The Age of Paine by Jon Katz
This article first appeared in Wired Magazine in 1995.
Thomas Paine was one of the first journalists to use media as a weapon against the entrenched power structure. He should be resurrected as the moral father of the Internet. Jon Katz explains why.
By Jon Katz
If any father has been forsaken by his children, it is Thomas Paine. Statues of the man should greet incoming journalism students; his words should be chiseled above newsroom doors and taped to laptops, guiding the communications media through their many travails, controversies, and challenges. Yet Paine, a fuzzy historical figure of the 1700s, is remembered mostly for one or two sparkling patriotic quotes - “These are the times that try men’s souls” - and little else. Thomas Paine, professional revolutionary, was one of the first to use media as a powerful weapon against an entrenched array of monarchies, feudal lords, dictators, and repressive social structures. He invented contemporary political journalism, creating almost by himself a mass reading-public aware for the first time of its right to encounter controversial opinions and to participate in politics.
Between his birth in 1737 and his death in 1809, enormous political upheavals turned the Western world upside down - and Paine was in the middle of the biggest ones. His writings put his life at risk in every country he lived in - in America for rebellion, in England for sedition, in France for his insistence on a merciful and democratic revolution. At the end of his life, he was shunned by the country he helped create, reviled as an infidel, forced to beg friends for money, denied the right to vote, refused burial in a Quaker cemetery. His grave was desecrated, his remains were stolen.
A popular old nursery rhyme about Paine could just as easily be sung today: Poor Tom Paine! there he lies: Nobody laughs and nobody cries. Where he has gone or how he fares Nobody knows and nobody cares.
Certainly that’s true of the media. The modern-day press has forgotten this brilliant, lonely, socially awkward progenitor, who pioneered the concept of the uncensored flow of ideas, and developed a new kind of communications in the service of the then-radical proposition that people should control their own lives.
In this country, his memory has been tended by a few determined academics and historians and a stubborn little historical society in New Rochelle, New York, where he spent a good deal of his final, impoverished days.
We’ve all been numbed by drowsy history-book pedagogy about founders, patriots, and dusty historical heroes. If journalism and the rest of the country have forgotten Paine, why should we remember another of history’s lost souls?
Because we owe Paine. He is our dead and silenced ancestor. He made us possible. We need to resurrect and hear him again, not for his sake but for ours. We need to know who he was, to understand his life and work, in order to comprehend our own revolutionary culture. Paine’s odyssey made him the greatest media figure of his time, one of the unseen but profound influencers of ours. He made more noise in the information world than any messenger or pilgrim before or since. His mark is now nearly invisible in the old culture, but his spirit is woven through and through this new one, his fingerprints on every Web site, his voice in every online thread.
If the old media (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television) have abandoned their father, the new media (computers, cable, and the Internet) can and should adopt him. If the press has lost contact with its spiritual and ideological roots, the new media culture can claim them as its own.
For Paine does have a legacy, a place where his values prosper and are validated millions of times a day: the Internet. There, his ideas about communications, media ethics, the universal connections between people, and the free flow of honest opinion are all relevant again, visible every time one modem shakes hands with another.
Tom Paine’s ideas, the example he set of free expression, the sacrifices he made to preserve the integrity of his work, are being resuscitated by means that hadn’t existed or been imagined in his day - via the blinking cursors, clacking keyboards, hissing modems, bits and bytes of another revolution, the digital one. If Paine’s vision was aborted by the new technologies of the last century, newer technology has brought his vision full circle. If his values no longer have much relevance for conventional journalism, they fit the Net like a glove.
The Net offers what Paine and his revolutionary colleagues hoped for - a vast, diverse, passionate, global means of transmitting ideas and opening minds. That was part of the political transformation he envisioned when he wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Through media, he believed, “we see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.”
His writing is infused with the sense - especially relevant now as the digital culture spreads across the world - that a new age was about to burst open all around him. This would be an unmistakable, great awakening, even if it came in stages. Instead of seeing a single bud on a winter tree, he wrote, “I should instantly conclude that the same appearance was beginning, or about to begin, everywhere; and though the vegetable sleep will continue longer on some trees and plants than on others, and though some of them may not blossom for two or three years, all will be in leaf in the summer, except those which are rotten.” It is not difficult to perceive, he wrote, “that the spring is begun.”
Paine’s life and the birth of the American press prove that information media, taken together, were never meant, collectively, to be just another industry. Information wants to be free. That was the familiar and inspiring moral imperative behind the medium imagined by Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Media existed to spread ideas, to allow fearless argument, to challenge and question authority, to set a common social agenda.
Asked about the reasons for new media, Paine would have answered in a flash: to advance human rights, spread democracy, ease suffering, pester government. Modern journalists would have a much rougher time with the question. There is no longer widespread consensus, among practitioners or consumers, about journalism’s practices and its goals.
Of course, the ferociously spirited press of the late 1700s that Paine helped invent differed from the institution we know today. It was dominated by individuals expressing their opinions. The idea that ordinary citizens with no special resources, expertise, or political power - like Paine himself - could sound off, reach wide audiences, even spark revolutions, was brand-new to the world. In Paine’s wake, writes Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, “every conceivable form of printed matter - books, pamphlets, handbills, posters, broadsides, and especially newspapers - multiplied and were now written and read by many more ordinary people than ever before in history.”
Never skilled in business, Paine failed to foresee how fragile and easily overwhelmed these values and forms of expression would be when they collided with free-market economics. The rotary press and other printing technologies that later made it possible to mass-market newspapers also led publishers to make newspapers tamer and more moderate so their many new customers wouldn’t be offended. Big, expensive printing presses churning out thousands of copies meant opinionated private citizens like Paine could no longer afford to own or have direct access to media, and journalism couldn’t afford to give voice to opinionated private citizens.
