1776: An English Revolution

I thought I’d mark US Independence Day by linking to a couple of articles about Tom Paine, the Englishman who played a decisive part in the American Revolution, including the coining the name ‘United States of America.’

Paine’s role reflects the fact the revolution emerged out of an English radical heritage which has been suppressed in Britain. Having said that, Paine’s legacy hasn’t always been respected in America, as this piece from the website named after him makes clear:

Elites and aspiring elites — New England patricians and professors, Middle Atlantic merchants and manufacturers, southern slaveholders and preachers — feared the power of Paine’s pen and the democratic implications of his arguments. In reaction, they and their heirs sought to disparage his character, suppress his memory, and limit the infiuence of his ideas. And, according to most accounts, they succeeded. For much of the 19th century, and well into the 20th, Paine’s pivotal role in the making of the United States was effectively erased in the official telling. Writing in the 1880s, Theodore Roosevelt believed he could characterize Paine, with impunity, as a "filthy little atheist" (though Paine was neither filthy, little, nor an atheist). Not only in the highest circles but also in various popular quarters, particularly among the religiously devout, Paine’s name persistently conjured up the worst images, leading generations of historians and biographers to assume that memory of Paine’s contributions to American history had been lost.

Yet those accounts were wrong. Paine had died, but neither his memory nor his legacy ever expired. His contributions were too fundamental and his vision of America’s meaning and possibilities too firmly imbued in the dynamic of political life and culture to be so easily shed or suppressed. At times of economic and political crisis, when the republic itself seemed in jeopardy, Americans, almost instinctively, would turn to Paine and his words. Even those who apparently disdained him and what he represented could not fail to draw on elements of his vision. Moreover, there were those who would not allow Paine and his arguments to be forgotten. (TomPaine.com)

Paine was a libertarian who regarded the state as a necessary evil. Yet he was also a social reformer who believed in public action to relieve poverty.

The idea of "making poverty history" did not begin with Bob Geldof, Bono or the commitment of rich countries to disburse 0.7% of national income in development aid. It goes back to the time of the French and American revolutions towards the end of 18th century and to a transformation in outlook as momentous as that produced by the revolutions themselves. A small group of visionaries, the followers of Tom Paine in England and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet in France, ceased to regard poverty as a divine imposition on sinful humanity. It was seen as remediable in principle, since it was man-made in practice. (The Guardian)

Paine’s ideas are still as relevant today as ever, and particularly so in the land of his birth, which is in many ways still recognisably the society he criticised in the Rights of Man.







One response to “1776: An English Revolution”

  1. Alex avatar

    Indeed. But the old spirit lives! If I ever arrange a RantCon, I think I’ll place it in Barnes: terribly bourgeois but also Winstanley’s last resting place.

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