On November 30, 1774, a 37-year-old Englishman—an ex-privateer, ex–corset stay maker, ex–tax collector (fired twice for dereliction of duty), and ex-husband (also twice over)—arrived in Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in his pocket. The old philosopher’s praise was understandably restrained. This “ingenious worthy young man,” Franklin wrote, would make a useful “clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor.” Four months later, however, the shots that rang out at Lexington and Concord galvanized the newcomer’s hitherto aimless life into focus and purpose. “When the country into which I had just set foot was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir,” he recalled. “It was time for every man to stir.” And so, adding a final “e” to soften the surname he was born with, he began to write under the byline “Thomas Paine.”
He found he had a literary gift that almost instantly turned him into one of history’s greatest revolutionary propagandists—not just of one major revolution, as it happened, but of two. But as his thought developed—and except for the Norfolk grammar-school education that ended when he was 13, he was self-taught—his radicalism, so lucid and solidly grounded during the American Revolution, lost sight of the darker realities of human nature. As a result, when he and his close, like-minded friends, the Marquis de Lafayette and United States ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson, plotted reform together in Paris in the fateful final years of the 1780s, they disastrously misread the French Revolution as it gathered and burst forth. While Jefferson luckily went home to America with his illusions intact, Paine and Lafayette both ended up wasted with illness in pestilential prisons, and Paine escaped the guillotine by the most capricious of chances.
Paine’s career is as instructive as it is dramatic, and not only because it sheds brilliant light on why the American Revolution succeeded in creating so free and prosperous a nation, while the French Revolution unleashed years of anarchy, dictatorship, and world war that ended with the Bourbon monarchy right back on its throne, after millions of useless deaths. For Paine’s writings also proved prophetic of radicalisms yet to come and of the suffering that they would wreak on millions yet unborn.
Though Paine did start his American life as a tutor, as Franklin had suggested, he soon signed on as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Almost as quickly, he quit. Benjamin Rush, the colonies’ foremost physician, had mentioned to him that no one had yet laid out the case for American independence from Britain, a case that urgently needed trumpeting. “I saw an opportunity in which I thought I could do some good,” Paine recalled, “and I followed exactly what my heart dictated.” By November 1775, he was at work on a pamphlet that Rush suggested he call Common Sense.
Nothing in Paine’s journalistic stint so far gave any hint of the genius he had for such a task—nor did he ever dream he had such “talents . . . buried in me”—but he found his unique voice almost at once, a voice cocksure and authoritative. “Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it,” he said later of his technique. “Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think.”
A striking aphorism about the birth of government set the tone of the work, a classic from its first appearance in January 1776. “Government, like dress, is the badge of our lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise,” he wrote, tersely merging the biblical story of Eden with conventional social-contract theory. “For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.”
But he quickly moved from political theory to a much harsher, historical account of the birth of civil authority. The social-contract myth of how kingship entered the world out of mankind’s mutual-protection pact is too kind, he contended. The first king probably was “nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners . . . obtained him the title of chief among plunderers” and who “overawed the quiet and defenseless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.” As a matter of historical fact, wasn’t William the Conqueror merely a “French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives”? That’s a “very paltry, rascally” origin for a monarchy that pretends to exist by divine right but in fact deserves reverence from nobody—and certainly not from Americans. “In free countries, the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”
Nor should Americans view the British constitution with veneration. Sure, “it was noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected,” but those were “times when the world was overrun with tyranny,” so even the faintest glimmer of freedom was an advance. Always remember, Paine insisted, that “it is the republican and not the monarchical part of the constitution of England which Englishmen glory in, viz., the liberty of choosing a House of Commons.” And George III, he warned, is smothering even that ember of republicanism by further corrupting the corruptly elected members of Parliament.
It’s also silly to think of England as the “Mother Country.” Only a third of Americans are of English ancestry, and most of those who came to the New World, whether from England or from continental Europe, were “persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty,” fleeing “not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster.” Nor is there truth in the cliché that America needs Britain because its prosperity depends on being part of the British Empire. “America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had anything to do with her. The commerce by which she has enriched herself are the necessaries of life and will always have a market while eating is the custom in Europe.”
Now that the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill have shown how easily the “hardened, sullen-tempered Pharoah [sic] of England” can slaughter his American subjects “and composedly sleep with their blood upon his soul,” independence from Britain is inevitable, Paine declared. It’s the only outcome “equal to the expense of blood and treasure we have been already put to.” And there could be no better time for America to declare independence than right now. Its experienced French and Indian War officers are still in the prime of life, it has plenty of vacant land to sell to pay whatever war debts it may contract, and its citizens are not yet so absorbed in commerce that they’re too timid to hazard their property. If Americans seize the moment and form a government “by the legal voice of the people in Congress,” they can produce “the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth.” If they hesitate, a military dictator or a mob will fashion quite a different regime. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he prophesied.
