Tom Paine: A Political Life

Tom Paine: A Political Life

by John Keane


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"More than any other public figure of the eighteenth century, Tom Paine strikes our times like a trumpet blast from a distant world." So begins John Keane's magnificent and award-winning (the Fraunces Tavern Book Award) biography of one of democracy's greatest champions. Among friends and enemies alike, Paine earned a reputation as a notorious pamphleteer, one of the greatest political figures of his day, and the author of three best-selling books, Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Setting his compelling narrative against a vivid social backdrop of prerevolutionary America and the French Revolution, John Keane melds together the public and the shadowy private sides of Paine's life in a remarkable piece of scholarship. This is the definitive biography of a man whose life and work profoundly shaped the modern age. "Provide[s] an engaging perspective on England, America, and France in the tumultuous years of the late eighteenth century." — Pauline Maier, The New York Times Book Review "It is hard to imagine this magnificent biography ever being superceded.... It is a stylish, splendidly erudite work." — Terry Eagleton, The Guardian

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802139641
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/10/2003
Series: Grove Great Lives Series
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 818,983
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


Thetford Days

* * *

Child of Violence

From the hour of his birth, Tom Paine felt the deathly hand of the English state. Some called him a child of state violence, for the thatched cottage where he came crying into the world in Thetford, England, in the winter of 1737, stood near an execution site, on the slopes of a low, windswept hill known locally as the Wilderness. Townspeople favored this name because of its wretched soil and winter winds, but also because each year, with the arrival of spring, convicted criminals were herded through the area from the borough gaol, a quarter of a mile away, up to a nearby chalk ridge resembling Golgotha. There, on Gallows Hill, within plain sight of Paine's cottage within the Wilderness, the gaol governors and town constables arranged hangings, watched by wide-eyed crowds.

The yearly ritual of Thetford executions dated back at least six centuries, to the time when the medieval gaol was first built. On Paine's birthday — Saturday, January 29, 1737 — the gaol stood on the same site that it had first occupied in the reign of King Edward I. Square-built of black flint and stretching three stories upward from its basement dungeon, the gaol symbolized the cruel punishment system in whose shadow the young Paine became an adult. From an early age, he undoubtedly knew of the building, for it was renowned as a house of horrors to which prisoners from all over Norfolk County were brought to await trial or sentencing. Townspeople saw the gaol as a hellish maze of bars and doors, dirt and debauchery, which left prisoners scarred or dead. One contemporary observer likened it to the black hole of Calcutta; another considered it a sewer of vice where the old were hardened in iniquity and the young instructed in crime. Still others gossiped about its rough routines. Each morning, it was said, prisoners were loaded with irons or forced onto the treadmill, while at dusk, as female prisoners were flung into solitary confinement in the top floor cells, the most dangerous men were stuffed into the low-ceilinged basement dungeon. The men were then forced by the duty constables to lie down, head to toe, on a stone floor and to sleep, if sleep it could be called, without either mattresses or bedding. The accused complained constantly about the filth and poor food, while long delays in trials and sentencing added to their misery. That is why, townspeople said, prisoners often yearned for the courtroom — for "gaol delivery" — which gave them momentary release into the outside world, where prisoners could hear birds twittering and feel sunlight or rain splash on their faces, reminding them that death was not yet theirs.

The court sessions, or so-called Lent Assizes, for the county of Norfolk were always held in Thetford during the month of March. In the year of Paine's birth, proceedings were conducted by Sir John Willes, recently appointed as Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and later satirized as a red-nosed, triple-chinned lecher in William Hogarth's painting The Bench. "In politicks he was a right ol' bugger," locals often said, "but a lawy'r of great learnin' an' a judge of ability." Escorted by a livery of forty mounted men, he had traveled from Cambridge to Thetford by way of Newmarket, arriving in Thetford on Saturday afternoon, March 5. His arrival in Paine's hometown was bathed in pomp, above all because the Lord Chief Justice symbolized the power of George II's government over outlying courts and regions. After stepping from his gilded coach, Willes was welcomed by the splendidly dressed High Sheriff of Norfolk and the Mayor, Henry Cocksedge. He was then escorted to his lodgings in the King's House, where he dined privately that evening on pheasant, spit-roasted spring lamb, and fine burgundy wine.

