traditional freedoms.

The Church's task

If my assumption that our freedoms are being eroded is soundly based then the question naturally follows, what part can the Church play in reversing the trend? I turn briefly to Cardinal von Galen who was Bishop of Munster during the Third Reich. He saw National Socialism as undermining natural freedoms and the Christian faith. Religious orders were being expelled from their convents, religion excluded from school curricula, the mentally ill exterminated. On all these issues, backed by his supportive Diocese, the Cardinal spoke against the inhuman measures being inflicted upon the German nation. I suggest that the restrictive measures that were imposed by the National Socialists in Germany of that period were patently clear to those who had eyes to see. However, the `Neo -Puritan ism' infecting our contemporary world is of a much more subtle nature and, for that reason, more alarming.

Thomas Paine and freedom fighters over the ages challenge our society and the Church to have the courage to speak out against the gratuitous measures being put in place by government, legislative bodies and even the Church itself. We are created in the image of God; that means that freedom is at the heart and core of our very existence and without that freedom we are become slaves.

The author welcomes responses on <denisdeseri@ntlworld. com>

ND

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