After talking the talk, Paine walked the walk. He refused to take any money for the wildly popular little book—which sold some 150,000 copies in America and which one colonist in five read—instead donating the proceeds to the war effort. And he enlisted in the Continental Army the moment the Declaration of Independence made his book’s prediction a reality. By September 1776, he had become an aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene at Fort Lee in New Jersey, in time to watch the fall of Fort Washington across the Hudson in November and to march with Generals Greene and Washington on the bitter winter retreat across New Jersey to the Delaware River, the barefoot soldiers leaving bloody tracks on the snow. With the ill-clad, ill-fed army shrunk to a mere 3,000 men by the time it crossed the river into Pennsylvania, the war looked all but lost.
At that moment, legend has it, Paine sat down beneath the dark December sky and wrote his electrifying The American Crisis, the first of a series of essays, on a drumhead by the flickering light of a campfire. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he wrote—words that should be engraved on every American heart and that never lose their power to thrill. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, at this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” How unworthy of a man and a father to sigh, “Well! give me peace in my day.” A loving father would say, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” As for the American army, Paine reported from firsthand experience, it remained cool and orderly during the tough retreat across New Jersey, and the soldiers, “though greatly harassed and fatigued, frequently without rest, covering, or provision . . . bore it with a manly spirit. . . . The sign of fear was not seen in our camp.” And now, “we are again collected and collecting; our new army at both ends of the continent is recruiting fast.”
This was just the bucking up that the army and the nation sorely needed, and when the essay appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet on December 19, 1776, the soldiers read it to one another as they huddled together for warmth by the banks of the Delaware. Wavering civilians within reach of Washington’s camp made up their minds to join his force, and long-expected reinforcements finally arrived, temporarily swelling the Continental Army to 7,600—enough to cross the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas Day, win the Battles of Trenton and Princeton in the next ten days, save the revolution, and change the course of world history. “Without the pen of Paine,” John Adams judged, “the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
Such writings—and subsequent articles calling for a written constitution and strong national unity—quickly caught the notice of the Continental Congress, which in April 1777 appointed Paine secretary of its Committee for Foreign Affairs. By the end of that year, though, the first of those paroxysms of partisan strife that often roil Congress squashed Paine’s career as collateral damage. Congressman Silas Deane, sent to France to obtain military supplies, submitted a huge bill for the matériel he had obtained, which a fellow envoy claimed had been a gift from the French government. Recalled to explain himself, Deane blustered to a secret congressional committee that he had bought the cargo, with no profit to himself. When he made the same claim in the newspapers, an exasperated Paine—whose job put him in charge of all the relevant documents—leaked the truth that France had indeed made such a munificent gift. To preserve the fiction that neutral France was not secretly aiding an enemy of Britain, a potential casus belli, the French ambassador demanded that Congress contradict and dismiss Paine, who quit in disgust before he could be fired for telling the undiplomatic truth.
With some embarrassment over his downward mobility, he went to work clerking for a lawyer friend, but late in 1779, the Pennsylvania Assembly made him its clerk. When George Washington wrote the assembly describing the army’s desperate financial plight, Paine sent his last $500 to the war effort. He wished to be no less generous a public benefactor than Washington, who served as commander without pay, but, of course, he was not a rich landowner (or a canny capitalist) like the general. Soon broke, he more than once asked Washington for help. “There is something particularly hard that the country which ought to have been to me a home has scarcely afforded me an asylum,” he unrealistically complained, blithely ignoring his own improvidence in gestures of showy generosity and republican disinterestedness that he couldn’t afford. The magnanimous general first arranged a “secret services” job for him as a propagandist from early 1782 until the September 1783 peace treaty, and then endorsed his appeal to Congress for compensation for his revolutionary services, which led to a $3,000 grant in 1785. Meanwhile, Paine bought a house in Bordentown, New Jersey, and in 1784, New York State awarded him a 227-acre New Rochelle farm confiscated from a Loyalist, in recognition of his role as a quasi–Founding Father.
Like such other inquiring minds of his era as Franklin or Jefferson, he began tinkering with technological improvements, sketching ideas for a smokeless candle and a steam-powered boat before settling down to design an iron bridge that could span a long distance between piers only at each end. When the Pennsylvania Assembly, contemplating a new bridge across the Schuylkill, balked at Paine’s proposal, Franklin advised him to get the backing of London’s Royal Society or the French Academy of Sciences and furnished him with yet more letters of introduction. Accordingly, Paine set sail for France in April 1787.