The arrival in Thetford of the Lord Chief Justice usually triggered a week of town celebrations. There was an old Norfolk saying, "There no be warm weather 'til the prison'rs are now goin' to Thetford." As if to prove that maxim and hasten the arrival of spring, hundreds of visitors flocked to the little town of some two thousand people to witness the spectacle of punishment. Necrophilia hung in the air. On Saturday, hours before the appearance of the Lord Chief Justice, the town grew excited. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor rubbed shoulders for a time at the marketplace near the gaol, or lingered in small groups to watch the to-and-fro of stagecoaches at the Bell and other local inns.

Travelers often remarked that there was nothing gloomier than an English Sunday. So it was with 'Size Sunday in Thetford. By law, Sunday was a vestige of the Puritan day of enforced godliness and compulsory inactivity. The town residents and visitors were forbidden to sing or play musical instruments, dance, or play ball games, cards, or skittles. Religion and law ruled supreme, as was obvious to the handful of townspeople who watched the Lord Chief Justice walk a private path to St. Peter's Church, accompanied by the High Sheriff, the Mayor, and black-gowned members of the Thetford Corporation. There a mid-morning sermon was preached by the High Sheriff's chaplain, who emphasized in solemn tones the wrath of God and the necessity of obeying His King's laws.

Early next morning, the sobriety vanished. Booths selling ale and cider were set up, and street corners came alive. The temporary population of Thetford continued to mushroom. Accommodations in the town were always in short supply, and beds were let at inflated prices of half a guinea each, with the poorest townspeople taking in lodgers to reap some grain from the harvest. In one recorded case, a poor family had its six children sleep in one bed, three at the head and three at the foot, to earn a few shillings from a lodger. Gentlemen, taking up residence in their town houses, suffered no such discomforts. By day, they tallyhoed their hounds across the surrounding heathland and indulged in horse racing, stag hunting, and pheasant shooting. By nightfall, the same gentlemen gathered at the White Hart Inn, just down the hill from Paine's cottage on a street named Bridgegate, to drink ale, play cards, and bet on cockfights. The courtyards of other local inns had meanwhile been turned into commoners' theaters, filled to capacity every night for a week, their jesting, heckling audiences charmed and taunted with a mixture of classics and vaudeville performed by touring companies.

After several days and nights of unbroken reveling, the Assizes were formally opened in the Guildhall — a short walk from the Paines' — on the morning of Thursday, March 10. The Lord Chief Justice, seated high above a packed courtroom watched over by the High Constable and the Petty Constables, read aloud his commission from the King, sealed with the Great Seal. The names of all Justices of the Peace in the county of Norfolk were then read out, and the gentlemen of the Grand Jury were administered the oath of faithfulness to their King, Church, Country, and conscience. The accused, prevented from giving evidence themselves or even knowing beforehand the charges against them, were expected to stand mute. The whole ceremony mimicked the description of the English justice system in the third part of the famous Commentaries of Sir William Blackstone, who himself later presided at the Thetford Lent Assizes in March 1777, three years before his death. Blackstone praised the assize system as an example of "the wise oeconomy and admirable provision of our ancestors, in settling the distribution of justice in a method so well calculated for cheapness, expedition, and ease." He went on to describe the architects of the ancient system as "an illustrious train of Ancestors, who are formed by their education, interested by their property, and bound upon their conscience and honour, to be skilled in the Laws of their Country."

