Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primæval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law.
Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France
« La société est effectivement un contrat. Les contrats de second ordre pour les objets de simple intérêt occasionnel peuvent être dissouts à plaisir, mais l’État ne devrait pas être considéré comme rien de plus qu’un accord de partenariat dans un commerce de poivre et de café, de calicot ou de tabac, ou de toute autre affaire d’intérêt mineur, à laquelle on prend temporairement un peu d’intérêt, et que l’on abandonne selon la fantaisie des parties. Il doit être considéré avec autrement plus de respect ; parce que ce n’est pas un partenariat pour des choses soumises seulement à la grossière existence animale d’une nature temporaire et périssable. C’est un partenariat dans toutes les sciences ; un partenariat dans tous les arts ; un partenariat dans toutes les vertus et dans toutes les perfections. Comme les buts d’un tel partenariat ne peuvent pas être atteints en plusieurs générations, il devient un partenariat non seulement entre ceux qui vivent, mais entre ceux qui vivent, ceux qui sont morts et ceux qui sont à naître. Chaque contrat de chaque Etat particulier n’est qu’une clause dans le grand contrat primitif de la société éternelle qui relie les natures les plus basses aux plus élevées, qui unie monde visible et invisible, conformément à un pacte fixe sanctionné par le serment inviolable qui maintient toutes les natures physiques et morales chacune à la place qui lui a été assignée. Cette loi n’est pas soumise à la volonté de ceux qui, par une obligation qui est au-dessus d’eux et leur est infiniment supérieure, sont contraints de soumettre leur volonté à cette loi. »
Réflexions sur la Révolution en France
It has been thought a considerable advance towards establishing the principles of Freedom, to say, that government is a compact between those who govern and those who are governed: but this cannot be true, because it is putting the effect before the cause; for as man must have existed before governments existed, there necessarily was a time when governments did not exist, and consequently there could originally exist no governors to form such a compact with. The fact therefore must be, that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
Thomas Paine – Rights of Man Being an Answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution
« On a cru faire un grand pas vers l’établissement des principes de la liberté en disant que le gouvernement étoit un contrat entre les gouvernans et les gouvernés ; mais cela ne peut pas être vrai, ce seroit mettre l’effet avant la cause ; car comme les hommes ont dû exister avant les gouvernemens, il y eut certainement un temps où les gouvernemens n’existoient pas, et conséquemment il ne pouvoit pas dans l’origine des choses y avoir de gouverneurs pour former un pareil contrat. Il faut donc que les hommes eux-mêmes, chacun selon son droit personnel et souverain, se soient concertés les uns avec les autres, pour former un gouvernement ; et c’est la seule méthode par laquelle les gouvernemens ont droit de se former, et les seules bases sur lesquelles ils ont droit d’exister. »
Droits de l'homme ou Réponse à l'ouvrage de Monsieur Burke contre la révolution françoise
However, Paine did not make it clear whether the right of revolution was an individual or a collective right or in other words whether it was a perfect or an imperfect right to quote the categories of his own typology. As an individual alone cannot lead a political revolution and needs the help of others to carry it out, one may argue that the right of revolution falls into the group of “imperfect” rights, whereas it might be surmised that the right to resist individually would be a perfect one.
Carine Lounissi – ‘Thomas Paine’s Reflections on the Social Contract: A Consistent Theory?’ (in New Directions in Thomas Paine Studies)
« Cependant, Paine ne montre pas clairement si le droit de révolution était un droit individuel ou collectif ou, en d’autres termes, s’il était un droit parfait ou imparfait pour reprendre les catégories de sa propre typologie. Comme un individu seul ne peut pas mener une révolution politique et a besoin de l’aide d’autres personnes pour l’entreprendre, on pourrait soutenir que le droit de révolution tombe dans le groupe des droits « imparfaits », tandis qu’on pourrait présumer que le droit de résister individuellement en serait un parfait. »
We recognize the paradigmatic quality of the ‘Burke–Paine debate’ […]. For it was here first established that the battleground of politics would long be dominated by the siege of aristocratic ‘tradition’ by plebeian ‘democracy’. We might even concede Paine’s virtually single-handed creation of a mass reading public conscious for the first time of its right to participate in politics. Yet when we study the British debate over the French revolution it is often Edmund Burke who receives greater attention. Paine is merely one of his respondents, albeit the most important. But Paine’s brand of popular radicalism is rarely construed as part of the ‘great tradition’ of political thought upon which we often suppose western civilization is built.
This is curious given the fact that it is Paine’s vision, rather than Burke’s, which predominates in the modern world. It would be inexplicable except that the revival of Burke has had more to do with the Russian than the French revolution and has consequently resulted in the frequent conservative confusion of the principles of the latter revolution (or indeed any other) with those of Jacobinism. Such an imbalance clearly requires rectification, and by examining Paine’s ideas in their context we will find that he was indeed a revolutionary, but not a Bolshevik or a Jacobin.
« Nous reconnaissons la qualité paradigmatique du débat ‘Burke–Paine’ […]. Car là fut établi pour la première fois que le champ de bataille de la politique serait longtemps dominé par le siège de la ‘tradition’ aristocratique par la ‘démocratie’ plébéienne. Nous pourrions même admettre la création presque solitaire par Paine d’un large public de lecteurs conscient pour la première fois de son droit de participer à la vie politique. Pourtant, quand nous étudions le débat britannique sur la révolution française, c’est souvent Edmund Burke qui reçoit la plus grande attention. Paine est simplement l’un de ses contestataires, quoique le plus important. Mais la conception de Paine du radicalisme populaire est rarement interprétée dans le cadre de la ‘grande tradition’ de la pensée politique sur laquelle nous supposons souvent que repose la civilisation occidentale.
C’est curieux, étant donné que c’est la vision de Paine, plutôt que celle de Burke, qui prédomine dans le monde moderne. Cela serait inexplicable en dehors du fait que la renaissance de Burke a eu plus à voir avec la révolution russe qu’avec la française et a par conséquent entraîné la fréquente confusion conservatrice des principes de la dernière révolution (ou, en fait, de n’importe quelle autre) avec ceux du jacobinisme. Un tel déséquilibre exige clairement une rectification, et en examinant les idées de Paine dans leur contexte, nous découvrirons qu’il était en effet un révolutionnaire, mais pas un bolchevique ni un Jacobin. »
Il ne faut pas oublier que c’est à Paris (1794-95) qu’a été écrit et publié en anglais ainsi qu’en français l’ouvrage le plus important des écrits religieux de Paine, le Siècle de la Raison, — ouvrage qui a donné à son nom une célébrité aussi étendue dans le monde de langue anglaise que l’est celle de Voltaire en France, et non moins odieuse aux yeux de l’orthodoxie. Cette critique sévère de la Bible a encore aujourd’hui largement cours dans beaucoup de sociétés de libres penseurs, polémistes enthousiastes, chez qui Paine revit comme l’ouvrier de la première heure, le porte-drapeau de la pensée indépendante, tandis que, d’un autre côté, il a continué jusqu’à ces derniers temps de vivre dans l’exécration cléricale, et encore plus dans les calomnies et les fables dont sa vie et sa mort ont été l’objet. Le Siècle de la Raison a été longtemps, en Angleterre et en Amérique, le champ de bataille où s’est livrée la lutte pour la liberté de la presse ; un grand nombre de libres penseurs en Angleterre ont subi un long emprisonnement ou d`énormes amendes pour l’avoir publié. Son auteur est devenu une figure presque surnaturelle. Ses partisans pouvaient alléguer plusieurs circonstances où Paine avait « providentiellement » échappé à de terribles dangers, entre autres à celui de la guillotine pour laquelle sa tête avait été désignée, tandis que l`orthodoxie inventait pour lui la légende d’une mort surnaturellement horrible, et que la malédiction s’attachait à ses os. Dans ce conflit, on perdait de vue le caractère relativement modéré de ses hérésies — car Paine fut toujours un fervent théiste — et il était mis au pilori par des écrivains plus sceptiques que lui-même. La mémoire des longs et héroïques services qu’il avait rendus à la liberté politique, en Amérique et en Europe, était ensevelie dans la même fosse où l’on enterrait ce livre hétérodoxe, écrit sur la fin d’une carrière qui avait reçu l’hommage de Franklin, de Washington, de Jefferson, de Madison et de tous les hommes d’État libéraux de l’Europe.
La controverse religieuse soulevée au sujet de Paine a duré un siècle ; mes propres souvenirs s’étendent à une moitié de siècle ; et, bien que personnellement je n’aie pas été étroitement mêlé à cette controverse — Paine n’étant pas mon prophète — mes expériences et mes observations m’apparaissent et m’impressionnent aujourd’hui comme une partie de la vie posthume de cet homme, que je dois sauver de l`oubli. Bien qu’il m’en coûte de sortir de ma réserve, l’achèvement de mes travaux sur ce sujet m’impose le devoir d’apporter mon témoignage personnel, qui, je le crois, peut avoir pour les lecteurs français une valeur toute particulière. Ils ne pourront s’empêcher de voir, dans la persistance de l’influence de Paine en Angleterre et en Amérique jusqu’à ce jour, quatre-vingt-dix ans après sa mort, une preuve que leurs ancêtres ne se sont pas trompés en l’élisant dans quatre départements à la Convention nationale de 1792, et en le faisant entrer dans le Comité chargé d’élaborer une Constitution pour la France. Ils s’expliqueront en même temps pourquoi un homme de cette importance joue un si maigre rôle dans les histoires courantes. […]
Naturellement, il n’y avait dans nos bibliothèques de collège aucun ouvrage de Paine, et on ne nous apprenait rien de l’histoire d’Amérique ; autrement, nous aurions su que Paine était l’ami de Franklin, de Washington et de Jefferson, qui tous l’avaient déclaré un des plus grands fondateurs des États-Unis. […]
Je m’intéressai à Paine et fis connaissance en partie avec l’immense mythologie qui s’était formée dans le pays au sujet de Paine et circulait largement dans les livres de piété : il avait maltraité et abandonné sa femme ; il s’était associé aux révolutionnaires français dans les massacres du règne de la Terreur ; il avait écrit un abominable livre contre la parole de Dieu ; c’était un ivrogne, abhorré de tous les gens qui se respectent ; il avait rétracté ses opinions ; il était mort dans les affres du remords et de la terreur. Sa rétractation n’avait pu dispenser Jéhovah de signaler au monde la scélératesse de son hérésie par les horreurs qui ont accompagné la mort d’un si notoire « infidèle ». […]
J’avais découvert que les bigots qui avaient avili Paine de son vivant, et chargé sa mémoire de tant de calomnies et de malédictions que les historiens avaient peur d’y toucher, avaient ainsi relégué comme dans quelque île du Diable, le témoin qui pouvait raconter la plus véridique histoire de la Révolution américaine et de la Révolution française, celle aussi des mouvements révolutionnaires et antirévolutionnaires de l`Angleterre. […]
L’élévation d’un mécanicien quaker dans un coin éloigné de l’Angleterre au poste de premier secrétaire des Affaires étrangères en Amérique, puis de membre de la Convention nationale en France et de son premier Comité de Constitution — est un événement qui compte, un de ces événements qui représentent les conditions du monde contemporain. […]
Paine, le citoyen du genre humain, n’ayant de parti que celui de l’humanité, dans son temps l’enfant terrible pour tous les partis politiques, — Paine, bien que cité de temps en temps dans une vue particulière, était resté jusqu’ici un témoin qui en savait trop long sur les hommes publics et les événements de son temps, pour qu’un historien patriote le sommât de dire toute la vérité.