While shuttling between Paris and London to promote his bridge over the next few years (and despite the French Academy’s endorsement, he never got to build it), he found ample time for politics. The instant friendship he had formed with Lafayette in Philadelphia in 1780 grew closer during his time in Paris, when he dined often at the marquis’ house. For the first year or so, he almost always found Jefferson, Lafayette’s close friend since 1781 and America’s minister to France from April 1785 until October 1789, at the table.
Those must have been some dinner parties, for Lafayette played a central role—and often the central role—in the first phase of the French Revolution, serving as the reformers’ “head and Atlas,” as Jefferson recalled. Winding up an eloquent May 1787 speech to France’s Assembly of Notables condemning the forced labor and crushing taxation of the poor to pay for an extravagant court, the marquis shocked his fellow aristocrats by calling for a National Assembly—a legislative body with one vote per representative, unlike the old Estates-General, in which voting by bloc allowed the nobility and clergy always to outvote the commoners. Ignoring his demand, Louis XVI summoned the old Estates-General to meet for the first time in 174 years in May 1789—the only way he could raise taxes to pay the huge debt incurred by aiding the American Revolution. But in late June, the commoners, joined by a majority of the clergy and about 20 percent of the nobles (including Lafayette), broke away from the Estates-General and declared themselves a National Assembly, with one man, one vote. In July, they proposed writing a constitution, and, as a preamble, Lafayette offered a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” that he had written with Jefferson’s help. Jefferson himself opined that “this country will, within two or three years, be in the enjoyment of a tolerably free constitution, and that without its having cost them a drop of blood.”
Nevertheless, on July 12, urban riots exploded in Paris, with mobs looting shops, homes, and arsenals. On the 14th, as the assembly debated Lafayette’s bill of rights, a mob besieged the ancient Bastille fortress and breached its outer wall. The Bastille’s governor ordered his guards to fire, slaying nearly 100—at which point soldiers joined the crowd and blasted through the inner wall with cannon. The enraged mob beheaded the governor and swarmed through the city with his head on a pike, along with that of a luckless municipal official who had happened by. There was blood to spare, and the rioters smeared their faces with it.
The next day, Lafayette took command of the Paris National Guard. He restored the city to order over the next few weeks and gave Paine the key to the Bastille to transmit as a symbol of triumphant liberty to George Washington, who hung it in the hall of Mount Vernon, where it still remains, along with Lafayette’s sketch of the ruined fortress. But misunderstanding the example of Washington, who had voluntarily given up supreme military command only after dutifully wielding it for eight years, and who now toiled as his nation’s chief executive, Lafayette rejected the many calls for him to become regent and run the government, and he refused to assume the presidency of the National Assembly. In the leadership vacuum that resulted, the assembly deformed his bill of rights, and by early 1790, extremist zealots grasped increasing power, centralizing the government for easier control, making the king a figurehead, and abolishing the Roman Catholic Church.
Lafayette made one last try to get the revolution back on track on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille: an elaborately choreographed Fête de la Fédération to pressure the assembly to hold new elections and adopt an American-style constitution, with a king instead of a president as chief executive. After Prince Talleyrand, robed as a bishop of the now fully state-controlled Gallican church, blessed a variety of flags at a national altar—whispering to his altar boy not to do anything to make him laugh—Lafayette rode up on his white charger, saluted the king, and led the crowd of 300,000 in swearing allegiance to the nation, the law, and the monarch. Paine and John Paul Jones, ascending to the top of a triumphal arch, waved the Stars and Stripes in salute, for the first time ever on foreign soil. “You are watching Monsieur de La Fayette galloping into the centuries yet to come,” one attendee prophesied. But a week later, the marquis once more refused appointment as the nation’s generalissimo, and the Furies took charge.
That November, Edmund Burke, a British member of Parliament who had met Voltaire and Diderot in Paris in the 1770s and had felt deep misgivings about the failure of the philosophes to see how indispensable Catholicism was to French social cohesion, published a celebrated and brilliant book predicting dire results from the revolution unfolding across the Channel. Perhaps at some distant age, Burke conceded, kingship arose out of conquest or election, but for time immemorial, Europeans have had hereditary monarchies. Over those centuries, Europe has also undergone a remarkable cultural evolution (though Burke didn’t yet have the term), with each generation passing down and refining the arts, the sciences, and the virtues. That hereditary cultural development, with religion and chivalry at its center, also changed the character of kingship. It “subdued the fierceness of pride and power, it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners.” As Burke’s fellow Irishman, the poet William Butler Yeats, put it a century and a quarter later, Europe developed “habits that made old wrong / Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays.”
