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Happy Birthday Thomas Paine

January 29, 2014

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Tom Paine is not only one of the greatest republicans ever to have issued from the islands of North West Europe, but one of the most influential republicans who ever lived. He was a critical contributor to the American Revolution, to 1790s democratic agitation in Britain and trans-denominational Irish republicanism, and to debates regarding organised religion in revolutionary France.

During a poorly organised attempt by William Cobbett to retrieve his body from America and rebury it in Britain, Paine’s corpse got somehow mislaid – and a man who gave so much to the world is now lost to the world.  Yet this corporeal loss has prevented the erection of a pious shrine in his honour, which is something to be strangely grateful for, since a defining principle of Paine’s work is a rejection of ancestor worship and a belief that each living generation should be free to work out its own destiny.  A far better tribute to Paine than a tomb of marble bedecked with flowers is a tatty paperback copy of Rights of Man, illustrated with scribbled marginal comments.

His birthday comes a few days after Burns Night.  Together, these late eighteenth-century contemporaries penned some of the most devastating attacks on the hereditary principle and inherited privilege ever conceived.  Robert Burns and Thomas Paine cut a liberating and eternal rent through the lazy assumption that virtue and respect are owed to a birth certificate.  Indeed, they both articulated the essentially contractual nature of respect – respect as the necessary basis of any form of political authority.

Whenever people shout “traitors” and “treason” at those who suggest fundamental constitutional reform – remind them that back in the 1790s, anyone advocating the most basic democratic freedoms was denounced (like Paine) as a traitor.  Indeed (especially in Scotland), it was deemed treasonable to suggest that the British constitution was not the best constitution that could possibly be.   Leibniz enforced at the point of a bayonet.

The survival of Paine’s three great works (Common Sense, 1776, Rights of Man, 1791 and Age of Reason, 1794) is a reminder that good ideas can withstand any amount of state backed repression. Back in his day, every political, educational, ecclesiastical and literary authority was organised to denounce the concept of popular sovereignty. 200 years after Paine’s death, whenever a corrupt oligarchy succumbs to that moment when the people realise that power is in their own hands, then Paineite principles have once again prevailed.  Whenever a generation becomes optimistic enough to believe that they can do better than their own parents and grandparents and that “we’ve always done things this way” is no answer to any question worth asking then Paineite principles will have once again become obvious.

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