Moncure Daniel Conway - Thomas Paine et la Révolution dans les deux mondes (traduction : Félix Rabbe)
Portrait de Thomas Paine (v. 1791) - Laurent Dabos
I dwell not upon the vapours of imagination; I bring reason to your ears and, in language as plain as A, B, C, hold up truth to your eyes.
Thomas Paine – The American Crisis (1776)
Je ne m’étend pas sur les vapeurs de l’imagination ; j’apporte la raison à tes oreilles et, dans une langue aussi claire que A, B, C, lève la vérité vers tes yeux.
I cannot express how kind he is to me; there is a simplicity of manner, a goodness of heart, and a strength of mind in him I never knew a man before possess.
Lord Edward Fitzgerald, indépendantiste irlandais (1763-1798)
Je ne peux pas exprimer combien il est bon pour moi ; il est d’une simplicité de manière, d’une bonté de cœur et d’une force d’esprit que je n’ai jamais vues chez personne auparavant.
La Révolution française était considérée à juste titre et se donnait elle-même comme une fille de la Révolution américaine. Les plus libres esprits d’Amérique la saluèrent avec enthousiasme. Ils rêvèrent d’affranchir l’Angleterre, leur ancienne métropole, et de former ensuite, avec la France, une fédération qui aurait compris les trois grandes démocraties de l’Atlantique. Deux hommes surtout se dévouèrent à cette œuvre, le poète Joël Barlow et le publiciste Thomas Paine. […]
Thomas Paine fut élu à la Convention par quatre départements, l’Aisne, l’Oise, le Pas-de-Calais et le Puy-de-Dôme. Henry Bancal, l’ami de Mme Roland, qui était secrétaire de l’Assemblée électorale du Puy-de-Dôme, lui annonça son élection par la lettre suivante, datée de Riom, le 8 septembre 1792 :
« Thomas Payne (sic),
L’assemblée électorale du département du Pui de Dôme, dans sa séance de ce soir, vous a nommé député à la Convention nationale. Votre amour pour l’humanité, pour la liberté et l’égalité, les ouvrages utiles, qui sont sortis de votre cœur et de votre plume pour les défendre, ont déterminé ce choix. Venez, ami des hommes, augmenter le nombre des patriotes d’une Assemblée qui doit fixer le sort d’un grand peuple et peut-être celui du genre humain.
Les tems des bonheur que vous avez prédit aux nations sont arrivés. Venés, ne trompés pas leur attente… »
Albert Mathiez – La Révolution et les Étrangers. Cosmopolitisme et défense nationale
Parmi les papiers de Robespierre, s’est trouvé la note suivante :
« Demander que Thomas Payne soit décrété d’accusation pour l’intérêt de l’Amérique autant que de la France ».
Thomas Paine – Le Siècle de la Raison. Seconde partie (Préface)
Among the papers of Robespierre that were examined and reported upon to the Convention by a Committee of Deputies, is a note in the hand-writing of Robespierre, in the following words:
« Demander que Thomas Paine soit décrété d’accusation pour l’intérêt de l’Amérique autant que de la France. »
To demand that a decree of accusation be passed against Thomas Paine, for the interest of America, as well as of France.
Thomas Paine – The Age of Reason. Part the Second (Preface)
Le principe moral des révolutions est d’instruire, et non pas de détruire.
Si depuis deux ans, on avait donné à la France, comme on le devoit, une constitution, je suis intimement persuadé qu’on auroit évité les désordres et les violences, qui on désolé ce beau pays, et souillé la révolution. L’union des Français auroit été appuyée sur un acte ; et chaque individu auroit pû connoître le sentier dans lequel il pouvoit marcher avec sécurité. Mais au lieu de constitution, on a créé un gouvernement révolutionnaire, un phantôme absurde, sans principes, et sans autorité déterminée ; où la vertu et le crime dépendoient des circonstances du moment, où le patriotisme de la veille se trouvoit le lendemain métamorphosé en trahison.
Toutes ces monstruosités sont la suite naturelle du manque d’une constitution ; car la nature et le but d’une constitution sont d’empêcher les factions de conduire à leur gré le gouvernement, en posant des principes qui surveillent leurs impulsions, et qui leur dit à toutes : TU PEUX ALLER JUSQUES-LA, MAIS PAS PLUS LOIN. Mais quand il n’y a point de constitution, chaque individu en fait une, en adoptant un parti ; et tandis que les principes devroient gouverner tous les partis, ce sont les partis qui disposent des principes.
L’avidité de punir est toujours dangereuse pour la liberté. Elle conduit les hommes à corrompre et à défigurer les plus sages lois, en les étendant, en leur donnant une fausse interprétation et une application injuste. L’homme jaloux d’assurer sa propre liberté, doit indispensablement défendre son plus cruel ennemi contre toute oppression ; car, en violant ce devoir, il donne un exemple, dont l’imitation peut, d’un moment à l’autre, lui devenir funeste à lui-même.
Thomas Paine – Dissertation sur les premiers principes de gouvernement (1795)
The moral principle of revolutions is to instruct, not to destroy.
Had a constitution been established two years ago (as ought to have been done), the violences that have since desolated France and injured the character of the revolution, would, in my opinion, have been prevented. The nation would then have had a bond of union, and every individual would have known the line of conduct he was to follow. But instead of this, a revolutionary government, a thing without either principle or authority, was substituted in its place; virtue and crime depended upon accident; and that which was patriotism one day became treason the next.
All these things have followed from the want of a constitution; for it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and impulse of party, and that says to all parties, THUS FAR SHALT THOU GO AND NO FURTHER. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle.
An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
Thomas Paine – Dissertation on first principles of government (1795)
La lutte des partis ou plutôt des factions s’exaspère. Dans son grand rapport du 5 nivôse, 25 décembre 1793, sur les principes du gouvernement révolutionnaire, Robespierre fait retomber sur les étrangers la cause de toutes les crises que la Révolution avait traversées : « Ils délibèrent, disait-il, dans nos administrations, dans nos assemblées sectionnaires, ils s’introduisent dans nos clubs, ils ont siégé jusque dans le sanctuaire de la représentation nationale… Ils rôdent autour de nous, ils surprennent nos secrets, ils caressent nos passions, ils cherchent à nous inspirer jusqu’à nos opinions, ils tournent contre nous nos résolutions. Etes-vous faibles? Ils louent votre prudence. Etes-vous prudents? Ils vous accusent de faiblesse ; ils appellent votre courage témérité, votre justice cruauté. Ménagez-les, ils conspirent publiquement, menacez-les, ils conspirent dans les ténèbres et sous le masque du patriotisme. Hier, ils assassinaient les défenseurs de la liberté, aujourd’hui, ils se mêlent à leur pompe funèbre… Les étrangers ont paru quelque temps les arbitres de la tranquillité publique. L’argent circulait ou disparaissait à leur gré. Quand ils voulaient, le peuple trouvait du pain, quand ils voulaient, le peuple en était privé… Leur principal objet est de nous mettre aux prises les uns avec les autres. » Robespierre conclut qu’il fallait se hâter de traduire en jugement les étrangers conspirateurs.
Cette conclusion parut insuffisante à Barère qui rappela à Robespierre que le Comité de Salut public avait décidé de demander à la Convention de rapporter le décret par lequel on avait appelé les étrangers à la représentation nationale. « Quand nous avons la guerre avec une partie de l’Europe, aucun étranger ne peut aspirer à l’honneur de représenter le peuple français. » Pour montrer que cette suspicion était légitime, Barère cita l’exemple d’un certain comte Poroni qui était venu en France avec un ouvrage prétendu philanthropique qui lui avait servi de titre pour demander la naturalisation française. « Il avait, disait-il, perdu tous ses biens en propageant dans son pays les principes de la raison. Eh bien, citoyens, cet homme a disparu depuis quelque temps et nous avons appris qu’à son retour en Italie, ses biens lui avaient été rendus. » Le Dantoniste Bourdon de l’Oise appuya la proposition de Barère en attaquant nommément Thomas Paine, qui avait essayé de sauver Louis XVI et qui comptait beaucoup d’amis dans le parti girondin : « Depuis que les Brissotins sont disparus du sein de la Convention, dit Bourdon, il n’a pas mis le pied dans l’Assemblée, je sais qu’il intrigue avec un ancien agent du bureau des Affaires étrangères. » Personne ne défendit le fondateur de la liberté américaine. Sur la motion de Bentabole, la Convention décréta qu’aucun étranger ne pourrait plus être admis à représenter le peuple français. Il fut entendu cependant, sur la motion de Robespierre, qu’une exception serait faite en faveur des Belges et des Liégeois.
Le lendemain, Thuriot fit décréter que la mesure votée la veille aurait un effet rétroactif et que, par conséquent, tous les membres de la Convention nés à l’étranger cesseraient sur-le-champ d’en faire partie. Thomas Paine et Cloots furent ainsi expulsés tous les deux de l’Assemblée. Le lendemain, ils étaient arrêtés en même temps.
Cloots périra avec les Hébertistes. Fouquier-Tinville produira contre lui une dénonciation d’un déserteur prussien qui l’accusait d’avoir écrit trois lettres à Brunswick. Le déserteur ne précisait ni la date ni le contenu de ces lettres. Mais la conviction des jurés était faite depuis longtemps. Le Girondin Riouffe a raconté les derniers instants de Cloots dans ses Mémoires d’un détenu. Anacharsis mourut courageusement. De peur que ses compagnons de supplice n’appellassent un prêtre, « il prit la parole et leur prêcha le matérialisme jusqu’au dernier soupir ».