Yes, changes necessarily occur with changing circumstances, Burke noted, and the English—who understand that they have inherited their liberties and their laws, “the collected reason of ages”—show the right way to manage transitions. The few times that England has had to depose intolerable monarchs, it has done so while reasserting the principle of hereditary monarchy in its choice of a replacement, and whenever it has changed its laws, it has justified the change by historical precedent (however far-fetched). But the French revolutionaries, Burke warned, have torn away “the decent drapery of life, . . . the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which . . . cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and . . . raise it to dignity in our own estimation.” Laws there must be backed up with force, or else people will rob, kill, and rape; and if you take away the realm of inherited custom, belief, religion, and manners—the realm of unexamined but deeply held prejudice and even superstition—that makes government mild and people habitually law-abiding and civil to one another without force, then “laws are to be supported only by their own terror.” So the French revolutionaries, by demoting religion and monarchy and by stamping out “the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of fealty, which by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny,” will bring about a society, Burke predicted, in which, “at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”
Anyone who thinks that human reason can supply the place of this cultural fabric woven and passed down over so many centuries from the dead to the living to the yet-to-be-born is deluded. “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason,” Burke warned, “because we suspect that this stock in each man is small.” Much more dependable are “those inbred sentiments, which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty”—that reflexive code of honor and piety, embodying the experience and wisdom of the race, that “renders a man’s virtue his habit, and . . . a part of his nature.” Inherited monarchy and the inherited beliefs and feelings that surround it are key to the moderation and stability of government; and our inherited moral imagination, Burke’s book magniloquently asserts, is central to what makes us human.
Three months after Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France appeared, an indignant Thomas Paine published his blistering rejoinder, The Rights of Man, a sensational bestseller dedicated to George Washington and seen through the London press by Paine’s radical-novelist friend William Godwin, father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Wanting to squash Burke so he’d stay squashed, a year later Paine published Part Two of the book, dedicated to Lafayette, “with whom,” he boasted, “I have lived in habits of friendship for fourteen years.” Echoing throughout The Rights of Man is the continuing conversation of Paine, Lafayette, and Jefferson, who as secretary of state provided an incendiary blurb for the American edition of the book. For example, in his sharp rejection of Burke’s reverence for the hereditary principle, Paine declared that “as Government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it”—words that Jefferson famously paraphrased in a letter to Madison two months later. “The earth belongs always to the living generation,” Jefferson wrote. “They may manage it then, . . . as they please.” Similarly, The Rights of Man describes Lafayette’s momentous July 11, 1789, speech in the National Assembly, in which the marquis, Paine said, didn’t refer “to musty records and mouldy parchments to prove that the rights of the living are lost, . . . as Mr Burke has done.” Instead, he appealed for his authority—and here Paine quotes Lafayette directly—to “the sentiments which Nature has engraved on the heart of every citizen.” For a nation to be free, “it is sufficient that she wills it.” A quarter-century later, Jefferson, ruminating on the outbreak of the American Revolution, remarked: “We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.” Who knows who at the dinner table first expressed any of those ideas?
The Rights of Man developed the idea about monarchical government that Common Sense had introduced. Not only did kingship begin when “a banditti of ruffians” conquered peaceful men “attending flocks and herds,” Paine now argued, but aristocracy arose out of the military order that supported governments founded on conquest. “As time obliterated the history of their beginning,” new generations of kings and nobles “assumed new appearances, to cut off the entail of their disgrace. . . . What at first was plunder, assumed the softer name of revenue; and the power they originally usurped, they affected to inherit.”
So the early governments buttressed force with fraud, for they knew as well as Burke that security of rule depends on power over subjects’ minds as well as over their bodies. Indeed, some of the first governments arose entirely out of hocus-pocus. “When a set of artful men pretended, through the medium of oracles, to hold intercourse with the Deity, as familiarly as they now march up the back-stairs of European Courts, the world was completely under the government of superstition,” Paine contended. And Burke’s appeal to the inherited fabric of belief and culture is merely the modern version of such humbug. “Every Ministry acts upon the same idea that Mr. Burke writes, namely, that the people must be hood-winked, and held in superstitious ignorance by some bugbear or other,” wrote Paine.
But now, an intellectual awakening is stirring Europe. “The insulted German and the enslaved Spaniard, the Russ and the Pole, are beginning to think,” Paine proclaimed. “The present age will . . . be called the Age of Reason.” People are beginning to see that all the old reverences and loyalties are mere mystifications, myths disguising and justifying oppressive realities. And “once the veil begins to rend, it admits not of repair. Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: and once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it. . . . Though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.” As soon as people see through a mystique, its power evaporates. For instance, said Paine, in an image that prefigures The Wizard of Oz, “Monarchy always appears to me a silly contemptible thing. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity; but when, by an accident, the curtain happens to be opened, and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.”
