In response to:
Founding Father Tom from the May 15, 1975 issue
To the Editors:
Professor Eric Foner has done a most excellent article for you on Thomas Paine [NYR, May 15] and I welcome the fact that he has pointed out my new research on Paine’s more political and parish welfare activities in Lewes. But as he read my book in MS during a visit to England and appears to have forgotten some of it, I feel it should be pointed out that mine is the first biography (I have not seen Professor Hawke’s) which does discuss Paine’s ideas at length in relation to eighteenth-century thought, correlating them with those of Rousseau, Godwin, Dr. Priestley, Dr. Richard Price, and others whose works proceeded from a similar stream. I also make clear their frequent similarity to Jacobin ideas, which may be one reason why Paine, whose close associations were mainly with the Girondins, did not make all that impression in the Convention. In many ways he thought along the same lines as Marat, Robespierre, and others; but his antipathy to sans-culotte excesses kept him personally in the other camp.
Professor Foner like many Americans does not seem to realize that Paine’s ideas on universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and even class legislation were not new in England but part of the whole movement that preceded The Rights of Man. Aristocrats and parliamentarians advocating reform had long been propagating the first two, and the Levellers in Cromwell’s time issued at least one pamphlet (1645) calling for universal suffrage. My recently published book on John Wilkes (whose North Briton is mentioned in my biography of Paine) traces further links with Wilkes in Paine’s formative years in England. My discovery of Paine’s Unitarian background in Lewes is also suggestive: Franklin, Priestley, Price, and even the Duke of Grafton were all associated in England with this form of deism and it was notoriously radical in its sympathies.
I do trace Paine’s influence on British artisans down to the Chartists; but in my current study of the nascent socialism of Carlyle, Ruskin, and William Morris, from the 1840s on, I have found no middle-class knowledge of Paine’s work. Government propaganda and suppression of Paine’s books (with long prison sentences for those who published or sold them) had done its work too well; Morris turned to Marx, and the Fabians and their like to parliamentary socialism, and these the working class followed. Paine is still denigrated or overlooked in England today, apart from a few dedicated social historians of whom E. P. Thompson (who is excellent but not totally reliable on Paine) is one. This is one reason why my book, expanding on the English and European side, was necessary. It also does discuss Paine’s literary style.
When he returned from America, Paine seems to have associated mainly with middle or higher classes and he was not even a member of the first working-class radical society in London, the London Corresponding Society (1791). There might well be, as Professor Foner suggests, some interesting research still to be done in the US on this, but outside the workmen at Rotherham, when Paine was supervising the building of his model iron bridge in 1789-1790, he does not seem in later life to have met many people in England outside professional circles.
Eric Foner replies:
I appreciate Miss Williamson’s compliment to my article, and I am happy to have the opportunity to thank her again for allowing me to read her biography of Thomas Paine in manuscript, before its publication. I am sorry that she thinks I slighted her contribution to our understanding of Paine; my concern in the review was primarily with Paine’s American career, a period which Miss Williamson treats in a much more cursory fashion than Paine’s European experiences.
On one point, I do think her letter is in error. Paine may not have been a member of the London Corresponding Society, but the papers of that organization in the Francis Place Collection (British Museum) reveal that he helped the members in drafting their political addresses. In both England and America, Paine’s associations were confined to no single social class. Paine was able to speak to and associate with all kinds of people, a quality which goes a long way toward explaining the unique impact of his political writings.
October 16, 1975