Thomas Paine et Dentzel évitèrent la fatale charrette, mais restèrent en prison pendant de longs mois. Paine fut victime des mauvais procédés de l’ambassadeur américain à Paris, Gouverneur Morris qui le desservit auprès de Robespierre en le représentant comme mêlé aux intrigues de Genêt contre Washington. Robespierre écrivit sur son carnet : « Demander que Thomas Paine soit décrété d’accusation pour les intérêts de l’Amérique autant que de la France ». Paine fut maintenu en prison même après thermidor, aussi longtemps que Gouverneur Morris resta ambassadeur à Paris. Il dut attendre l’arrivée de son successeur, le célèbre Monroë, pour recouvrer la liberté.
Albert Mathiez – La Révolution et les Étrangers. Cosmopolitisme et défense nationale
Barère : Je demande la parole pour relever une omission que Robespierre a faite dans son rapport. Le comité de salut public avait chargé son rapporteur de faire connaître au peuple français combien était nuisible à ses intérêts le décret qui appelait les étrangers à la représentation nationale. Quand nous avons la guerre avec une partie de l’Europe, aucun étranger ne peut aspirer à l’honneur de représenter le peuple français. Je crois qu’il n’est pas besoin de m’appesantir davantage sur cette idée ; il suffit de dire qu’appeler les étrangers à manier les rênes du gouvernement, c’est en exclure les Français. Ce n’est que par une philanthropie atroce que des ennemis de la patrie ont dit qu’il fallait choisir les défenseurs de la France dans la république universelle. L’exemple que je vais citer prouvera que les étrangers ne se sont mêlés parmi nous qu’afin de nous trahir. Un certain comte Poroni, Italien, était venu en France avec un ouvrage prétendu philanthropique ; il voulait être citoyen français et sollicita la Convention de lui donner ce titre ; il avait, disait-il, perdu tous ses biens en propageant dans son pays les principes de la raison. En bien ! citoyens, cet homme a disparu depuis quelque temps, et nous avons appris qu’à son retour en Italie ses biens lui avaient été rendus.
Bourdon (de l’Oise) : Je vais citer un autre fait à l’appui de ce que vient de dire Barère. On a vanté le patriotisme de Thomas Payne. Eh bien ! depuis que les Brissotins ont disparu du sein de la Convention, il n’a pas mis le pied dans l’assemblée, et je sais qu’il intrigue avec un ancien agent du bureau des affaires étrangères.
L’Ancien Moniteur (Tome dix-neuvième)
Vers le mois de décembre 1793, l’on proposa et l’on décréta l’exclusion des étrangers de la Convention. Nous n’étions que deux, Anacharsis Cloots et moi-même ; et je m’apperçus que Bourdon de l’Oise, qui fit à cette occasion, un long discours, le dirigeât plus particulièrement contre moi. Je pressentis que je ne jouirois encore de ma liberté que quelques jours de plus ; je résolus d’en profiter pour conclure mon ouvrage. Six à sept heures après l’accomplissement de mon travail, les comités de Salut public et de Sûreté générale ordonnèrent mon arrestation, et me firent conduire comme étranger au Luxembourg. Je vis heureusement avant de m’y rendre, le citoyen Joël Barlow, à qui je confiai le manuscrit de mon ouvrage ; et ne sachant quelle pourroit être en France la destinée ou de l’ouvrage ou de son auteur, je l’adressai aux citoyens des Etats-Unis d’Amérique.
Avec quel plaisir ne dois-je pas rendre ici justice aux personnes qui vinrent m’arrêter, et à l’interprête, chargé par le comité de sûreté générale de l’examen de mes papiers. Ils eurent pour moi, non seulement de l’honnêteté, mais du respect. Je n’oublierai pas non plus Benoît, concierge du Luxembourg. L’humanité avec laquelle il me traita, et qui ne m’étoit pas particulièrement réservé, a peut-être un peu contribué à le traduire au tribunal révolutionnaire, où il fut cependant acquitté.
Les américains, résidans alors à Paris, se rendirent en masse à la barre de la Convention, trois semaines après mon arrestation. Ils me réclamèrent comme leur compatriote et leur ami.
Le président Vadier, qui en sa qualité de président du comité de sûreté générale, avoit signé mon mandat d’arrêt, leur répondit que j’étois natif d’Angleterre ! Je ne reçus plus aucune nouvelle quelconque, depuis cette époque jusqu’à la chûte de Robespierre, le 9 thermidor, 27 juillet 1794.
Deux mois avant ce mémorable événement, une fièvre suivant toutes les apparences, mortelle, me saisit. Je me félicitai alors d’avoir achevé la première partie de mon ouvrage. Je m’attendois bien peu à voir prolonger plus longtemps mon existence, les personnes qui m’entouroient, s’y attendoient encore moins que moi, et je fis alors l’essai de mes propres principes. Je me rappele avec autant de reconnaissance que de plaisir, les attentions amicales qu’ont eu pour moi mes trois camarades de chambre, Joseph Vanhuele de Bruges, Charles Bastini et Michel Rubyns de Louvain. Il arriva que le docteur Graham et M Bond, chirurgien, attachés l’un et l’autre au général O’hara, se trouvèrent alors au Luxembourg. Peut-être comme attachés au gouvernement anglais, me dispenseroient-ils de mes remerciemens, mais je ne puis m’en dispenser moi-même ; je n’oublierai ni leur bonté, ni celle du citoyen Markoski, médecin du Luxembourg.
Tout me porte à croire qu’à cette maladie je dois cependant mon existence. Parmi les papiers de Robespierre, s’est trouvé la note suivante :
« Demander que Thomas Payne soit décrété d’accusation pour l’intérêt de l’Amérique autant que de la France ». Je ne puis attribuer la non exécution de cette intention qu’à mon état maladif.
La Convention a réparé autant qu’elle a pu, toutes les injustices que j’ai éprouvé, en me rappelant d’une voix unanime et publique dans son sein. Je m’y suis rendu afin de prouver que je soutiens une injure, sans souffrir qu’elle porte atteinte à mes principes, ni à ma manière générale d’être.
Thomas Paine – Le Siècle de la Raison. Seconde partie (Préface)
Toward the latter end of December of that year a motion was made and carried to exclude foreigners from the Convention. There were but two in it, Anacharsis Cloots and myself; and I saw I was particularly pointed at by Bourdon de l’Oise, in his speech on that motion.
Conceiving, after this, that I had but a few days of liberty, I sat down and brought the work to a close as speedily as possible; and I had not finished it more than six hours, in the state it has since appeared, before a guard came there, about three in the morning, with an order signed by the two Committees of Public Safety and Surety-General for putting me in arrestation as a foreigner, and conveyed me to the prison of the Luxembourg.
I contrived, on my way there, to call on Joel Barlow, and I put the manuscript of the work into his hands, as more safe than in my possession in prison; and not knowing what might be the fate in France either of the writer or the work, I addressed it to the protection of the citizens of the United States.
It is with justice that I say that the guard who executed this order, and the interpreter of the Committee of General Surety who accompanied them to examine my papers, treated me not only with civility, but with respect. The keeper of the Luxembourg, Bennoit, a man of a good heart, showed to me every friendship in his power, as did also all his family, while he continued in that station. He was removed from it, put into arrestation, and carried before the tribunal upon a malignant accusation, but acquitted.
After I had been in the Luxembourg about three weeks, the Americans then in Paris went in a body to the Convention to reclaim me as their countryman and friend; but were answered by the President, Vadier, who was also President of the Committee of Surety-General, and had signed the order for my arrestation, that I was born in England. I heard no more, after this, from any person out of the walls of the prison till the fall of Robespierre, on the 9th of Thermidor—July 27, 1794.
About two months before this event I was seized with a fever that in its progress had every symptom of becoming mortal, and from the effects of which I am not recovered. It was then that I remembered with renewed satisfaction, and congratulated myself most sincerely, on having written the former part of “The Age of Reason.” I had then but little expectation of surviving, and those about me had less. I know, therefore, by experience, the conscientious trial of my own principles.
I was then with three chamber comrades, Joseph Vanhuele, of Bruges; Charles Bastini and Michael Rubyns, of Louvain. The unceasing and anxious attention of these three friends to me, by night and by day, I remember with gratitude and mention with pleasure. It happened that a physician (Dr. Graham) and a surgeon (Mr. Bond), part of the suite of General O’Hara, were then in the Luxembourg. I ask not myself whether it be convenient to them, as men under the English government, that I express to them my thanks, but I should reproach myself if I did not; and also to the physician of the Luxembourg, Dr. Markoski.
I have some reason to believe, because I cannot discover any other cause, that this illness preserved me in existence. Among the papers of Robespierre that were examined and reported upon to the Convention by a Committee of Deputies, is a note in the hand-writing of Robespierre, in the following words:
« Demander que Thomas Paine soit décrété d’accusation, pour l’intérêt de l’Amerique autant que de la France. »
To demand that a decree of accusation be passed against Thomas Paine, for the interest of America, as well as of France.
From what cause it was that the intention was not put in execution I know not, and cannot inform myself, and therefore I ascribe it to impossibility, on account of that illness.
The Convention, to repair as much as lay in their power the injustice I had sustained, invited me publicly and unanimously to return into the Convention, and which I accepted, to show I could bear an injury without permitting it to injure my principles or my disposition. It is not because right principles have been violated that they are to be abandoned.
Thomas Paine – The Age of Reason. Part the Second (Preface)
Now, Thomas Paine suddenly struck across the path of my investigation as the mediator I had been seeking; not, indeed, the only one, but the chief. He was born an Englishman and belonged to the sect of Quakers; he emigrated to America, and when the colonies were still hesitating as to their action in their quarrel with the mother country, he spoke out plainly for autonomy, and then for a republic.
Finally, he came to France, and there, too, when, during the Legislative Assembly, men were disconcerted in presence of an incredible crisis, he spoke out plainly for a republic; he suggested doubtless to his friend Condorcet the plan of the first republican Constitution; he sat himself, although a foreigner, in the National Convention and on the Constitutional Committee, and he did not abandon the French Revolution until it had degenerated into the Terror, demagogism and, at last, the Empire. His career makes me think of those insects that fecundate flowers by transporting the pollen through space. If we had a really good biography of him it would, I imagine, contain a complete epitomized genealogy of the modern idea of a republic.