Ancestors of the realm loomed large in the architecture of the Guildhall courtrooms. In the smaller Nisi Prius court, where Lord Chief Justice Willes turned to the day's business, hung a fine oil painting of Justice. Its inscription read: "Judge righteously, and plead the cause of the Poor and Needy. Proverbs 31 and 9." The civil cases were heard first. Business was brisk. About two-thirds of the accused were convicted of offenses such as petty larceny, forgery, libel, and the use of unjust weights. A boy who robbed his master and a man who stole hats were ordered to be transported to the American colonies. A trader convicted of dishonesty and a woman accused of being a shrew were humiliated on the ducking stool on the river Thet. The remaining convicted were ordered to be branded, put in the town pillory, publicly or privately whipped, or fined and imprisoned.

After hearing the civil cases, the Lord Chief Justice moved on to criminal business in the Crown Court, where he sat facing the Grand Jury Gallery. Behind him was a draped canopy submounted by the Royal Arms and the motto Pro rege, lege, et grege (For the king, the law, and the people); in the window to his right were stained-glass Royal Arms, while to his left were the Arms of the Borough of Thetford. The crowded courtroom hushed. All eyes fixed on the Lord Chief Justice, the gentlemen of the jury, and the accused, who stood motionless as their fetters were temporarily removed, their eyes sunken and glazed, convinced that the sand in their hourglass was running for the last time.

Criminal cases at the Thetford Assizes normally included burglary, stealing livestock, highway robbery, and arson. Very few were charged with murder. Crimes were as a rule ad hoc acts against property — that is, driven by material desperation and not by any widespread culture of criminality within the ranks of the poor. Sometimes the proceedings were entertaining, as when a packed courtroom watched a man capitally convicted for burglary compulsively eat oranges throughout his trial and sentencing. There were also tales of the time when the courtroom watched with amazement an accused man rob a constable in their midst, or heard the case of a boy who had picked a constable's pocket as he was arrested and was subsequently transported for fourteen years. By these standards, the criminal hearings of March 10, 1737, were uneventful. Stamped with the unsmiling authority of George II, they followed the harsh maxim of Voltaire, who had commented when visiting the area a few years before that the English were a people who murdered by law.

The nearby Norwich Mercury reported that in the year of Paine's birth, three of the accused were sentenced to death by the Grand Jury. James Blade, age forty-one years, a former ship's carpenter apprentice, confessed to stealing money and goods to the value of twenty shillings four years earlier from the owner of the King's Head tavern in nearby Stanfield High-Green. He also confessed to keeping fairs at which members of the public played unlawful games such as pricking the girdle, thimbles and ball, and the newly invented game black joke. William Wright, "a poor stupid Creature" born at Silem in Suffolk County, was convicted of stealing a bushel of wheat from a barn and robbing a woman on the King's Highway near Dickelburgh by cutting off her pocket and escaping with one guinea, six shillings, and six pence. John Painter, about thirty-five years of age, was born of "very poor, but honest Parents" and lived near Brandon with his wife and children, working as a warrener. He was convicted of purchasing a stolen horse and stealing a parcel of tea and hiding it in a blacksmith's shop, where he was apprehended. He strongly denied the charges, insisting that the most unlawful act in his life was to poach several dozen rabbits one evening from a nearby warren.

The Lord Chief Justice ordered that each man be executed the next day. "Wretches hang that jurymen may dine," wrote Alexander Pope. And so it was in Thetford. Overnight, as the Chief Justice banqueted with the Grand Jury at the King's House, the three were held groaning in the Thetford gaol, double-ironed and handcuffed. A large yoke circled their necks, and their limbs were chained to the floor of the cell. What they thought or did overnight went unrecorded. We know only that a few minutes before eight o'clock next morning, shortly after sunrise, Blade, Wright, and Painter were escorted by the Borough Sheriff, several petty constables, a clergyman, the executioner, and his two assistants from the gaol up through the nearby Wilderness, past Paine's cottage, to the chalk ridge known as Gallows Hill.

The prisoners, dressed in the same shabby blue coats worn during their trial, looked cadaverous before the murmuring crowd bunched beside the scaffold. Prayers were said. A mournful hymn was sung by a small group in the crowd. The blue-coated men mounted the scaffold. The executioner let fall three ropes, which the assistants adjusted in turn around each prisoner's neck. The convicted joined hands. Staring into the distance, they exchanged no words. Their nightcaps were pulled down over their faces, and a black handkerchief was tied over their eyes. The crowd stilled. The clergyman called, "God bless you! God bless you!" A signal was given, and each man's shoulders were suddenly flung into convulsions. The violent breathing and choked gasps that followed went as quickly as they had come. The convicted criminals had been launched into eternity.

According to custom, the bodies were left to swing in the cold March wind for a full hour. They were then cut down and carted from the scaffold to the gaol, the dispersing crowd trailing along. John Painter's corpse was placed in a coffin, returned to his family, and later buried in a churchyard. The bodies of James Blade and William Wright were delivered to the county surgeons, who picked through their flesh and bones in the name of science, in accordance with the instructions of Lord Chief Justice Willes.

Each Lent for the next nineteen years — all of them spent in Thetford — Tom Paine likely grew conscious of the imprisonment, trial, and execution of scores of figures like Painter, Blade, and Wright. Mid-eighteenth-century punishment was an ugly sight to Paine's eyes, as it is to ours. In his youth, the field of criminal law was the most violent patch of English life. Certainly by European and world standards, Georgian England was not a murderous country. In contrast to the previous century of failed revolution, political assassinations were unknown, soldiers rarely fired on crowds, and kings lost their heads only mentally. The means of state violence were often overstretched, policing was an amateurish affair, and the resort to murder in everyday life was comparatively rare. Other forms of violence — the routine beating of wives, servants, and children, the flogging of soldiers, the brawls of drunken hirelings during election campaigns — were undoubtedly commonplace, and the ubiquity of symbolic violence, such as the seizure of overpriced bread and stone throwing against the excisemen and profiteering millers, shocked visitors to the country. But with few exceptions, even this popular symbolic violence was constrained by considerations of moral economy — that is, limited by custom to specific purposes and clearly targeted at specific objectives such as the defense of ancient liberties and the remedying of perceived injustices.

The tough application of a vicious penal code was the exception. During Paine's youth, capital statutes mushroomed, even for paltry offenses such as stealing a packet of tea, being out at night with a blackened face, purchasing a stolen horse, or stealing a few shillings. While well-to-do homicides were often acquitted or given nominal sentences, servants who pilfered from their masters or rural laborers who stole a sheep found themselves sentenced to death by hanging. England seemed destined to have laws for the rich and laws for the poor. In 1689, there had been fifty capital offenses in the country. During Paine's century, the number quadrupled, most of the additions being related (as might be expected in a burgeoning capitalist economy) to securing absolute rights of private property — against those who continued to think in old-fashioned usufructuary terms of property as the right of peacefully enjoying the use and advantages of another's property. Among the supreme ironies of the period, which Paine himself quickly grasped, was that just as Continental absolute monarchies were beginning to liberalize their statute books, England, renowned as the home of liberty and good government, was imposing Europe's most barbarous criminal code on a population that was among the least violent in the region.


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Copyright © 1995 John Keane.
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Table of Contents

PROLOGUE A Citizen Extraordinary,
PART I England, 1737–1774,
1 Thetford Days,
2 The Ruined Citizen,
PART II America, 1774–1787,
3 The Empire and the Orphan,
4 The Birth of America,
5 War,
6 Public Insults,
7 The Federalist,
8 The Woes of Peace,
PART III France and England, 1787–1802,
9 Rights of Man,
10 Executing a King,
11 Prison to Dictatorship,
PART IV America, 1802–1809,
12 Growing Old in America,

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