Such intellectual changes are the engine of history, moved by man’s ever-expanding consciousness of his freedom. The French Revolution, like most revolutions, Paine held, “is no more than the consequence of a mental Revolution priorly existing in France. The mind of the nation had changed beforehand, and the new order of things has naturally followed the new order of thoughts.” The philo- sophes had laid the theoretical groundwork for this shift in the national mind; the French officers home from serving in the American Revolution—above all, Lafayette—added the weight of experience; and the French translation of the U.S. Constitution, Paine thought, provided a grammar for voicing the new understanding. With similar mental revolutions under way in Europe’s enlightened countries, Paine predicted, monarchy and aristocracy would probably die out within seven years. “It is an age of Revolutions,” he exulted, “in which anything may be looked for.”
Europe is coming to see that it needs no kings and courts. “That civil Government is necessary, all civilised Nations will agree; but civil Government is republican Government.” After all, the “Government of a free country, properly speaking, is not in the persons, but in the laws. The enacting of those requires no great expense; and when they are administered, the whole government is performed.” Magistrates and juries serve without pay; a nation needs revenue only to pay its judges.
So why do taxes so sorely oppress the humble, as Lafa- yette had objected in 1787? Blame monarchy. From the moment when kings first appeared, they began to quarrel among themselves over the “dominions which each had assigned to himself. . . . It was ruffian torturing ruffian.” Their constant wars cost money, and they taxed their subjects ever more harshly to pay for them. No ordinary person, after all, would start a war. “What inducement has the farmer, while following the plough, to lay aside his peaceful pursuits, and go to war with the farmer of another country? . . . Does it add an acre to any man’s estate, or raise its value?” The truth is, “man, were he not corrupted by Governments, is naturally the friend of man, and . . . human nature is not of itself vicious.” But from the first king until this day, governments have made war because every war increases their power and revenue. “Any war is harvest to such Governments, however ruinous it may be to a nation. It serves to keep up deceitful expectations, which prevent a people from looking into the defects and abuses of Government. It is the lo here! and the lo there! that amuses and cheats the multitude.” Win or lose, wars raise taxes as their “never-failing consequence.” Warfare is the gambling casino of monarchies “and nations the dupes of the games.”
Poverty, therefore, is not natural but rather the creation of government. Almost by instinct, men form “society and civilisation,” Paine argued in his libertarian mood, in which “the unceasing circulation of interest” promotes “the safety and prosperity of the individual and of the whole.” But when kingly government intrudes into this pacific state of affairs, “it becomes the cause of the mischiefs it ought to prevent.” In all monarchies, we “find the greedy hand of Government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretences for revenue and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey, and permits none to escape without a tribute.” In England, in fact, all “the improvements in agriculture, useful arts, manufactures, and commerce, have been made in opposition to the genius of its government. . . . It is from the enterprise and industry of the individuals, and their numerous associations, in which, tritely speaking, Government is neither pillow nor bolster, that these improvements have proceeded.” All that the individual entrepreneur has ever wanted, “with respect to Government, was that it would leave him alone.”
Britons and Europeans are now realizing, as Americans did long ago, how inhuman it is to tax people who “are pining with want, and struggling with misery,” to support one individual in royal opulence. Properly understood, “Government does not consist in a contrast between prisons and palaces, between poverty and pomp; it is not instituted to rob the needy of his mite, and increase the wretchedness of the wretched.” Clearly, “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, not to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.” Thoughtful persons everywhere realize that when, “in countries that are called civilised, we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong with the system of Government.” And with so many seeing the rottenness of the monarchical system, how long will they permit that system to endure?
In France, not for one minute longer. Frenchmen, in “a tremendous breaking forth of a whole people,” are “delivering themselves by a miracle of exertion” from ancient oppression. They are effecting a “revolution generated in the rational contemplation of the rights of man, and distinguishing from the beginning between persons and principles.” True, a personal head or two has perambulated Paris on a pike; but for such things, the system is to blame. A regime based on “governing men by terror, instead of reason,” and quick to inflict “sanguinary punishments which corrupt mankind” will “destroy tenderness or excite revenge,” especially in “the Mob.” So, while a few Frenchmen have done some wicked things at the revolution’s start, these “outrages were not the effect of the principles of the Revolution, but of the degraded mind that existed before the Revolution, and which the Revolution is calculated to reform.” As Paine declared, in an image Jefferson echoed famously decades later: “It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders.”