The name of “Payne” is frequently mentioned by the historians of the French Revolution, and always in such relations as prove that in the opinion of his contemporaries it was a very great name indeed. He figures among the eighteen illustrious foreign philosophers upon whom the Legislative Assembly conferred on August 6, 1792, the title of French citizen, for “having prepared the enfranchisement of peoples”; Wilberforce, Washington and Schiller are on the same list. He is elected to the Convention by four Departments, although neither a Frenchman nor a candidate, and absent.
Just imagine the popularity a foreign author would need to have to-day to win in this fashion the senatorial electors of a province! Would even Tolstoi succeed in doing so? The landing of Paine at Calais might be compared to that of President Krüger some time ago at Marseilles, with its salvos of artillery, its banquets, flags and orations.
He was manifestly regarded as the real liberator of America. Danton said to him: “What you have done for the happiness and liberty of your country, I have in vain tried to do for mine.” Brissot declared that the despots of Europe feared Paine more than an army. Later on, M. J. Chenier says: “He is endeared to all the friends of humanity”; Bonaparte, on his return from Italy, believes it his duty to visit him in his room, where he tells him that his Droits de l’homme has been the companion of his pillow, and that the author of such a work deserves a statue of gold.
And now, in the midst of all this, what is the action really exercised by this living idol? I no longer find any traces of it. What has he accomplished in the legislative work of the Revolution? We do not know. He is always to be found among the small group of the doctrinaire republicans of 1792, Condorcet, Brissot, Grégoire; he is their friend; we should, however, like to know if he is their inspirer. But what remains on the morrow of a conversation, a phrase, a word, which, perhaps on the evening before has solved a difficulty and lit up the entire path? Is anyone ever truly acquainted with the first author of a thought?
As to the famous books of Paine, “Common Sense,” the “Crisis,” the “Rights of Man,” “The Age of Reason,” at first they have a sale of hundreds of thousands of copies, and are translated into all languages. The first of these books is bound with the Contrat social of Rousseau in the same French edition, like a Bible in two parts. Furthermore, in 1832, the Sociétés des droits de l’homme et du citoyen draw from it a Catéchisme républicain for the political education of young Frenchmen. Then, according as the republican thesis begins to make its way, these republican writings lose their luster and their audacity. Nobody cares to look at them, because everyone knows what they are. Not being poems, but agents of revolution, their very success puts them out of fashion, for they are no longer useful. Which of us can say he has read them to-day?
In countries where the English language is spoken, these writings, with their robust eloquence, should, one would imagine, have remained popular. But in these countries Tom Paine has lost his reputation; and this is very natural; he has offended every prejudice to which the people of the Bible and of Custom cling with a sort of fierce timidity. Tom Paine has proved faithless to the mother country, then to the religion of his ancestors; he sneers at English traditions, denies the divinity of Christ—so Great Britain will have nothing to do with him; he is rude to Washington—so America will have nothing to do with him; he votes against the death of Louis XVI, so the French revolutionists will have nothing to do with him.
Finally, he does not belong to any compact group. He is an outsider, let him take the consequences. For all these reasons, he is bound to be, then, a wicked man, a drunkard, an atheist, a sort of antichrist. Even the Quakers repudiate him. During his lifetime tracts are published prophesying that he will be soon carried off by his boon companion Satan. While waiting for this catastrophe, the members of certain pious clubs burn him in effigy; he is caricatured, and has the ears of an ass on plates and beer-mugs; honest citizens have the initials T. P. stamped on the soles of their boots so that they can always trample on this heretic and renegade to his country. On the news of his death, patriots sing in the taverns:
The Fox has lost his tail, The Ass has stopped his braying, The Devil has carried off Tom Paine— John Bull forever!
Never has a friend of the people suffered so much from the people’s hatred. Consequently, his books and his fame have been flung into the same common ditch, as usually happens to those whom society repudiates. This is doubtless the reason why, in my conversations with Englishmen and Americans, I have never been able to bring the singular personage whose attraction I felt out of the darkness that envelops him.
It is only by a very careful examination of his biographies, and especially of his diary, that I have finally succeeded in gaining some conception of the circumstances under the influence of which his idea of a republic took form and substance. And, in the second place, a similar examination of the content of this idea will show us that it had been until then unheard of, particularly in France, and that it still holds within itself, even at the present hour, a certain significance that has been, so far, unperceived.
The work which M. Aulard has published on the Histoire politique de la Revolution française throws considerable light upon this second point. We can easily deduce from this book that the French people, even in 1791, disliked the very notion of a republic, and that the latter owed its realization to the abrupt shock of events, every other issue being barred, and not to the preconceived design of any of the public men of the period, save and except of the man whom I regard as its true inventor, the phlegmatic and determined man who inferred the necessity of the republic from principles independent of the hour and of casualty.
Paine was also an adept at discussion, and, at first, discussion with himself; he knew how to extract ideas from the maze of impulsive prejudices. Shaded in a garden by some linden tree, or in the evening around the tea-cups, it is his pleasure to hold a debate, not on the chances of this party or that succeeding, which is, in his opinion only a “jockeyship,” but on the need of an entire upheaval, if total justice is to be realized.
Consequently, when, later on, he will stand in presence of the Conventionals, their discourses and their plans will strike him as the vague amplifications of young collegians, gleaned by them from their desultory readings. The only persons who look to him like adult statesmen are Condorcet and Brissot, who have traveled, who have seen and reflected. The others make the same use of words that they might make of a gesture or a cry, to relieve their nerves, not to objectivize their thought. They are children. But, then, he has the advantage over the French of two centuries of political self-cross-examination and self-possession.
This statement, however, requires some correction. Although an Englishman by temperament and education, he does not belong to the England of the classes, the England that is harsh to the poor. He is poor himself, he is one of the common people; and this fact, taken in connection with his miserable years of apprenticeship, is not, perhaps, without consequence for the future of the republic.
His mind is free, because it is altogether concrete. When we read his pamphlets, we are struck by the fact that his eloquence is compounded of things rather than of words. His imagination adheres strictly to reality, it does not devote itself to expression for the purpose of ornament, but to the impression in order to render it fixed and permanent as well as vivid and naked.
He deduces the rights of man from incidents in his own biography… […] His conclusion that the republic is “a government of justice” is not dictated to him by Plutarch’s “Life of Lycurgus,” but by what he has discovered during his walks in the streets or in the country. Upon this groundwork of concrete and common experience he reasons, asserting that the common sense is the only authority, and that a blacksmith’s apprentice is as likely to possess this common sense as a doctor of theology.
His method of reasoning is also common; there is no preliminary imitation, no technical jargon—“You have not read Plutarch? Nor Montesquieu? Nor Rousseau?—that is a pity; but it has nothing to do with my demonstration. I do not suppose that you are in possession of any fundamental principle except common sense.”
“Common Sense” is precisely the title of Paine’s first pamphlet, which is the first defense of the modern republic. […] There is nothing in his discourses that resembles in the slightest degree the rhetorical abstractions of our Revolutionary orators or their melodramatic emphasis.
Paul Desjardins – Thomas Paine: father of republics
(in Life and Writings of Thomas Paine, 1908)
ANYONE TRACING THE PEDIGREE OF OUR POLITICAL ideas must be struck by the importance, and by the sheer eventfulness, of the late eighteenth century. Between about 1770 and 1800, many of the crucial concepts, terms, divisions, and arguments that still define our political life seemed to burst into the world in fierce and fiery succession.
This was the era of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and we have long since fallen into the comfortable habit of attributing the explosion of political philosophy and drama of that time to those monumental upheavals. The American Revolution—the first successful colonial revolt in history—gave birth to a creedal nation embodying the idealism of the Enlightenment, whereas the French Revolution launched in earnest the modern quest for social progress through unyielding political action guided by uncompromising philosophical principle. In these great crucibles of revolution was forged the frame of modern politics, or so the argument goes.
There is of course much truth to this cliché, but it is a partial, or perhaps a secondhand, truth. In fact, the late eighteenth century was the scene of a great Anglo-American debate about the meaning of modern liberalism—a debate that has since shaped the political life of Britain and America, and by now that of a great and growing portion of humanity beyond them. The American Revolution embodied that debate, and the French Revolution intensified it, but the debate preceded them both and has long outlasted them.
The ideals of the American founding were championed by statesmen-revolutionaries who disagreed among themselves about the practical significance of those ideals. The disagreements did not take long to surface and to break the politics of the new republic into distinct camps that in many ways have endured. The actual parties to the struggle in France, meanwhile, the Jacobins and Girondists, monarchists and aristocrats, have no real parallels in contemporary politics. But the parties to the intense Anglo-American debate about the French Revolution—a party of justice and a party of order, or a party of progress and a party of conservation—bear a plain paternal resemblance to the parties that now compose the politics of many liberal democracies, including our own. In both cases, the parties to the great debate of the late eighteenth century clearly prefigured key elements of the left-right divide of our time. The arguments between them had to do with much more than the particular promise and peril of the American or French revolutions, and they have lasted because they brought to the surface a disagreement within liberalism that has never lost its salience.
There are no perfect representatives of the two major parties to the great debate of that age, but there may well be no better representatives than Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke was an Irish-born English politician and writer, a man of intense opinions with an unrivaled gift for expressing them in political rhetoric. He was his era’s most devoted and able defender of the inherited traditions of the English constitution. A patient, gradual reformer of his country’s institutions, he was among the first and surely the most adamant and effective critics of the radicalism of the French Revolution in English politics.
Paine, an English-born immigrant to America, became one of the most eloquent and important voices championing the cause of independence for the colonies, and then, as revolution brewed in France, he became an influential advocate of the revolutionaries’ cause as an essayist and activist in Paris and London. A master of the English language, Paine fervently believed in the potential of Enlightenment liberalism to advance the cause of justice and peace by uprooting corrupt and oppressive regimes and replacing them with governments answerable to the people. He was a brilliant and passionate advocate for liberty and equality.
