Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man; The Age of Reason

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 11. Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man; The Age of Reason

From Godwin, who, in his worst days, kept round him a tattered cloak of magnanimity, it is an abrupt change to his fellow-revolutionary, the coarse-grained, shrewd Thomas Paine. Yet, the latter had virtues which were missing in his contemporary. His public spirit led him to disregard all profit from political works which had a large sale; he was not a beggar, and the rewards he was forced to ask from the American governments were the barest payments on account of admitted services to the United States. In fact, he was a born pamphleteer, never happy unless he was divulging his opinions for the welfare of the human race as he conceived it. Dogmatic and narrow-minded, he was not a man to be troubled by doubts: the meaning of history, the best form of government, right and wrong, falsehood and truth, all seemed quite plain to him, and he had no more hesitation than Godwin in making a working model of the universe, as he did of the iron bridge by him invented. It was not till he was well advanced in middle life that he obtained an opportunity of showing his great talents. He was the son of a poor Norfolk Quaker, and spent all his earlier years in the struggle to make a decent livelihood. In turn, a staymaker, a seaman, a school-usher, a tobacconist and an exciseman, he moved from place to place, until he was finally dismissed from the excise in 1774, and, in the same year, emigrated to Philadelphia. There, he almost immediately edited The Pennsylvania Magazine, and proved at once his literary talent and the advanced character of his opinions by attacking slavery and advocating American independence. In 1776, he became famous by his pamphlet, Common-Sense, which he, at least, looked on as the principal instrument in consolidating American opinion in favour of war. Having gained the public ear, he continued the work of encouraging resistance to English rule by two series of effective pamphlets, called The Crisis, and was soon recognised as the leading writer of his new country, while, with characteristic versatility, he also served as a soldier, as secretary to the congress’s foreign committee and as clerk to the Pennsylvania assembly. Peace brought him moderate rewards and a retirement which he could not endure. He returned to England to prosecute his mechanical inventions, the fruit of his leisure hours, and soon became involved anew in politics. The French revolution proved a fresh turning-point in his career. In 1791–2, he took up the cudgels against Burke in the two parts of The Rights of Man. The ability, and, still more, the wide circulation, of these tracts brought him in danger of arrest, and he fled to France, where he became a member of Convention, and, after all but falling a victim to the guillotine, was a founder of the new sect of theophilanthropists. Then he dropped into obscurity and, in 1802, went once more to America, only to find that his Age of Reason, published in 1794–5, had alienated from him almost all his friends. A thick crop of slanders grew up round him, without, apparently, any foundation save the fact that he was occasionally drunk. Still, he kept a bold front to the world, and continued to write pamphlets almost till his death in 1809.

Paine was a prince of pamphleteers and all his literary talent seems confined to that end. His general ideas were of the simplest, not to say the shallowest; but he grasped them firmly and worked them out with a clear and ready logic. His immense ignorance of history and literature was by no means ill compensated by an intimate knowledge of actual affairs; and his shrewdness made him a formidable critic even of Burke. His style was always clear, and, a little rhetoric apart, unaffected. Quite without charm as it was, his warmth and force and command of appropriate words made it more than passable. Every now and then, he falls into sheer vulgarity which is most noticeable in his theological writings; but, more usually, he can alternate a mediocre eloquence with trenchant argumentative composition. So far as copying the written word was concerned, Paine was quite original; but, doubtless, he owed much to the debates and casual conversations in which he took part. In The Rights of Man, he appears as a narrow doctrinaire; he takes over the theory of the social contract as the basis for his constructive views, and justifies revolution, partly on the ground that no generation can bind its successors, and partly by the argument that the social contract must be embodied in a formal constitution: where such did not exist, a mere tyranny prevailed, which had no basis in right. He was thus, like Godwin, entirely opposed to Burke’s doctrine of prescription. To criticise the faults of the existing state of things was easy and obvious; but Paine expounded, also, a radical constructive policy including parliamentary reform, old age pensions and a progressive income-tax. With these and other changes, he looked forward to a broadcloth millennium. The Age of Reason showed all Paine’s qualities and an unusual abundance of his defects. His want of taste and the almost complete absence in him of any sense of beauty or grandeur are as conspicuous as his narrow self-complacency. But his reasoning, however limited in scope, was shrewd enough. Generally speaking, he combined a rough historical criticism of the Bible with the argument that the Jewish and Christian conceptions of the Deity were incompatible with the deism revealed to man by external nature and by his own conscience. In this way, the truculent pamphleteer seems to stand near one of the sources of modern theology.