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April 2014

Thomas Paine Versus Edmund Burke, Part 1

Smith discusses some background of the debate between Paine and Burke, and the furor created by Paine’s Rights of Man.

In An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (August 1791), Edmund Burke quoted from a number of writers who had criticized Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), but most of the quoted passages were from the first part of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, which had been published a few months earlier. Referring to himself in the third person, Burke wrote:

I will not attempt in the smallest degree to refute them. This will probably be done (if such writings shall be thought to deserve any other than the refutation of criminal justice) by others, who may think with Mr. Burke. I have done my part.

Burke’s suggestion that British law should deal with Rights of Man did not escape the notice of Thomas Paine, who was in England at the time, having traveled from America to France (May 1787), and then to London (Sept. 1787), in an effort to secure financing for an iron bridge he had designed. In addition to this project, Paine, hoping to avoid war between France and England, served as an unofficial envoy between the two governments, and it was in this capacity that he first met Edmund Burke.

As an influential member of the Rockingham coalition in Parliament, Burke had protested against British measures in the American colonies, and this won him a favorable reputation among many revolutionaries, including Thomas Paine. It is therefore understandable why Paine believed that he and Burke shared some fundamental political principles, but he could not have been more mistaken. Burke, for example, never denied the right of Parliament to tax the American colonies. Rather, while conceding this technical right, he argued that British policy should be guided by expediency, not by any notion of abstract rights. Burke had coined the label “salutary neglect” to describe the earlier commercial policy of Britain, and he maintained that enforcing new taxes and regulations in America (after 1763) would accomplish nothing more than to alienate the Americans, who had grown accustomed to self-governance. The appeal to parliamentary rights would inspire Americans to respond with their own theory of rights, and this abstract debate, incapable of resolution, would widen the fissure between the two countries. No one, Burke maintained, will be argued into slavery, so the only relevant question for Parliament was one of expediency: Would it be better to have Americans as allies and trading partners, or as enemies who had been pushed by arguments over abstract rights into armed resistance and independence?

Even after Paine spent a week at Burke’s home, he didn’t seem to understand Burke’s political principles. (Perhaps this was because, as Burke later claimed, Paine spent most of their time together talking about his bridge.) Indeed, while Paine was in Paris during the early stage of the French Revolution, he sent an enthusiastic letter to Burke predicting that revolutionary ideas were sure to spread throughout Europe, unaware that this observation merely exacerbated Burke’s anxiety over the possibility that the French enthusiasm for natural rights would inspire homegrown radicals to overthrow the established order in Britain. As Burke often observed—and in this he agreed with Paine—the French Revolution was a revolution in ideas, and ideas could not be contained by armies or national borders. Thus it was not the revolution in France per se but the spread of revolutionary ideas to Britain that alarmed Burke and made him see red when confronted by anyone sympathetic to the Revolution, even to the point of ending close friendships of many years standing.

In this series I shall focus on the theoretical differences between Burke and Paine, but since Burke’s basic ideas were discussed in my last series, I shall focus mainly on Paine’s ideas. Before proceeding, however, I would like to give some indication of how ferocious and personal this debate was. Like other critics, such as Mary Wollstonecraft (whose A Vindication of the Rights of Men was the first extended reply to Reflections on the Revolution in France), Paine was convinced that Burke had betrayed his earlier principles for a secret pension (1500 pounds per year) from the British government—a common rumor that was, however, completely false. And after Paine read Burke’s suggestion (quoted above) that he should be prosecuted for Part One of Rights of Man, he exploded with sarcasm in Part Two (Feb. 1792).

In his last work, “His appeal from the new to the old Whigs,” [Burke] has quoted about ten pages from the Rights of Man, and having given himself the trouble of doing this, says, “he shall not attempt in the smallest degree to refute them,” meaning the principles therein contained. I am enough acquainted with Mr. Burke to know, that he would if he could. But instead of contesting them, he immediately after consoles himself with saying, that “he has done his part.” He has not done his part. He has not performed his promise of a comparison of constitutions. He started the controversy, he gave the challenge, and has fled from it; and he is now a case in point with his own opinion, that “the age of chivalry is gone!”….

Though I see nothing in Mr. Burke’s Appeal worth taking much notice of, there is, however, one expression upon which I shall offer a few remarks. After quoting largely from the Rights of Man, declining to contest the principles contained in that work, he says, “This will most probably be done (if such writings shall be thought to deserve any other refutation than that of criminal justice) by others….

Pardoning the pun, it must be criminal justice indeed that should condemn a work as a substitute for not being able to refute it. The greatest condemnation that could be passed upon it would be a refutation. But in proceeding by the method Mr. Burke alludes to, the condemnation would, in the final event, pass upon the criminality of the process and not upon the work, and in this case, I had rather be the author, than be either the judge, or the jury, that should condemn it.

On 21 May 1792, the British government, alarmed at the phenomenal sales of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man – it was selling in the hundreds of thousands and, other than the Bible, may have been the best-selling book ever published—targeted Paine by issuing a Royal Proclamation against “wicked and seditious writings.” When, in a parliamentary exchange, the liberal MP Charles Fox demanded an explanation for the Proclamation, the Tory Prime Minister, William Pitt, explained that the principles espoused by Thomas Paine threatened the destruction of the hereditary nobility, the monarchy, and religion by calling for the “total subversion of the established form of government.” After Pitt’s charges elicited cries from fellow Tories of “shame,” “damn Paine,” and “traitor,” the question was raised as to why, if all this were true, the government waited so long and took action only after the publication of Part Two of Rights of Man. At that point the Home Secretary, Henry Dundas, replied that only Part Two contained seditious ideas, and because those ideas were being “sedulously inculcated throughout the kingdom” it was now necessary to deal with Paine and his supporters with the force of law. Emergency action by the government was needed to suppress the many organizations “in large manufacturing towns” that were springing up to discuss and disseminate the principles defended by Paine.

