Thomas Paine


Where better to hear a talk about Thomas Paine than in the very Thetford schoolroom in which he spent the only five years of his formal education? Who better to tell Paine’s story than the school’s present headmaster, who has long experience of teaching history in sixth forms? Gareth Price’s talk was organised by the Society, and took place at the school on the last Friday of April 2009, as part of the town’s commemoration of the bicentenary of Paine’s death.

With meticulous impartiality and no small wit, Mr Price presented a picture of Paine as a man of Quaker principles, a free-thinker owing no personal allegiance to the establishments of his day, whether religious or political.
We heard that before he travelled to North America in 1774 Thomas Paine had many failures and very occasional good luck in his career. For example, he secured a berth on a privateer but arrived at the quayside to find that it had sailed without him. It went down with all hands two days later. Twice he was employed in the Customs and Excise service, but that did not last. It seemed that he was much too inclined to quarrel with his superiors.

His arrival in North America in 1774 at the age of 37 coincided with his emergence as a fully-fledged political philosopher. There he could and did openly discuss the most radical ideas in support of the American Revolution, so that to this day, Gareth Price told us, he is revered in the United States for his contribution, both practical and literary, to the Revolution’s success. But he was always a controversialist, and he offended many Americans who mistakenly thought him to be an atheist, and he even fell out with George Washington himself. In 1787 he returned to England, and subsequently published what the state considered his highly seditious The Rights of Man.

Next he moved to Paris, where his ideas, as in The Age of Reason, made him a hero of another revolution, until a change of regime made him a mortal enemy of the Jacobins under Robespierre. The guards at his prison were instructed to paint a red symbol on the cell doors of the people due to be guillotined on the following morning. Fortunately for Thomas Paine, his cell door was open, and the sign was painted on the inside. The door was then closed for the night. Consequently the guards collecting the condemned found no mark on Paine’s door, and he was saved. Robespierre fell from power and, after some months, Thomas was released. In due course he publicly attacked Napoleon, and chose to return to the United States in 1802 to continue his still controversial career as a political philosopher. He died there in 1809. William Cobbett, himself an English radical, disinterred Thomas’s remains with the intention of burying them in England, but somehow lost them en route. This final misadventure did not prevent his becoming a great hero of the far Left in his native land.

The Breckland Society is much indebted to Gareth Price for his talk, which certainly enlightened and delighted his audience, including the writer of this appreciation.

Jim Norris