Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Paine by John Vail

(Book Review)

This book on Thomas Paine is yet another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series which I picked up from Oita library on my last trip into Oita City.

Thomas Paine is a fascinating figure, and someone I've always wanted to know more about. (In a past post, I put him on my top 10 list of biopics I would like to see Hollywood do). Ever since my 7th grade history teacher mentioned that Thomas Paine was the penman of the American Revolution, and then went on to become the penman of the French Revolution, I’ve always been intrigued by that one man link between both revolutions.

At Gifu library, they used to have the complete works of Thomas Paine on their shelves. It ran several volumes, as I remember, so I never read the whole thing through, but being a geek I would pick it up and leaf through it whenever I was in the library. I remember randomly coming across Thomas Paine’s speech at the debate over whether or not to guillotine King Louis XVI, and I remember being impressed by the simple elegance of his arguments.
“If on my return to America, I should employ myself in a history of the French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors dictated by humanity than one inspired by a justice too severe.”
(That quote, by the way, is also reproduced in this book by John Vail on page 82).

Like all the other books in this “World Leaders: Past and Present” series, this book has whetted my appetite to find a fuller and more in detail biography of Thomas Paine. (I was listening to Christopher Hitchens talk about his new book on Thomas Paine on NPR, and that sounded interesting).
However, this little volume served as a great introduction to the life of Thomas Paine. I knew so little about the details, that many things surprised me.

For example, I did not know Paine was not an American citizen, but grew up in Britain and only moved to America when he was 37 years old.  It was also interesting to learn that after the American Revolution he returned to England for a period to continue his republican agitation there, and only barely escaped from the British government. He was warned by none other than William Blake that he “must not go home, or you’re a dead man.” Paine instead left for France, narrowly escaping arrest.

I also was surprised to learn that he spent most of his life impoverished, and for all his fame he hardly made any money off of his writings. And how after the revolution he complained to the founding fathers about his lack of compensation.

“For all his fame and prestige, Paine enjoyed little in the way of material fortune from his eight-year stay in America. After the American victory at Yorktown, Paine wrote a long letter to Washington complaining of his impoverished condition. ‘While it was everybody’s fate to suffer,’ he said, ‘I cheerfully suffered with them.’ But now that the financial crisis had passed and the country was moving into prosperity, he thought it only fair that something should be done on his behalf.” (P. 47)

It’s hard not to admire Paine after reading this book. He comes through as an honest person who sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty.

Paine’s devotion to honest government got him in trouble with the Silas Deane affair. Silas Deane was an American diplomat who used his position to line his own pockets in 1778. (It’s sad how soon a brand new government already begins to be filled with corrupt politicians). Paine used his position as secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs to expose Deane, but as a result made a lot of enemies among Deane’s supporters. It caused Paine to lose his job at the time, and many years later, during the Terror phase of the French Revolution this resulted in Paine languishing in a French prison with no help from the American government. The American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, had refused to help Paine because Morris had been a supporter of Silas Deane.

In fact, Paine only escaped the guillotine by the most miraculous twist of fate.
Paine escaped the guillotine purely by chance. Each evening, the guards chalked a cross on the doors of the prisoners who were scheduled to be executed. One night, Paine left his cell door opened outwards and the guards mistakenly placed the chalk mark on the inside of his door. When Paine and his roommates returned to their cell, they shut their door for the night, so the mark went unobserved. When the guards made their midnight rounds, they fortuitously passed by Paine’s cell.” (P. 95).

****************************************************************

I think Thomas Paine can safely be called one of America’s founding fathers. It’s always interesting to read about the founding fathers, because their views have become sort of like the bible of American government. Whether it’s right or not to constantly refer back to the views of the founding fathers is another question, but anyone familiar with American political discourse knows you can add a lot of weight to your argument by having a founding father on your side.

(Although the founding fathers are often cited by people who have little idea what they actually said. Just like the Bible. Back in my Calvin days, I can’t tell you the number of times a conservative Christian would try and justify the death penalty to me by quoting from the Bible “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It used to drive me crazy because (as anyone whose actually read the bible knows) Jesus specifically repudiates this in Matthew 6:43 “You have heard that it was said ‘Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, Don not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also….”
I’m digressing here I know, but this is one of my pet peeves. )

I don’t think Thomas Paine, and his friend Thomas Jefferson, would have approved of future generations constantly referring back to the founding fathers. Paine is quoted in this book as writing, “No generation has the right to impose its choices upon posterity; whatever government or form of society was right for one generation might be totally unsuited to the differing needs of another.” (p. 36).

However if one is going to constantly refer back to the founding fathers, the impression I got from this book was that Paine would be very comfortable on the liberal wing of Democrat party.
Paine not only asserted the superiority of republican government but also offered a breathtaking vision of how a republican government could begin to ameliorate poverty within England. He proposed a series of public policies—progressive income taxes, government grants to the poor for education and housing, unemployment relief and public jobs, maternity grants and child allowances and old age pensions. He insisted that his program was not a utopian pipe dream but could be accomplished if the government simply stopped fighting foreign wars and ended its financial support of the aristocracy. The needs of the many, Paine argued, could be satisfied if the selfishness of the few was restrained.” (p. 71)

…No doubt, Thomas Paine would be turning over in his grave if he knew how much the US government is currently spending fighting foreign wars.

Speaking of which, Thomas Paine is also quoted in this book as writing, “If there is a sin superior to every other, it’s that of willful and offensive war.” (p. 20)
That ought to be framed and put on the wall of the oval office. Our Presidents have a habit of forgetting that one.

Paine’s reaction to the Conspiracy of Equals phase of the French Revolution is also interesting:
Paine wrote Agrarian Justice in the winter of 1795-96. The essay was written in the wake of the suppression of the Conspiracy of Equals led by Gracchus Babeuf, a failed radical coup d’etat that became known as the first communist movement of the modern era. While Paine wholeheartedly condemned Babeuf’s uprising, it nevertheless provoked him to reconsider his own political views. Paine argued that political equality could not be eradicated so long as economic inequality persisted: He maintained that the first rule of civilization should be “that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.”
“Paine retreated from Babeuf’s radical solution to economic inequality, namely the abolition of private property, for he doubted that an equal distribution of property was either possible or desirable. Yet his denunciation of poverty and human misery was never more passionate or forceful. “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust,” he wrote. “It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye is like dead and living bodies chained together.” (p. 103).

In short, this was an absolutely fascinating little book. I'm not 100 % Thomas Paine qualifies as a “World Leader” but I’m glad they gave him the benefit of the doubt and included him in this series because I really enjoyed reading about him. I hope to someday find a more in-depth biography of this fascinating individual.

Link of the Day
The Hijacking of Public Space

Bonus Link: More Japanese Music on Youtube
This is perhaps my favorite Japanese song ever (in so much as it is possible to have a favorite song, since it always depends on your mood at the time.) Yoyake o tsugeni by Off Course.
I have this song on one of my mixed tapes, and when it's one of those songs where when I'm driving, I'm constantly stopping the tape and rewinding so I can hear it just one more time.

It's not a very famous song. The group Off Course was moderately famous in the mid 70s, but this song was from their early days before they took off. In fact you can see someone wrote a comment in Japanese which reads (losely translated) "What? Why would anyone upload this obscure song? What kind of person are you?" (Everyone on the Internet is a critic).

No comments: