|Paine by John Kay.|
Another 'person of interest' to the British government was Thomas Paine (1737–1809), the son of a Thetford staymaker. His writings were truly revolutionary. His first great work, Common Sense (1776), was a plea for American independence.
His second major work, Rights of Man (part I) was a riposte to Edmund Burke’s Reflexions on the Revolution in France (1790), a powerful attack on French revolutionary ideals, and a plea for maintaining the current status quo.
But it was the second part of Paine’s Rights of Man (1792) which arguably had the largest influence on men’s thinking. He attacked the institution of monarchy: ‘Man has no power over posterity in matters of personal right; and therefore no man, or body of men, had, or can have, a right to set up hereditary government...we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession’.
He advocated the abolition of the poor laws. The state should provide for the poor, babies and old people. To add fuel to the flames, Paine’s Age of Reason (1794–5) lambasted organized religion.
Paine’s pioneering ideas spread like wildfire. His works had a massive circulation and were eagerly adopted by the Society of Constitutional Information (which he had joined), and by the so-called ‘corresponding societies’.
|Tom Paine laces Britannia into a revolutionary corset.|
In May 1792, Paine's Rights of Man was banned by the British government, but this act of censorship simply boosted sales of his work. Pitt's government now charged Paine with seditious libel; he fled to France, but was found guilty in absentia. Britain now became a very dangerous place for those who wanted to disseminate Paine's works, as we shall see.
Illustrations: Thomas Paine, Kay's Original Portraits, courtesy the Internet Archive.
Edmund Burke. Collotype after the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale, T.N. Foulis, 1910. Author’s collection.
'Fashion before ease'. Gillray cartoon, 1793, courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-3146.