Each was both a man of ideas and a man of action—a man of powerful political rhetoric and of deep and principled commitment to a cause. Each also saw in the debates of the age far more than the particulars of the events that launched them. The two men knew each other, met several times, exchanged letters, and publicly answered one another’s published writings. Their private and public dispute over the French Revolution has been called “perhaps the most crucial ideological debate ever carried on in English.” But their profound disagreement extends well beyond their direct confrontations. Each voiced a world view deeply at odds with the other over some of the most important questions of liberal-democratic political thought. While the capacious arguments of the time surely could not be fully captured in the debate between Burke and Paine, the important questions at stake can be far better understood by examining the two men’s views with care. And yet the precise terms and subjects of their disagreement (especially as it relates to matters other than the French Revolution itself) remain to a surprising degree underexamined. […]
Paine understood politics as moved by principles, and he thought that political systems had to answer to the right kinds of philosophical ideals—especially equality and liberty. However well established and grand they might be, however deep their roots might reach, all regimes had to be evaluated by how well they advanced these basic human goods. Thus, political principles and their instantiation in political actions are key to Paine’s teaching and present themselves far more prominently in the foreground of his writing than even in Burke’s. In an 1806 letter, Paine wrote this about himself: “My motive and object in all my political works, beginning with Common Sense, the first work I ever published, have been to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free and establish government for himself.” Paine sought for the theories and ideas underlying political life, and argued that only a government that answers to the right theories and ideas can make any claim to legitimacy.
Yuval Levin – The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
Thomas Paine was a unique political thinker. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century while a revolutionary tide swept over North America and Europe, he had an unrivalled reputation not just as a democratic polemicist but also as an activist politician. He lived in England, the new United States, and France, and was hailed by all those eager for an anti-monarchical political order in the Atlantic world. Hated and feared by conservatives in England and America, Paine was nonetheless suspect to the most radical French revolutionaries. Extraordinary because he came not from the cultured classes but from the common folk, he expressed their political feelings and ushered in a new era of political rhetoric and public commitment.
Bruce Kuklick – Introduction à Thomas Paine : Political Writings
The Friends of the People (Joseph Priestley & Thomas Paine) (15 November 1792) - Isaac Cruikshank
PEUT-ÊTRE que les sentimens, contenus dans cet Ecrit, ne sont pas assez à la mode pour obtenir les suffrages de tout le monde. La longue habitude de croire qu’une chose n’est pas injuste, lui donne une apparence de justice, et fait élever d’abord un cri général en faveur de l’usage. Mais le tumulte s’appaise : le temps convertit plus de monde que la raison.
Un long et violent abus du pouvoir est ordinairement ce qui occasionne la recherche des droits sur lesquels ce pouvoir est fondé ; et les violences qu’on emploie contre ceux qui font ces recherches, les entraînent toujours plus loin qu’ils n’avoient intention d’aller. Le roi d’Angleterre a cru avoir le droit de soutenir le parlement, dans ce que celui-ci appelle aussi ses droit ; et le peuple Américain étant excessivement opprimé par le roi et le parlement, il est indubitablement fondé à discuter les prétentions de l’un et de l’autre, et à rejetter également leurs actes.
L’auteur de cette brochure a évité avec soin tout ce qui est personnel. On n’y trouvera ni compliment, ni censure particulière. Le sage, l’homme de bien n’a pas besoin des éloges d’un pamphlet : et ceux dont les opinions sont injustes et contraires aux avantages de leur pays, reviendront d’eux-mêmes ; ou il seroit inutile de chercher à les convertir.
La cause de l’Amérique est à beaucoup d’égards la cause du genre humain. Plusieurs circonstances prouvent déjà, (et il s’en élèvera beaucoup d’autres à l’appui,) que tous ceux qui chérissent l’humanité, doivent prendre part à notre querelle et à nos succès. Désoler un pays avec le fer et le feu, déclarer la guerre aux droits les plus naturels de l’homme, exterminer de paisibles citoyens : voilà à quoi doit s’intéresser quiconque a reçu de la nature le pouvoir de sentir ; et c’est dans cette classe que se range l’auteur de cet Ecrit, en dépit de tout esprit de parti. […]
Philadelphie, le 14 février 1776,
De l’Origine et du But du Gouvernement en général, avec quelques remarques sur la Constitution angloise.
QUELQUES écrivains ont tellement confondu la société et le gouvernement, qu’il est maintenant très-difficile de distinguer ces deux choses. Cependant elles diffèrent entr’elles, et par leurs principes et par leur origine. La société est le résultat de nos besoins, et le gouvernement de notre perversité. Le premier nous offre positivement le bonheur par l’union et l’amour de ses divers membres ; l’autre nous l’assure négativement en réprimant nos vices : l’un excite la concorde ; l’autre crée des distinctions : enfin, le premier protège ; le second punit.
L’ordre social est toujours un bien ; mais le meilleur gouvernement est un mal nécessaire, et le plus mauvais un mal insupportable ; car lorsque dans un gouvernement nous endurons les mêmes maux, auxquels nous serions exposés dans un pays qui seroit sans gouvernement, nos souffrances sont augmentées par la réflexion, qui nous montre que nous en sommes nous-mêmes les auteurs. Le gouvernement, ainsi qu’un vêtement, est la preuve que notre innocence est perdue. Les palais des rois ont été bâtis sur les débris des berceaux d’Eden. Quand l’homme écoutoit docilement les impulsions d’une conscience pure, égale, il n’avoit pas besoin d’autre législateur : mais en changeant, il a senti qu’il étoit nécessaire de céder une partie de sa propriété naturelle pour concourir aux moyens de pouvoir conserver le reste ; et en cela il n’a fait que suivre cette prudence, qui, toutes les fois qu’il est forcé de choisir entre deux maux, le porte à préférer le moindre. Le gouvernement n’ayant donc qu’un seul but, celui d’une sûreté générale, il s’ensuit que celui qui, par sa forme, paroît le plus propre à garantir cette sûreté, avec le moins de dépenses et le plus d’avantages, est préférable à tous les autres.
Pour nous former une idée simple et juste des principes et des motifs d’un gouvernement, supposons un petit nombre de personnes se rencontrant dans un coin écarté de la terre, et n’ayant aucun rapport avec le reste de ses habitans. Ces gens nous représenteront les premières peuplades des diverses contrées de la terre, ou même celles du monde entier. Dans cet état de liberté naturelle, la société sera leur premier objet. Mille motifs différens les y exciteront ; les forces de l’homme toujours si peu proportionnées à ses besoins ; la nature de son âme si peu faite pour une solitude continuelle, et sans cesse portée à rechercher des consolations et des secours auprès d’un autre être, qui, à son tour, éprouve les mêmes besoins. Quatre ou cinq de ces infortunés rendront, en se réunissant, leur séjour supportable au milieu du plus vaste désert ; mais un seul ne pourrait y rien faire. Quand il aurait abattu un arbre pour se construire une maison, il n’aurait pas la force de le charrier, et, s’il le charriait, il lui serait impossible de le faire tenir debout. La faim le détournerait à tout instant de son travail, et chaque besoin différent le conduirait eu différens endroits. Que dis-je ? les maladies, le malheur appelleraient bientôt la mort ; et il aimerait, sans doute, mieux périr que de supporter une si triste vie.
La nécessité, semblable à la puissance de la gravitation, réunirait donc bientôt nos nouveaux émigrans dans un état de société dont les avantages leur suffiraient, et rendraient les lois et le gouvernement inutiles, tandis qu’ils resteraient parfaitement justes les uns envers les autres. Mais, comme rien sur la terre ne peut demeurer exempt de vice, il est indubitable qu’à mesure qu’ils surmonteraient plus aisément les premières difficultés de l’émigration, ils se relâcheraient de leurs devoirs et de leur attachement mutuels, et ce changement leur indiquerait la nécessité d’établir un gouvernement quelconque, pour remédier à l’oubli des vertus.
C’est au pied d’un grand arbre, que la nouvelle colonie établirait d’abord sa maison d’état, et qu’elle se rassemblerait pour délibérer sur les affaires publiques. Il est probable que leurs premières lois n’auraient que le titre de réglemens, et n’indiqueraient d’autre punition que le mépris. Dans ce premier parlement, chaque membre de la république siégerait par un droit naturel.
Cependant, à mesure que la colonie deviendrait plus nombreuse, l’intérêt public croîtrait ; et la distance qui séparerait la demeure des divers colons, les empêcherait de pouvoir tous se réunir, à chaque occasion, dans un même endroit, comme lorsqu’ils étaient peu, que leurs habitations étaient rapprochées, et que les affaires publiques n’étaient pas de grande conséquence. Alors ils consentiraient à nommer pour l’administration des lois et des affaires, quelques-uns d’entre eux, qui seraient supposés avoir les mêmes intérêts que ceux qui les auraient choisis, et qui pourraient agir de la même manière que si toute la république se réunissait. Si la colonie croissait encore, il faudrait augmenter à proportion le nombre des représentans ; et, pour que l’intérêt d’aucune partie de l’Etat ne fût lésé, on le diviserait en cantons, qui, chacun, nommerait un nombre convenable de députés.
Pour que les représentans n’eussent pas bientôt un intérêt différent de celui des électeurs, la prudence dicterait de renouveler souvent les élections ; car, étant obligés de revenir, au bout de quelques mois, parmi leurs concitoyens, la crainte d’y être mal accueillis, serait un garant de la fidélité de leur conduite. Comme ces changemens fréquens établiraient un intérêt commun entre toutes les parties de l’Etat , elles se secourraient naturellement les unes les autres ; et c’est de là, non du titre insignifiant de roi, que dépend la force du gouvernement, et le bonheur de ceux qui sont gouvernés.
Voilà donc l’origine et l’institution du gouvernement. Il n’est fondé que sur l’inefficacité de nos vertus morales pour régir le monde. Voici en même temps les principes et le but du gouvernement : c’est d’assurer notre liberté et notre tranquillité ; et, quelque éclat qui éblouisse nos yeux, quelque bruit qui frappe nos oreilles, quoique le préjugé change nos volontés, et l’intérêt obscurcisse notre entendement, la simple voix de la nature et de la raison dit que ce but seul est juste.
J’ai tiré mon idée de la forme du gouvernement d’un principe naturel, qu’aucun art ne peut changer ; c’est que, plus une chose est simple, moins elle est sujette à se déranger ; et, si elle se dérange, plus elle est facile à réparer…
LE SENS COMMUN [COMMON SENSE],
adressé aux habitans de l’Amérique,
par THOMAS PAINE,
Secrétaire du Congrès pour les Affaires étrangères, pendant la guerre de l’Amérique, et Membre de la Convention Nationale de France, en 1792.