But Paine’s prediction of a rational revolution unfolding with a minimum of bloodshed rested upon a flawed understanding of psychology, culture, and government. Remove the oppressor, he assumed, and the oppressed will snap back to their natural rationality, peaceableness, and mutual cooperation, with a handful of unpaid magistrates resolving disputes by calmly leading the adversaries to the inescapably logical conclusion. Events proved Burke tragically right in thinking such an outcome unlikely, however. The individual’s store of reason is indeed modest, as Burke had argued—man being more a reasoning than a reasonable animal—and men behave morally not because they are naturally pacific and cooperative, or because their reason tells them how to treat their fellows, but because the beliefs they inherit from their long-developed culture impel them to behave in socially useful ways. With those beliefs stripped away, men will commit violence on their neighbors, unless controlled by force.
But as Burke only partly acknowledged, in contrasting the English tradition of gradual change with the explosion of the French Revolution, there are cultures and cultures; and, once established authority collapses, some are more suited to self-government than others. Gouverneur Morris, who had come to Paris on business in 1789, stayed, and became America’s minister to France in 1792, formed a particularly acid view of the culture of the French: “The great Mass of the common People have no Religion but their Priests, no Law but their Superiors, no Moral but their Interest.” Take these away, and “Tyranny” or “Anarchy” will result, Morris predicted—and, in fact, both ensued. Morris, who wrote the final draft of the U.S. Constitution and whose forebears came to New York in the seventeenth century, well understood how the American Revolution grew out of a unique culture with a long tradition of self-government, both on the communal and the individual levels. In mid-ocean, the Mayflower Pilgrims had written, in ink on parchment, an actual social contract. And like them, most Americans were Protestants, who read the Bible and felt free to argue their own personal interpretation of it; who felt they had a personal relation to God, unmediated by any priest; who constantly examined their own consciences and behavior for godliness (or sin); and who for a century and a half in the New World had organized and governed their own congregations and hired and fired their own preachers.
“Time is needful to bring forward Slaves to the Enjoyment of Liberty,” Morris wrote of the French masses. And not just time but also education. “But what is Education? It is not Learning. It is more the Effect of Society on the Habits and Principles of each Individual, forming him at an early Period of Life to act afterwards the part of a good citizen.” Liberty requires, in other words, a culture of liberty, which an oppressed people doesn’t instantly acquire by nature, in the way that a geranium naturally grows up straight when you take a saucer off its pot. “Progress toward Freedom must be slow,” Morris noted, “and can only be completed in the Course of several Generations.” The French, he wrote, “want an American Constitution . . . without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support that Constitution.” Can democracy last in France? he wondered rhetorically. “I am sure not, unless the whole people are changed.”
Even before Part Two of The Rights of Man appeared, Burke’s and Morris’s predictions began coming true. In the summer of 1791, anarchic mobs all over France started sacking churches and châteaus; in October, an Avignon mob massacred dozens of jailed priests. In August 1792, the Paris mob burst into the Tuileries Palace, where they slaughtered the royal guard and arrested the king and queen (who sensibly but unsuccessfully had tried to flee France for safety in Austria a year earlier). With Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien de Robespierre at its head, the ultraradical Jacobin faction had seized control of the National Assembly; it now stripped the king of his powers, declaring France a republic. Early in September, the Paris mob burst into the city’s prisons and, with an obscenely gleeful intensity of savagery, butchered 1,500 aristocrats and suspected royalists, many of them women and children.
Two weeks later, Paine arrived in Paris. Though his celebrity as a champion of republicanism had brought him a charge of seditious libel in Britain for The Rights of Man (banned there in 1793), it had won him a grant of French citizenship from the National Assembly and election to France’s brand-new National Convention, which named him to its committee for writing a new constitution. Though he composed its first draft, modeled on Pennsylvania’s government, the document never went into effect.
Unlike Paine, with his insistence that human nature is not vicious and that man is naturally a friend to man, the Framers of the American Constitution had seen clearly what they called the “depravity of human nature,” and, in forming a government powerful enough to afford society the protection it needs from man’s natural aggression, both foreign and domestic, they recognized that the officials who would wield that force would be as imperfect as anyone else and thus likely to become oppressors. Hence they sharply limited their authority to what was absolutely essential for effective government, and they set the various branches of government in tension with one another, so that each would serve as a watchdog against any attempt of the others to overreach. They recognized as well that society is a collection of individuals, all with equal rights but with competing interests and passions, so they strove to poise interest against interest, to prevent any single group from invading the rights of other groups or individuals.