The Pitt administration used the Proclamation as a framework to sponsor anti-Paineite rallies throughout the country. It also financed the writing of scurrilous attacks on Paine, most notably The Life of Thomas Pain, with a Review of a His Writings. This government-subsidized book by George Chalmers, who wrote under the penname “Francis Oldys,” portrayed the young Englishman (who did not leave England for America until age thirty-seven) as a ne’er-do-well, wife-abuser, and swindler. If only English law had taken its proper course, according to Chalmers, Thomas Paine would have been imprisoned for a long time, thereby sparing civilized people from the harm inflicted by that scoundrel. Curiously perhaps, Chalmers also devoted much of his book to criticizing the syntax and grammar in Rights of Man, though he didn’t seem to think that Paine should be imprisoned for his literary crimes.

After the publication of Part Two, the British government cracked down on the seditious organizations and activities associated with Rights of Man. To quote from the account by John Keane (whose book, Tom Paine: A Political Life, 1995, is far and away the best biography of Thomas Paine ever written):

The Royal Proclamation set off official hunts against [political] heresy from one end of the country to another. Government spies were assigned to the popular societies to monitor and obstruct their activities. Billstickers were imprisoned for posting notices in favor of Paineite reforms. Bookshops selling Rights of Man were visited and harassed by agents of the book police, and sometimes arrested, prosecuted, fined, or imprisoned. Richard Phillips, who published the pro-reform Leicester Herald, was convicted for a year and a half for allegedly selling the book. Public places frequented by Paine’s sympathizers were carefully monitored and sometimes harassed. In the villages of Northamptonshire, house-to-house loyalty canvasses were conducted. In Wiltshire, “traitorous expressions” earned a schoolmaster the sack. Ipswich magistrates forcibly broke up an alehouse “Disputing Club” comprising “very inferior People” chattering about Paine and citizens’ rights. John Frost, the attorney activist in the London Corresponding Society, was arrested and sentenced to the pillory and to eighteen months’ imprisonment on the pretext of a remark—“I am for equality….Why, no kings!”—uttered in a Mary-le-Bone coffeehouse. And during the autumn of 1792, Manchester publicans were pressed to prevent Paineites from frequenting their taverns. Those who refused were warned that their licenses would be withdrawn.

On the same day that the government issued its Proclamation, it also charged Paine with seditious libel. According to John Keane, the real purpose of this threat was to compel Paine to leave England, since a trial with Paine present would draw national attention and probably spark violent protests. “The most effective strategy, the government reasoned in secret, was to let the Damoclean sword of state power hang for a while by a thin thread over Paine’s head.” (Needless to say, at least to libertarian readers, this tactic remains popular among governments to this day.)

Meanwhile, in the midst of government-sponsored anti-Paineite rallies (many with paid participants), during which Paine was ritually executed, Paine himself was followed by government spies who tracked and reported his every move. Paine, fearing for his life, heeded the advice of a friend and retreated to a small village ten miles from London, but he was not about to be cowed into submission. On the contrary, Paine retaliated with one literary salvo after another. For instance, in an open letter to “Mr. Secretary Dundas” (6 June 1792), he challenged Pitt’s claim that “there never did, and never could exist a government established upon” the Rights of Man, as envisioned by Paine. Had Pitt never heard of America? Paine wondered—a country where his principles had been operating for almost twenty years. Paine continued with some barbed comments about the Prime Minister.

Mr. Pitt has not yet arrived at the degree of a schoolboy in this species of knowledge; his practise has been confined to the means of extorting revenue, and his boast has been—how much! Whereas the boast of the system of government that I am speaking of, is not how much, but how little.

Despite the considerable destruction suffered by America during its war with Britain, Americans had rebounded quickly under the aegis of a minimal republican government, whose expenses were only one-eightieth of the money spent each year by the British government. Indeed, according to Paine, the amount paid by the British government to pensioners and placemen (two of Paine’s favorite targets) exceeded the entire budget of the American government. Like other libertarians of his day, Paine attributed many of Britain’s woes to its bloated bureaucracy and high taxes.

In America there is not that class of poor and wretched people that are so numerously dispersed all over England, who are to be told by a proclamation, that they are happy; and this is in a great measure to be accounted for, not by the difference of proclamations, but by the difference of governments and the difference of taxes between that country and this. What the laboring people of that country earn, they apply to their own use, and to the education of their children, and do not pay it away in taxes as fast as they earn it, to support court extravagance, and a long enormous list of place-men and pensioners….

Paine was eventually tried for seditious libel, but he was tried in absentia, after returning to France to serve as a member of the National Assembly. Despite a brilliant defense by Thomas Erskine, perhaps the greatest civil rights attorney of his day, Paine was not only found guilty (18 Dec. 1792)—he was found guilty without any jury deliberation. Before the judge even had the chance to issue instructions to the jury, the foreman announced that a decision had been made: Thomas Paine was guilty as charged. Before his trial, Paine had predicted that the government would pack the jury. And he was right.

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