Traduit de l’anglais par F. Lanthenas
The idea of rights sits at the core of Thomas Paine’s political philosophy. Rights are the organizing principle of his thought and the prime concern of all his writings about government. But the clearest and most accessible elucidation of Paine’s idea of rights comes not in any of his essays on political questions, which all take a certain notion of political and natural rights for granted, but in an extraordinary letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in the momentous year 1789.
The note, apparently a follow-up to a discussion between the two men, summarizes Paine’s own views on the question of rights in the midst of the chaos and excitement of the revolution in France. The revolutionaries said they were dedicated to the “rights of man,” but what exactly did that mean? Paine begins, in the great Enlightenment-liberal tradition, by imagining a founding:
Suppose twenty persons, strangers to each other, to meet in a country not before inhabited. Each would be a Sovereign in his own natural right. His will would be his law, but his power, in many cases, inadequate to his right; and the consequence would be that each might be exposed, not only to each other, but to the other nineteen. It would then occur to them that their condition would be much improved if a way could be devised to exchange that quantity of danger into so much protection; so that each individual should possess the strength of the whole number.
In this situation, he suggests, the people would trade freedom for protection, but they would not quite give up their basic presocial rights. Instead, they would build on them:
As all their rights in the first case are natural rights, and the exercise of those rights supported only by their own natural individual power, they would begin by distinguishing between those rights they could individually exercise, fully and perfectly, and those they could not. Of the first kind are the rights of thinking, speaking, forming and giving opinions, and perhaps are those which can be fully exercised by the individual without the aid of exterior assistance; or in other words, rights of personal competency. Of the second kind are those of personal protection, of acquiring and possessing property, in the exercise of which the individual power is less than the natural right. . . . These I consider to be civil rights, or rights of compact, and are distinguishable from natural rights because in the one we act wholly in our own person, in the other we agree not to do so, but act under the guarantee of society.
This cogent description grounds rights in a highly individualistic understanding of the citizen. It sees social and political bonds as the products of individual choices driven by calculations of utility and need. Every citizen has the right to freedom of action, and when an individual right cannot be exercised individually, citizens draw on the power of the state to put their rights into practice. This power is not a gift of society; it is an entitlement—access to it is the reason we enter into society. We form societies to protect and vindicate preexisting natural rights, and what we call our civil rights are means of drawing upon the common capital of society so that natural rights can be given effect. As Paine puts it in Rights of Man, “society grants [the citizen] nothing. Every man is a proprietor in society, and draws on the capital as a matter of right.”
This means that the rights we have in society and the rights we have by nature are in essence rights to the same things—and especially to freedom of choice. “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured,” Paine writes. He thus sees men in their natural state transformed into citizens for the protection of their rights, and he describes society explicitly as the product of this utilitarian arrangement. In Rights of Man, he offers this description in the form of three essential premises of his political thought:
First, That every civil right grows out of a natural right; or, in other words, is a natural right exchanged. Secondly, That civil power properly considered as such is made up of the aggregate of that class of the natural rights of man, which becomes defective in the individual in point of power, and answers not his purpose, but when collected to a focus becomes competent to the Purpose of every one. Thirdly, That the power produced from the aggregate of natural rights, imperfect in power in the individual, cannot be applied to invade the natural rights which are retained in the individual, and in which the power to execute is as perfect as the right itself. We have now, in a few words, traced man from a natural individual to a member of society, and shown, or endeavored to show, the quality of the natural rights retained, and of those which are exchanged for civil rights.
Society is therefore a means to accomplish what each individual has the right but not the ability to accomplish. For Paine, this means it is above all a means to enable choice, or the freedom to shape our own future uncoerced—a means to the radical liberation of the individual from the burdens of his circumstances, his given nature, and his fellow man. Equality, individualism, and natural rights (some transformed into civil rights) are descriptive and prescriptive facts regarding the human condition, but personal liberty—the right to choose—is the end toward which we aim in politics. Societies exist to protect acts of choice, by meeting animal necessities on the one hand and by protecting individuals from coercion on the other. This means that government itself, in protecting and giving effect to the rights of individuals, must be understood as a chosen arrangement defined by clear contractual rules.
Like most political thinkers of his day, Paine often refers to society as a contract, though he is always sure to insist that he means a contract not between the people and the sovereign power, but rather among the people themselves. “It has been thought a considerable advance towards establishing the principles of Freedom to say that Government is a compact between those who govern and those who are governed,” Paine notes in Rights of Man, “but this cannot be true, because it is putting the effect before the cause; for as man must have existed before governments existed, there necessarily was a time when governments did not exist, and consequently there could originally exist no governors to form such a compact with.” Reaching back as always to beginnings for his reasoning, Paine thus describes the social contract in starkly individualist terms: “The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”
Yuval Levin – The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
Although it has not always been the case in the past, Thomas Paine now tends to be viewed as more than a pamphleteer. He is often considered as an “activist-thinker” or as an “intellectual” and even more as a thinker. Yet his system of thought is not fully coherent and he sometimes expressed divergent, if not contradictory, positions during his life, which has often been underlined by critics and scholars. The fact that his writings were published in specific, often polemical, contexts precluded long theoretical expositions as he adopted a pedagogic strategy that made him suppress the philosophical underpinnings of some of his conclusions. One of the main ideas he stuck to, that government is based on a social or political contract and that only the latter can guarantee the legitimacy of governing bodies, is no exception to this rule. The fact that he never wrote a theoretical treatise about the social contract but instead included pages presenting elements of theory on which he relied to present his arguments in the polemical works he published forces the reader to piece together the parts of his theory scattered throughout his various writings. To a certain extent they make up a system of thought that can be reconstructed, although it is not fully consistent. Paine started to define the content of the agreement on which a legitimate government should be based in 1776 in Common Sense. He then developed this initial position mainly in Dissertations on Government (1786), in Rights of Man (1791–1792), and in Dissertation on the First Principles of Government (1795).
Although Paine’s social contract theory can be seen as central in his political system of thought, as the controversy with Edmund Burke clearly shows, it has not yet been given the full attention it deserves by scholarship in a complete and systematic study of his ideas on this subject, a project I began in my book La pensée politique de Paine en contexte. It is not possible to explore here all the issues raised by Paine’s handling of the social contract. I will instead present and analyze the major features of his social contract theory, which was not merely a synthesis of what other thinkers such as Locke or Rousseau said.
Paine’s starting point is the original or natural equality of rights among all men.
A few years before, in Dissertations on Government, Paine had used the phrase “the original contract” several times to appropriate this notion and include it in his immanent form of contractualism.
This writing is less well-known and has been less studied than Common Sense or Rights of Man. Yet it marks an essential stage in Paine’s trajectory as a political thinker since he developed his conception of a republican regime in it. He explained that the political contract was an agreement that rejected despotism as the signers of the contract gave up “the assuming right of breaking and violating their engagements . . . or defrauding, imposing or tyrannizing upon each other,” which is the other side of the coin or rather the back page of the contract if one assumes that the front page is the procedure through which fundamental liberties are warranted by handing over imperfect rights. Therefore Paine recommended a contract that establishes freedom as “non domination,” a concept set forward by Philip Pettit who asserts that Paine should be considered as “a republican” given the fact that this scholar reinterpreted “republicanism” as distinct both from Appleby’s and Baylin’s conceptions.
Paine’s social contract is also “liberal” or rather gives birth to a liberal government whose primary function is to protect the rights and liberties of individuals. […]
In the “Plan of the Declaration of Rights,” which he may have written with Condorcet during the winter of 1792–1793 when they were both members of the Comité de constitution that was to devise a new constitution for France after the abolition of monarchy, Article 31 reads: “Men, gathered together in society, should have the legal means of resisting oppression.” It substantiates the fact that he seems to view it as a civil right.
Paine’s British opponents in the Rights of Man controversy somehow stepped into that breach to denounce Paine as an advocate of anarchy and sedition. For example, in Slight Observations upon Paine’s Pamphlet (1791), Thomas Green stated the following charge: “we find him claiming certain natural rights, which are retained against the invasion of the civil power . . . and in which the power to execute them is as perfect as the right itself. I do not understand his meaning, except it be, that a citizen may lawfully shake off his allegiance, and rebel against the civil power, whenever he is out of humour with it.” However, Paine did not make it clear whether the right of revolution was an individual or a collective right or in other words whether it was a perfect or an imperfect right to quote the categories of his own typology. As an individual alone cannot lead a political revolution and needs the help of others to carry it out, one may argue that the right of revolution falls into the group of “imperfect” rights, whereas it might be surmised that the right to resist individually would be a perfect one.
Carine Lounissi – Thomas Paine’s Reflections on the Social Contract: A Consistent Theory?
Meanwhile, the Revolution continued to march in the same direction into which the weight of its first errors had necessarily dragged it. After the National Guard has demanded and obtained by menaces from the Assembly its consent to the death of twenty-nine of its own members, Robespierre requires a law to be passed “against foreigners.”
Paine employed whatever prestige was left him in saving some of these foreigners. He spent the whole summer of 1793 in retirement; he lodged in an old abandoned residence of Madame de Pompadour. However, certain persons soon began to recall the fact that Paine himself was not to the manor born; he came from somewhere else. His origin, name, language, all proclaimed the foreigner. Then, he was the friend of the Girondists, and the dregs of the Parisian populace were convinced that the Girondists had plotted against the national unity, because they hated Paris.
The month of October, 1793, was one long crisis. A decree of the Convention enacted on the third that the Girondists, “as agents of the English faction,” should be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. In his report, the Conventionnel Amar denounced Thomas Paine as equally guilty—that very Thomas Paine whom England had, notwithstanding, proscribed. “He had,” said Amar, “dishonored himself during the trial of Capet by supporting Brissot and daring to talk about the dissatisfaction of the United States of America.” But Robespierre, having caught the Girondists in his net, was contented, and scorned to support an accusation against the author of the “Rights of Man” for the present. However, on the tenth of October, it was decreed that all Englishmen should be arrested; several young republicans from across the Channel fled stealthily, first to Paine, then beyond the frontier. Now, on the very day upon which the decree was issued, Paine, on his side, was writing to Jefferson, advising the United States to take the initiative in convoking a congress of peace at The Hague, the object of which should be to guarantee freedom of commerce and to reconcile hostile nations: it was the sole chance of saving the rights of man—with innocent internationalism on one side, venomous nationalism on the other, and both of them manifesting themselves simultaneously. You see how far apart the gulf had grown between Paine and the Revolution.