Not so the French revolutionaries. From early on, under the influence of Rousseau’s Social Contract, all of them—Paine and Lafayette included—began to speak of “the Nation,” as if it were some mystical entity larger and higher than the individuals who composed it, possessing a single “Common Will” very different from the assembly of conflicting individual wills that the U.S. Constitution held in equipoise. Revolutionary France—which never acknowledged that all societies contain legitimate differences of opinion and interest and that, without a strict enumeration and limitation of its powers, government is ripe for abuse—fell into the tyranny that Morris had predicted. The Nation, Robespierre had ominously contended, was “infallible, with unlimited authority, regardless of the consequences, no matter how extreme these may be.” And those officers who interpreted and executed the Common Will by no means scrupulously distinguished “between persons and principles,” as Paine had optimistically believed when the revolution began. Revenge, envy, the rancor of men who believed their merit unrecognized, became their keynote. “Weary of the persecution I suffered for so long, . . . I embrace with ardor the opportunity of punishing my oppressors and achieving my rightful position in life,” wrote Jean-Paul Marat, the revolution’s premier journalist and a member of the convention. “A year ago, five or six hundred heads would have been enough to render you free and happy,” he goaded on his gutter-press audience. “Today it will take ten thousand. In a few months, you will produce a miracle and chop off one hundred thousand heads.”
In December, the convention put the king on trial for treason for trying to save his throne, and in January 1793, it beheaded him and his queen. In April, it established a Committee of Public Safety, a dictatorship of the most extreme Jacobins, who that month began sending their more moderate opponents to the guillotine. By June, the committee’s Reign of Terror was in full swing, with aristocrats and those guilty of politically incorrect beliefs hustled off to the National Razor by the cartload, 200 a week for the next two years, not to mention those stripped naked and tied together to be drowned with agonizing slowness on sinking barges in the Loire or the Seine. “The Terror is Justice, prompt, severe, inflexible,” explained Robespierre, at last disclosing his understanding of the Common Will. And on December 30, 1793, the committee flung Tom Paine into the Luxembourg Prison, for having urged the convention to exile the king to America, whose revolution he had so munificently aided, instead of killing him. Only because his jailer chalked the mark selecting him for death the next day on his open cell door, so that it was hidden when the door was closed at night, did it happen that “the destroying angel passed by it,” Paine wrote. He nearly died of disease in his pestilential dungeon, though, and after his ten months’ imprisonment, he never regained his health. Only a decade later was he able to admit that the French revolutionaries seized “power before they understood principles. They earned liberty in words, but not in fact.”
It was James Monroe, America’s new minister to France, who got Paine out of prison, claiming him as an American citizen after the Terror had ended in July 1794. Paine spent the next year and a half recuperating in the Monroes’ house in Paris. While there, he wrote his last important work, Agrarian Justice, a pamphlet refining a key theme of The Rights of Man: the need for a welfare state. The Rights of Man had prophetically sketched the outline of such a system, using Paine’s native Britain as an example and blaming the pauperization of the poor on monarchical government. Taxes are unfairly apportioned, Paine argued in that book, with too large a share coming both from consumption imposts, which eat up some 25 percent of a laborer’s yearly wage, and from the “poor rates” to support the indigent, which fall on artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants living in towns, where poverty is concentrated. By contrast, the House of Lords, a caste of lawmaking landowners, keeps property taxes low. As a flagrant example of the system’s unfairness, he charged, note that beer brewed for sale—drunk by laborers and townsfolk—incurs a tax, whereas the beer that landowners brew at home for their households remains tax-free.
In addition, taxes are much too high altogether, since the monarchy and its wars devour so much of the people’s substance. Because republics don’t start wars, Paine rosily contended, once England becomes a republic and makes permanent peace with republican France, the savings resulting from an abolition of the royal court, the army, and the navy would be stupendous. England could abolish its poor rates and replace them with modest pensions to widows, the disabled, and the aged, along with annual stipends to families to educate their children in local private schools. It could establish homeless shelters in London, where, in exchange for a fair day’s work, anyone who asked—especially those hordes of underclass young people “bred up without morals, and cast upon the world without a prospect”—could get a clean bed and nourishing meals daily for three months. Part of the money to pay these stipends would come from a progressive inheritance tax, starting at a mild £21 on the first £1,000 of annual income from an estate and ending with a confiscatory 100 percent on all income above £22,000. “The object is not so much the produce of the tax as the justice of the measure,” Paine contended, articulating a “social justice” rationale for redistributive taxation that has grown commonplace today. “The Aristocracy has screened itself too much, and this serves to restore a part of the lost equilibrium.”
