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Lewes, Thomas Paine


In Lewes, Thomas Paine was a prominent and active citizen and wrote his first political pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise. In 1774 he was fired again, divorced from his second wife and on the introduction of Benjamin Franklin sailed for America. He was made editor of a new journal the Pennsylvania Magazine.  This allowed him access to the leading political activists of the day who, while recognising the king, objected to direct rule from the English Parliament. Paine wrote the pamphlet Common Sense, which articulated the case for American independence. This sold in very large numbers, though characteristically Paine did not benefit from the sales.  He was involved for many years on the fringes of the War of Independence and the setting up of government.


From 1783 he devoted his time to scientific experiment and promoted the use of iron for a bridge across the Thames. This was neither a technical nor a financial success. He also tried to get acceptance in France for a bridge across the Seine. Again he became involved in violent political controversy and in 1791 wrote Rights of Man in response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Eventually Paine was prosecuted for seditious libel.  Paine found it prudent to leave for France in 1792. He had been made an honorary citizen and was appointed representative for Calais in the new National Convention. Paine did not have good French and had little understanding of the issues and the rapid changes in political power that were characteristic of this period of the French Revolution. Inevitably, he ended up in prison and less inevitably was able to claim American citizenship and the right to be freed. He stayed in France for several years because, if he left, he was likely to be apprehended by the British Navy. He lived mainly on charity. He returned to Baltimore in 1802. He was not received with much enthusiasm. Other than supporting the idea of Napoleon’s invasion of England, his political days were over.


The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sums Paine up:
‘The first biography of Paine was published in the summer of 1791, with government encouragement, by George Chalmers (under the pseudonym Francis Oldys), a government clerk in the Board of Trade and an accomplished and serious writer. The work is the sole source for a great many of the stories about Paine's life prior to his departure for America, but its thirst for information is coupled with an evident antipathy to its subject. However, it is only in the second edition of 1793 that any reference is made to Paine's drinking. Thereafter, accusations of drunkenness and associated slovenly habits become commonplace in reports of Paine. These reached new heights in the biography produced by James Cheetham, published shortly after Paine's death. Cheetham, a former radical and newspaper editor, had fallen out with Paine in 1806 and presented him as a hopeless drunkard and atheist, portraying the symptoms and side effects of Paine's stroke and deteriorating health as evidence of his alcoholism.


Subsequent favourable biographies of Paine, notably Rickman's in 1819 and the first scholarly biography by Conway in 1892, tend to the opposite extreme, and tend also to underplay Paine's increasing egoism and vanity. From a wide variety of sources it seems clear that Paine drank to excess, especially when under strain; that he could be extremely lazy and self-indulgent; that he was prone to exaggerate his contribution to the world of politics, theology, and philosophy; that he lacked restraint in expounding his principles in company; that he bragged of disinterestedness in publishing as he did, then clamoured for compensation; that he was a hopeless manager of money and was not particular about repaying his debts; that in matters of dress and appearance he fell short of the standards of many of his contemporaries; and that his once rather handsome appearance was ravaged by his indulgence in alcohol. Moreover, after his imprisonment and illness these faults were exacerbated and his bitterness over his fate frequently clouded his judgement. But, alongside these faults, which contemporaries assiduously recorded and relayed, and which most biographers have subsequently either ignored or magnified, there are many other reports, often from unlikely quarters, of an entertaining conversationalist, with considerable charm and an engaging manner – even if he was capable of reciting the most part of his major works by heart, while insisting that there was nothing to be gained by going back to earlier writers.


If there is a balanced picture to be had, it is that he was a man from a poor background in an aristocratic age, whose capacity to offend was increasingly enhanced by his lack of deference and his sense of his own importance. That sense may have irritated his contemporaries, but it was not misplaced: he was an extremely effective pamphleteer, with a capacity to capture and relay ideas and principles of which his audience had hitherto only an inchoate appreciation. His originality is frequently disparaged, but he offers a powerful and distinctive account of the principles of democratic politics in which political and civil equality are supported by a degree of social and economic equality. Although commentators often stress the similarities of his account to John Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government, despite Paine's claim never to have read it, there is nothing in Locke to match Paine's redistributive policies, his sense of his intimate connection between equal citizenship and political stability, or his insistence on the universalism of his political ideas and citizenship. And, although his religious writings did most to stir up hostility against him for 100 years or more – with Teddy Roosevelt describing him in 1888 as ‘a filthy little atheist’ many working-class readers found in them the resources with which to rethink their religious commitments, just as the other writings allowed them to rework their politics.’


There is a room devoted to Paine in the Pelham House Hotel. In the High Street is The Bull, where he lived (see picture above), further up on the other side is a printer who reproduces facsimiles of some of his writings.


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Thomas Paine
The Bull Lewes