However, he sees that Brissot and his other friends have been cut off from the land of the living. The benches around him in the Convention were empty, and the Terrorists soon returned to the charge against Paine himself. Bourdon de l’Oise denounced him in the Convention on the twenty-sixth of December. The accusation, as might naturally have been expected, was based on his “connivance with the foreigners,” and this “connivance” was wrapped up in deep mystery. “I know,” said Bourdon, “that he has been intriguing with an ex-agent of the Foreign Office.” That was all ; the accusation was of the vaguest, and therefore, the more impossible to meet. When Paine became aware of it, he was somewhat taken aback by the strange methods of discussion adopted by his « Nationalist » opponents. “I should have wished,” he said, in his honest simplicity, “that Bourdon de l’Oise had taken the trouble to make himself better acquainted with the facts, before rising to speak against me.” Barrère defended the thesis upon which Bourdon had founded his charge. “It is necessary that the French people should understand how injurious to its interests is the decree that allows foreigners to form a part of the national representation.” Robespierre was silent, but the Assembly divined his wishes. It showed its docility by decreeing that “no foreigner could be permitted to represent the French people.” So Thomas Paine and the Prussian humanitarian, Anacharsis Clootz, found themselves excluded from the Assembly.
Two days afterwards, the Committee of General Safety ordered them both to be arrested. Paine had passed the night with a few American friends, and, in the morning, was awakened by a commissary of police and some of the National Guards. A perquisition was made in his domicile in his presence, and he was then conducted to the prison of the Luxembourg, where he remained for more than eleven months, escaping the guillotine by a miracle.
At all events, this tedious incarceration was a benefit to him in one respect: he was not caught up in the deluge of tyranny that followed. He was really freer in a dungeon than he would have been outside, for he was, at least, sheltered from informers. And then, during the spring of 1794, France had to submit to a regime that was, in every respect, directly opposed to his doctrine of the equality of rights and of a real republic: there was not a single liberty for which he had struggled that was not flouted and crushed.
Yet, for all that, in the midst of all the terrible forces that had been let loose, Thomas Paine was quietly philosophizing in his prison. He was arranging methodically his ideas upon religion. It was not solely in order to distract his mind from dwelling on external events that he was doing so; he was too much of a journalist to allow his thoughts to loosen their hold on the actual; and, in fact, the question of religious belief was as actual at this period as anything well could be. As a result of the maxims of the Terror, fetichism began to have a new and flourishing life. The origin of all the deadly errors of the time lay in a certain confused theology which went back many centuries behind the Declaration of Rights, and which was, in all respects, the downright contradiction of every principle embodied in that document. For the universal, humanitarian, rational God to whom Voltaire said: “Thou hast not given us hearts to hate or hands to butcher one another ; grant that all men may hold in horror the tyranny that would constrain the soul!” was gradually substituted an ancient, tribal God, jealous and murderous.
He was not known as God, but as La Patrie (the Fatherland), and sometimes even as Liberty, officially as Reason, or rather as the Supreme Being. But, by whatever name He might be styled, He was actually a god like the Yavah of Deborah and Gideon, and His devotees, the “patriots,” felt themselves bound by an inexorable rule, a rule obeyed without examination, to use the saber and the knife of the guillotine against “incivism,” I was almost going to say, against the “uncircumcized.” All the servants of this deity had to swear to love certain objects and to hate certain other objects. The wives, children and relatives of the accused were all involved in the same destruction; sepulchers were violated; war was waged against stones, for men spoke in the Convention the language that is found on a Moabite or Assyrian stela, talked of razing rebellious cities, like Toulon and Lyons, to the ground, and of abolishing their very names, so as to kill them even in the memory of men. And this new religion has a whole liturgy of rites—those rites that have always characterized holy wars, or the wars of “the pure with the impure”—before God was conceived as one and universal.
The time had arrived, therefore, for the grand idea of the Eighteenth Century, Humanity, to be resuscitated, if the new aberration was to be successfully confronted.
And this is just what Paine endeavored to do in his “Age of Reason.” A government emancipated from tyranny—and that was the sole form of government he favored—could be maintained only among a people that had arrived at the “age of reason”; that is to say, at the age of free thought. The man who does not flatter himself that he possesses definite truth, but who modestly seeks to see clearer, and who has learned the habit of self-criticism, is alone preserved from wishing to tyrannize over consciences; he alone has the republican spirit. But Robespierre and his acolytes, being disciples of Rousseau, proved that they were incapable of thinking freely. Did they even know what sort of a thing free thought was? In their natural religion, they dogmatized, they excommunicated, just as the Pope did in his literal religion.
Paine had observed this phenomenon, he had noted that the intolerant spirit of ecclesiastical persecution had been transported into politics, and that the Revolutionary Tribunal had taken the place of the Inquisition. No one would have expected that the Profession de foi du Vicaire Savoyard would have given birth to such servitude. Thomas Paine has the same beliefs as the Vicaire Savoyard, but his method is very different. He is not like the village priest, an “Orpheus singing primal hymns”; he is an utilitarian who consults experience. Instead of setting forth as primary truths his own inner illuminations, he finds the marks of the truth of a religion in the proofs it is able to show of its capacity for insuring the general happiness of mankind. A religion which stimulates men to hate and slaughter one another cannot help being false. The true divine is the human.
True religion, then, does not consist in pure good will, which simply renders the individual himself blameless, but in carefully planned and efficacious beneficence. It is the imitation of God as Creator and Father, as Reason and Love. Far from this true religion having been revealed to us by the agency of a primitive instinct and afterwards again discovered in the recesses of our souls “in the silence of prejudices,” it is a recent acquisition of experience, valuable in proportion to the high price paid for it, and in proportion to its salutary consequences. It is necessary to preserve this acquisition and to increase it still further.
Thus the conscience of the modern man is really a product of history; but its authority is not the less sure on that account; the very reverse is the case, for as it is the authority of an authentic experiment prosecuted from age to age, this modern conscience has the right to sit in judgment on the religious conceptions of the past; in the Bible, it makes selections; it retains all that is conformable to reason and promotes fraternity; it rejects all the irrational marvels, all the “Christian mythology,” and it particularly thrusts aside the barbarous commandments given by the national Jewish God to His people. The exclusivism of the synagogue is certainly detestable, and it is necessary to deprive it of the prestige it has gained by a pretended conformity to the will of God. The philanthropist Jesus did his best, because of his natural goodness, to free his contemporaries from this notion; but he was the victim of the kindliness of his heart, a victim well worthy of pity and still an object of veneration.
Such is a summary of the ideas of Paine on religion; they are, in my opinion, much nearer to those of Voltaire than to those of Rousseau; but they differ from Voltaire in tone and accent, and are far more popular, serious and tender.
None of the pamphlets of Paine won him more enemies than this little book of rational theology. He touched the English reader on his sensitive point, his reverence for the “Holy Scriptures.” From that moment, the malignant hatred of the pious met him at every turn and blackened his character with indefatigable zeal.
Yet, it had never been his intention to wound the feelings of anybody; all his purpose was to render testimony to the truth as he saw it. He had written the “Age of Reason” with profound conviction: it was to be his last will and testament. He completed it in prison, in daily expectation of death, which everything predicted to be inevitable. From the cells next his own, he saw the departure, in tumbril after tumbril, of Hérault de Séchelles, Clootz, Camille Desmoulins, Danton, etc., all gagged by their judges, as had been the Girondists. In a single night, 168 prisoners were dragged from the Luxembourg, and of these 160 were guillotined the next day. What chance had Paine, then, of surviving them? Doubtless he was an American citizen; but Gouverneur Morris, the official representative of the United States, had abandoned him. Some of his fellow-citizens settled in France addressed, indeed, a petition to the Convention (January 27, 1794) praying for his liberation; but at that very moment, Vadier, one of the accusers of the man they were trying to save, was president of the Assembly; Vadier, instead of answering yes or no, buried the protest under a heap of meaningless phrases. Paine was, therefore, to all appearances, lost. He was undisturbed, devoting all his care to the preservation of his papers and the composition of a farewell dedication to his fellow-citizens of North America.
The circumstance which saved his life was quite fortuitous: it was simply the negligence of his jailers. The door of his cell was open and thrown back against the wall of the corridor on the night when a keeper went round to chalk on it the death sign for the following morning. In a fit of absent-mindedness he wrote the name of Paine on the inside of the door. The commissary who, before daybreak, passed along the corridor, ordering the condemned prisoners to come out of their cells, saw nothing on one particular door, and went on. Then came the ninth Thermidor, the downfall of the Terror and the general jail delivery.
Yes, delivery for the other captives; Paine, who had been forgotten by the executioners, was now forgotten by the liberators. He wrote to the Convention on the nineteenth Thermidor, reminding it that he was still in existence and demanding his release; the communication never reached the Legislature, so he continued to crouch in that Luxembourg cell of his the whole autumn; he was very ill, exhausted by the bad air and the bad food, and suffering from an abscess in the hip which was rapidly undermining his health. Fortunately for him, his friend Monroe had replaced his personal enemy, Morris, as United States Minister. Monroe at once interfered, and Paine was restored to freedom. The author of the “Age of Reason” was, then, again among the living. The decree excluding him from the Convention being annulled, he again took his seat in it on the eighth of December, like the pallid ghost of the days, already far distant, when the republic had been inaugurated with shouts and hurrahs. Of the nine members of the Constitutional Committee only two were left: Sieyes, who owed his safety to his pliancy, and Paine, who never bent to anything or anybody.
After the Terror had been once banished, it was the terror of the Terror that governed. The pendulum had swung backward. Just as in 1792, all imaginable measures were adopted to prevent the slightest possibility of the revival of royal despotism and of the past, so, two years later, all energies were devoted to the task of rendering the existence of a new Robespierre forever impossible and of killing forever the recent past, more hated than that of old. The longing for security, after months of chaotic confusion, is likely to reach a degree of savage exasperation in the bosom of the honest bourgeois.
So Thomas Paine, who preserved his normal serenity, found that he had to pass once more from the right to the left. A while ago, an “aristocrat” in the eyes of the Terrorists, he is now a democrat from the standpoint of the Thermidorians. But it was not because he really oscillated. It was his opinion that principles which could be influenced by circumstances had no genuine foundation in the heart. He pardoned everybody. Why not? None of the people had done him wrong. The experience he had under gone had not in the slightest degree shaken his confidence in the people. It was not, he believed, the people that had imprisoned and persecuted him, but a faction that had usurped the popular power. The people is, and not the less on that account, the legitimate sovereign, the only sovereign that has the right to establish a government by the election of representatives, who are delegated, not to issue decrees suggested by passing whims, but to enact general and durable laws.
