A Shooting Star

The Deconstruction of Thomas Paine

The late eighteenth century has been called the decades of revolutions.  In the course of that particular season we are treated to a luminary, Thomas Paine rising brightly in the eastern sky only rapidly to become a burning, falling star in the west.

Paine had played an active role in the American Revolution.  He advocated strongly the merits and justice of the American colonies against the belligerence of England.  He based his argument upon the ground of universal human rights in the abstract.  He took his arguments and assertions to England itself and called for a similar revolt against the lords and the monarchy.  Whilst he found many supporters, there were not nearly enough to produce a revolution.

Then events in France undid his arguments and appeals.  The French Revolution, which Paine supported ardently, turned bloody and people saw first hand what radical revolution sanctioned by appeals to abstract human rights and inflamed with violence could accomplish.  It was not a pretty sight.  Paine’s popularity in England evaporated.

. . . the gruesome “September Massacres” of 1792 (in France), when hundreds of men, women and children were butchered in the streets and prisons of Paris as suspected traitors, the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in 1793, the escalating Terror, war and economic disaster mocked Paine’s confidence that “they order these things better in France.”  He himself, at first feted in Paris, was imprisoned and sentenced to the guillotine–a fate he narrowly escaped due to a change of government.  [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p.387]

Suddenly the abstractions of Paine’s Rights of Man had come face to face with human depravity at its worst and Paine, overnight, was exposed as little more than a deluded fanatic.   The effect upon England was substantial.

These years fixed English “memory” of revolution, elaborated in nineteenth-century history and literature–especially in Carlyle’s vivid and tragic History (1837) and Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities (1859) which emphasized the contrast between the Terror and English peace and security.  . . .  The future English consensus that emerged over the next generation concerning the French Revolution, and by extension political change in general, was ambivalent: opposed to tyranny, in favour of moderate reforms, but hostile to violence. [Ibid.]

Paine died in 1809.  He had returned to the United States. He died in poverty and ignominy.  Only six people attended his funeral.  His obituary in the New York Evening Post said,  “He had lived long, did some good, and much harm.”  Ouch.
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