The needy will receive these stipends “not as a matter of grace and favor, but of right,” Paine asserted in The Rights of Man. Agrarian Justice provides a theoretical justification for that claim in a mythological account of the origin of private property. Starting out more or less where John Locke began (though he claimed that he had never read Locke), Paine posited that “the earth, in its natural uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.” Private property arose when people first began to cultivate the earth, and, since their labor increased the value of the land tenfold, it is perfectly just that the improvement of the land should have established “the right of the possessor to the part which is his.” As for the wealth he creates, says Paine, “I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good.”
But as cultivation converted common ownership of the land into private property, “it has dispossessed more than half of the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, as an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before,” an underclass that has “become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible for them to get out of that state of themselves.” Today’s landowners are not to blame for this state of affairs. “The fault is in the system” of private property. Paine implicitly shifted his ground: abolishing monarchy won’t by itself abolish poverty.
So, though the propertied have a right to the ownership of their land, each “owes to the community a ground-rent” (similar, in our era, to the ground-rent that a developer who constructs a valuable building on a piece of leased ground owes to the owner of the land). And that ground-rent, exacted in the form of a 10 percent inheritance tax (less confiscatory than the inheritance tax that The Rights of Man had proposed), will provide the funds for Paine’s proposed welfare system, which “is not charity but a right—not bounty but justice.” More sweepingly, though, Paine now planned to impose this inheritance tax on personal as well as landed property, since such riches are “the effect of Society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of Society as it is for him to make land originally,” he wrote, formulating yet another argument for heavy redistributive taxation still made today. Lest the rich balk at such an idea, they should remember that, increasingly, “wealth and splendour excite emotions of disgust” and that “instead of drawing forth admiration, it is beheld as an insult upon wretchedness.” In this age of revolutions, therefore, “it is only on a system of justice that the possessor can contemplate security,” Paine contended, completing an argument that long after his death transformed Western societies, creating—as he had never envisioned—governments not of a few judges and unpaid magistrates but rather of countless bureaucrats as costly and, in some ways, as freedom-crushing as any royal court.
After First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte disappointed Paine by making peace with the British monarchy in 1802—temporarily, it turned out—Paine decided to return from France to America, and President Jefferson, with whom Paine resumed his frequent correspondence after he left prison, offered to send a gunboat to bring him there. So as not to embarrass the president, he demurred—but, with characteristic inconsistency, he published Jefferson’s letter in a French newspaper, producing embarrassment anyway. In October 1802, he returned to America on a commercial ship.
A friend who went to look for him in Paris, not realizing that he had gone, left a vivid description of the old radical’s “wretched habitation,” now vacated. “I never sat down in such a filthy apartment in the whole course of my life,” he wrote. “The chimney hearth was a heap of dirt. There was not a speck of cleanliness to be seen.” His description corresponds with an earlier account of Paine the man: “coarse and uncouth in his manners, loathsome in appearance, and a disgusting egoist” who exuded “a brimstone odor.” The writer of that sketch persuaded Paine to take a bath—and made the water so hot, he reported, that Paine emerged “parboiled . . . much to his improvement and my satisfaction.”
Sadly, that aura of squalor tinged the rest of Paine’s life. Back in America, he found that he was yesterday’s man, forgotten and often broke, once he’d spent the money he got for selling his Bordentown house (today a dentist’s office) and some of his New Rochelle farmland. Even Jefferson ignored his requests for money or a diplomatic job. Nor did Paine leave France unencumbered. According to the one contemporary biography of him—an untrustworthy British-government-financed hatchet job—he had fathered a child with Marguerite de Bonneville, the wife of the radical journalist in whose house he had lodged for the five years he remained in Paris after living with the Monroes. Whatever the truth of this allegation, it is true that Marguerite and her sons followed him to America, lived with him on and off, and expected him to support her, which he did, grumpily, as long as he had means to do it. By 1806, depressed, lonely, dirty, often drunk, and vexed by Marguerite’s demands for money, he moved to New York City. There, with Marguerite taking care of him in a house on Grove Street after a series of strokes, he died in June 1809, aged 72.
His life had one macabre coda. Well-known English journalist William Cobbett, who spent part of his career in America writing as Peter Porcupine, decided that so eminent a British radical as Paine should not lie buried “in a little hole under the grass and weeds” of his “obscure” New Rochelle farm but deserved interment in the sacred soil of his native land instead. So in 1819, he dug up Paine’s body to take “home.” On the voyage, however, or soon after arrival, he lost it. Many have speculated as to where it, or at least parts of it, ended up. The latest theory holds that, housed within a bronze bust of Paine erected in 1899 in front of his old farmhouse, still standing on North Avenue in New Rochelle, is nothing other than the old radical’s indignant brain.
Myron Magnet, City Journal’s editor-at-large and its editor from 1994 through 2006, is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal. His new book, The Founders at Home, is published by Norton.