If the Constitution had been obeyed, these acts of arbitrary power which now revolted everyone would have been rendered impossible. What constitution? That of Condorcet or that of Herault? It did not make any difference, provided that it was a written, printed constitution, containing a certain number of articles, a constitution which each citizen could carry in his pocket. Despotism arises only when people place themselves at the mercy of events. The evil is that the republic has no stable defensive organization, that liberty is not regulated. This thesis was developed with great force by Paine in his dissertations on the “First Principles of Government,” published in July, 1795, just when the Constitution of the Year III was the subject of deliberation. It was a liberal constitution enough, but it was never popular. It was a prudent return to the vote by qualification, to the regime of the middle classes.
Because the poor have brandished their pikes during the past riotous days, the poor are to be deprived of the right of voting. A strange but yet natural mode of reasoning! Boissy expounds it in explicit terms: “We ought to be governed by the best. The best are the best educated and those most interested in the maintenance of the laws. Now, with very few exceptions, you will find such persons only amongst those who possess property. A country governed by men of property is in the social order.” It was, in all its nakedness, the society of classes against which Paine had always protested. He could not permit such a theory to be advanced without raising his voice against it. Although enfeebled by sickness, he forced himself to come to the Convention (seventh of July, 1795). He remained standing in the tribune while the secretary read a translation of his discourse. After apologizing for his long, involuntary absence, he affirmed the constancy of his republicanism, and recalled the initial meaning of the French Revolution as indicated by the Declaration of Rights.
Now, the proposed constitution was completely out of harmony with the latter; by withdrawing universal suffrage from the people, it showed that it was not truly republican. To introduce political right as an attribute of property was to strike with inertia a system of government whose very essence was life and movement. Important words these, but they were not listened to. Paine seemed not to understand the situation. The Constitution was a confiteor that the Convention knew itself to be unpopular, that it was about to disappear, and that its only chance of returning to power was to conciliate the respectable classes. The speech of Paine was heard with deference, but found no echo; the French translation was not even published.
It was the last time that the champion of the Republic was to intervene in the affairs of France. The Convention was dissolved on the twenty-sixth of October, 1795, and Thomas Paine became a private citizen.
He continued to vegetate in Paris under the Directory, surrounded by a few faithful disciples and forgotten by the public. Yet he still tried to contribute, for the sake of a distant future, to the progress of republican morals and republican religion, the want of which had just made the Revolution a failure. He had a French translation published of the “Age of Reason,” the book in which the modern conscience first dared, without indirection and without sarcasm, to set itself up as the judge of Christian traditions, and laid the basis of a purified religion, reduced to the only beliefs which appeared necessary as a foundation of fraternity among men. […]
Naturally he was one of the first adherents, if he was not the instigator, of Theophilanthropy. […] But he did not remain long with the Theophilanthropists. The latter, fearing to wound the sympathies of anyone, avoided stating categorically what they did not believe. This reticence by no means suited the taste of Thomas Paine, who was always frank and outspoken.
Nevertheless the followers of this religion were gaining some footing, and eighteen churches were abandoned to them. They even installed themselves in Notre Dame for a time. Then came the Concordat, and the Theophilanthropists, with other non-conformists, had to vanish into obscurity.
When the priests returned openly and the peals of the bells again rang out in triumph, the temper of Thomas Paine was not at all in tune with the change. In his passing freak of ill-humor, he even wrote to Camille Jordan, who was in favor of toleration, a letter of protest. The kind of worship that commended itself to Paine was of the silent, meditative order: no bells or organs or trumpets for him! No manifestations that are likely to arouse hostility, either. Have not recent experiences taught us to distrust whatever tends to overexcite the sensitive element in man’s nature? The influence which is gained over him by such methods is neither legitimate nor prudent: he is led like a somnambulist, it may be to misery, it may be to crime. He must be liberated from such a yoke; every religion which has any end in view except the happiness of humanity is a public peril, etc.
But apparently the First Consul had not the least intention of liberating his fellow-citizens.
Paine had at first believed in Bonaparte. The latter, on his return from Italy, had caressed and cajoled him with the skill of which he alone had the secret. What if this Bonaparte was predestined to destroy all antiquated despotisms? Perhaps even William Pitt would find his match in him! For it was just the moment when rumors were abroad that the conqueror of Italy was meditating a descent on England. At this news the old English radical fairly quivered with hope: why should a general of the French Revolution land in Britain if not to emancipate the English people, and at last bring to them that long-desired republic which could alone procure peace?
The abandonment of this fine plan for the liberation of England and the departure of Bonaparte for Egypt cruelly deceived Thomas Paine. But if the departure of the First Consul was a disappointment, how much more so was his return! After the eighteenth Brumaire, France no longer offered any field of activity to a counselor of the people, for the people no longer influenced events. They were politely dispensed from the trouble of watching over their own interests. And, should any of them exhibit a tendency to meddle with public affairs notwithstanding, he encountered a diligent police and a determined censorship that quickly brought him to his senses. “The love of order,” has become, according to the formula of Fouchè, “the first of public virtues.” Woe to the man who shows himself devoid of it! And so Nicholas de Bonneville, Paine’s host and good friend, is locked up in prison and his journal, Le Bien Informé, is suspended, because he has compared Bonaparte to Cromwell. The Terror has apparently come to life again, not more cruel, but chronic, regular, and with every chance of surviving.
It was the rebound of the rock of Sisyphus. This time Thomas Paine gave it up. All his dreams had been vanquished, and he was beginning to feel the weight of his advanced years—he was near seventy. So he wanted rest, wanted a holiday, the society of dumb nature. A longing to till the land, to live on his farm at New Rochelle, took hold of him, and he bade a last farewell to the feverish agitations of unhappy Europe.
He embarked at Havre on the first of September, 1802, and, on the thirtieth of October, after an absence of fifteen years, years filled with strife and trouble, he again saw the shores of America.
Paul Desjardins – Thomas Paine: father of republics
(in Life and Writings of Thomas Paine, 1908)
THE name of Thomas Paine is so familiar to every one, that had we not been previously acquainted with each other, I should have contrived to have had an interview with him, during my residence in Paris. Nearly ten years had elapsed since we were last together, and I felt deeply interested in learning his opinions concerning the French revolution, after all the experience, which so long a period of uninterrupted storms and convulsion, must necessarily have afforded him. Accordingly, he was amongst the first on whom I called, and I have since been frequently in his company.
It was not without considerable difficulty that I discovered his residence, for the name of Thomas Paine is now as odious in France as it is in England, perhaps more so. […]
After having mounted to the second story, I rang at the bell, and on a jolly looking woman opening the door, I asked in a meek and humble tone (for the reception I had met with at the Palais Royale was still in my mind) whether Mr. Paine lived there? After having surveyed me from head to feet, she answered in the affirmative, but said she believed he was not at home, and requested me to enter. As soon as I had walked into her apartment, she held the candle pretty close to my face, and said, “Do you wish to see Mr. Paine?” to which I instantly replied, “I am just come from England, and am extremely anxious to see him, as I am an old acquaintance whom he has not seen these ten years.” Even as the sun dispels the mist, so did this well-timed declaration change the features of her countenance, which now became nothing but smiles and joy. She continued; “He is taking a nap; but I’ll go and wake him.”
In two minutes she returned, and ushered me into a little dirty room, containing a small wooden table, and two chairs. “This,” said she, “is Mr. Paine’s room!” I never sat down in such a filthy apartment in the whole course of my life. The chimney hearth was an heap of dirt; there was not a speck of cleanliness to be seen; three shelves were filled with pasteboard boxes, each labelled after the manner of a minister of foreign affairs, correspondance Americaine, Britannique; Française; Notices politiques; Le citoyen Français, &c. In one corner of the room stood several huge bars of iron, curiously shaped, and two large trunks; opposite the fire place, a board covered with pamphlets and journals, having more the appearance of a dresser in a scullery than a side-board. Such was the wretched habitation of Thomas Paine, one of the founders of American Independence; whose extraordinary genius must ever command attention; and whose writings have summoned to action the minds of the most enlightened politicians of Europe! How different the humble dwelling of this Apostle of Freedom, from those gorgeous mansions tenanted by the founders of the French Republic!
After I had waited a short time, Mr. Paine came down stairs, and entered the room, dressed in a long flannel gown. I was forcibly struck with his altered appearance. Time seemed to have made dreadful ravages over his whole frame, and a settled melancholy was visible on his countenance. He desired me to be seated, and although he did not recollect me for a considerable time, he conversed with his usual affability. I confess I felt extremely surprised that he should have forgotten me; but I resolved not to make myself known to him, as long as it could be avoided with propriety. In order to try his memory, I referred to a number of circumstances, which had occurred while we were in company, but carefully abstained from hinting that we had ever lived together. He would frequently put his hand to his forehead, and exclaim, “Ah! I know that voice, but my recollection fails!” At length, I thought it time to remove his suspense, and stated an incident which instantly recalled me to his mind. It is impossible to describe the sudden change which this effected in his appearance and manner; his countenance brightened, he pressed me by the hand, and a silent tear stole down his cheek. Nor was I less affected than himself. For some time, we sat without a word escaping from our lips. “Thus are we met once more Mr. Paine,” I resumed, “after a long separation of ten years, and after having been both of us severely weather-beaten.” “Aye,” he replied, “and who would have thought that we should meet at Paris?” He then inquired what motive had brought me here, and on my explaining myself, he observed, with a smile of contempt, “They have shed blood enough for liberty, and now they have it in perfection. This is not a country for an honest man to live in; they do not understand any thing at all of the principles of free government, and the best way is, to leave them to themselves. You see they have conquered all Europe, only to make it more miserable than it was before.” Upon this, I remarked, that I was surprized to hear him speak in such desponding language, of the fortune of mankind, and that I thought much might yet be done for the Republic. “Republic!” he exclaimed, “do you call this a Republic? why, they are worse off than the slaves at Constantinople; for there, they expect to be bashaws in heaven, by submitting to be slaves below, but here, they believe neither in heaven nor hell, and yet are slaves by choice. I know of no Republic in the world, except America, which is the only country for such men as you and I.
Henry Redhead Yorke – Letters from France In 1802