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THOMAS PAINE - A LIBERTARIAN WHO DIED TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO
Write Dope on Pnuk part 65
Thomas Paine was born in Thetford in Norfolk in January 1737 and attended the local Grammar school until he was thirteen, at which age he became apprenticed to his father, a corset maker. His father, who was a Quaker, was very influential upon Thomas’ life. He enlisted briefly in the Navy (first upon a ship called Terrible under Captain Death, and then upon the King of Prussia) but returned to land to take up corsetry. During a time in London he came to know some men of science.
In 1761 he became an excise officer and in December 1762 was sent to Grantham in Lincolnshire, where he was stationed until August 1764. A year later he was discharged for neglecting his duty, but appealed and the next year he was re-appointed. In 1772 the excisemen were campaigning for a rise in wages and Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet upon their behalf, his first printed work. This however contributed to his second dismissal from the service in 1774.
Back in London he became acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged Paine to emigrate to the American colonies, though he contracted an illness on the ship (five other passengers having died from typhoid fever) and was seriously weakened by the time of his arrival in Philadelphia. Here he found work with a bookseller who wanted to start a magazine. Before long Thomas was editing the 'Pennsylvanian Magazine', to which he also contributed articles attacking slavery, urging emancipation for women, advocating an end to cruelty to animals and extolling a republican sentiment.
With the start of the War of Independence in April 1775, Paine was an ardent supporter and his next pamphlet, 'Common Sense (January 1776)' is seen as one of the best written statements of the desires of the colonists to have a free nation of their own. This advocated a people’s war to throw off the yoke of the British government that might then stand as an inspiration to those oppressed peoples of Europe. Paine also felt that there should be a social contract to back-up a most minimal government to ensure those rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that the war was being fought for. It is believed by some that Paine might have even written the suppressed clause in the Declaration of Independence against the slave trade.
In the autumn of 1776 Paine resigned from the magazine and joined the Revolutionary Army. In December the first of his series 'Crisis (commenting on the war)' appeared in the 'Pennsylvania Journal'. Paine’s war service saw him as part of a commission to native tribes (January 1777) and even undertaking diplomatic ventures to France (1781). In 1782, at the suggestion of George Washington, amongst others, Paine was rewarded with eight hundred dollars from the secret service fund to enable him to write.
During 1784 Thomas had moved away from politics and was working on inventing an iron bridge. In April 1787 he showed his model in Paris to the academy of sciences. Then he came back to Britain and in June 1790 it was erected in what is now Paddington. He was also engaged on other scientific projects, but other matters were to distract him, namely, the Revolution in France.
In spring 1790 Paine had been in Paris and Lafayette had entrusted to him the key to the Bastille to give to George Washington. In March 1791, the next famous work of Paine’s was published; 'The Rights of Man', and this became an instant success with the radicals of Britain. Unfortunately this also caused the authorities to start a hunt for Paine, and so in September he had to flee the country. Back in France he was welcomed as a hero and in 1793 was elected to the national assembly despite not speaking French. In October he was even appointed to a committee to draft a new constitution. Paine, though, did not support executing the king, rather suggested that he should be exiled to America. This lead to a denunciation by Marat. Out of favour, he was arrested and put in prison, escaping a trip to the guillotine by a fortuitous accident. Following the death of Robespierre, Paine was able to leave prison, though he stayed in France.
His next (and last) major work was 'Agrarian Justice' in which he saw that there was no going back from the civilised society (where some were rich and many were abjectly poor) to the primitive state (where all were moderately poor). So he proposed that there should be a ten- percent levy on inheritances. This was to provide first a sum for all citizens at the age of twenty-one (£15), so that they might establish themselves, and then for a pension (£10 per year) upon reaching the age of fifty. As he says in this article: “Though I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good.” Later he had hopes that Napoleon might invade Britain, but came to condemn his dictatorship.
Thomas Jefferson (now President of America) invited Paine back across the Atlantic, though here he was now an outsider from society. On June 8 1809, he died in Greenwich Village, New York, and he was buried in New Rochelle in the same state. However, in 1819, William Cobbett had the bones dug up to bring back to Britain. They got to Liverpool, where they remained until after Cobbett’s death. In 1836 they were seized as part of the assets of Cobbett’s bankrupt son, and were last heard of owned by a Mr. Tilly in 1844.
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