Paine once warned a Philadelphia newspaper editor about the distinction between editorial power and the freedom of the press. It was a caution neither the editor nor his increasingly wealthy and powerful successors took to heart: “If the freedom of the press is to be determined by the judgment of the printer of a Newspaper in preference to that of the people, who when they read will judge for themselves, then freedom is on a very sandy foundation.”
So it is. Paine’s worst fear was echoed more than 150 years later by critic A.J. Liebling, who wryly observed: “In America, freedom of the press is largely reserved for those who own one.” Almost everyone else has been shut out. But media history is being reversed. With computers and modems, individuals are pouring back in. The people who own the presses still have enormous power, but every day, very much against their will, they’re facing a dread reality: they’re going to have to learn to share.
The people running the traditional media are in a state of near panic at this competition, at the fragmentation of an audience they once monopolized. In their search for answers, they seem to be looking at everything save what’s most important: values. Although journalism presumes great and lofty purpose, it has grown preoccupied with ratings, market penetration, stockholders, cultural demographics, and bottom lines. Almost overwhelmingly owned and run by corporations and business sharks with turnips for hearts and market research for ideology, the press is disconnected and resented. One opinion survey after another confirms pervasive public mistrust.
Like the specters introduced by the Ghost of Christmas Future, today’s media are what the Net should never become - but will surely evolve into if it fails to develop, articulate, fight fiercely for, and maintain a value system other than expanded memory, whiz-bang toys, and money. The digital age is young, ascending, diverse, already nearly as arrogant, and, in parts, as greedy as the mass media it is supplanting. The new generation faces enormous danger from government, from corporations that control the traditional media, from commercialization, and from its own chaotic growth.
Thomas Paine is a guide, the conscience that can prompt new media to remember the past chiefly in order not to repeat it.
He often introduced his most controversial ideas formally and courteously, writing, for example, The following notion is put under your protection. You will do us the justice to remember that he who denies the right of every man or woman to his own opinion makes a slave of them, because he precludes their right of changing their own minds.
This notion is put under your protection, too: The Internet is Thomas Paine’s bastard child. Thomas Paine should be our hero.
The sad part of Paine’s story is that it’s necessary to pause here and tell it to those who may never have heard it.
He lived a life that would make the cheesiest Hollywood screenwriter blush in frustration. He was born in England. He ran away from home to sail as a pirate, then worked as a staymaker and matched wits with smugglers as a customs collector. He lobbied Parliament for better pay for himself and fellow customs collectors. He lost his job but met Benjamin Franklin, who urged him to move to America, and who became a lifelong pen pal.
One of the regulars at Independence Hall, Paine was a philosophical soul mate of Thomas Jefferson. He fought and froze with his buddy George Washington at Valley Forge. King George III badly wanted to hang Paine because he helped touch off the American Revolution with his writings, but got the chance to try him for sedition after Paine had the gall to return to England and lobby for an end to the monarchy.
Paine fled to France, where the bloodthirstier leaders of the French Revolution ordered him killed because he urged leniency for the members of the overthrown regime and because they feared he would alert Americans to the increasingly undemocratic Gallic uprising. Clergymen all over the world cursed him for his heretical religious views. Businessmen despised him even more for his radical views about labor.
In between was high drama, great daring, narrow scrapes - wandering revolutionary war battlefields dodging British bullets, fleeing England 20 minutes ahead of warrants ordering his arrest, coming within hours of being guillotined in Paris. Paine seemed to live most happily in boiling water.
The Big Concept man of his time, his deep ideas still resonate: An end to monarchies and dictatorships. American independence from England, of course. International federations to promote development and maintain peace. Rights and protections for laborers. An end to slavery. Equal rights for women. Redistribution of land. Organized religion was a cruel and corrupt hoax. Public education, public employment, assistance for the poor, pensions for the elderly. And above all, a fearless press that tells the truth, gives voice to individual citizens, tolerates opposing points of view, transcends provincialism, is accessible to the poor as well as the rich.
He was as astonishingly productive as he must have been obnoxious, mouthing off about everything from yellow fever to iron bridge construction. Although he wrote countless articles and pamphlets during his life, his core works are four powerful, sometimes beautifully written, flaming-with-indignation essays. Common Sense, an argument for independence, helped spark the American Revolution. Rights of Man, an essay written in support of the French Revolution, attacks hereditary monarchies and called for universal democracy and human rights. The Age of Reason challenges the logic behind organized religion’s grip on much of the Western world, and Agrarian Justice calls for radical reforms in the world economy, especially in land ownership. The first three constitute the three bestselling works of the 18th century.
It is almost impossible, today, to imagine the overwhelming impact of Common Sense.
Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 at the age of 37 with little more than a letter of reference from Franklin. He rented a room and landed a job as executive editor of a new publication called Pennsylvania Magazine. In January of 1776, Common Sense went on sale for two shillings.
Historian Gregory Claeys, in Thomas Paine, Social and Political Thought, quotes one colonial observer who described Common Sense as bursting forth “like a mighty conqueror bearing down all opposition.” It became America’s first bestseller, with more than 120,000 copies sold in its first three months, and possibly as many as half a million in its first year - this in a country whose population was 3 million. Newspapers, then crammed with controversial viewpoints, scrambled to reprint it. Common people quoted it to one another.
It had, wrote a contemporary historian, “produced most astonishing effects; and been received with vast applause, read by almost every American; and recommended as a work replete with truth.” It was nicely written, too, one of the first and most dramatic of the anthems and call-to-arms that run through Paine’s writing. The cause of America, wrote Paine, was the cause of all mankind. “O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
How Paine, poorly educated and inexperienced as a writer, came to produce such a work remains a historical puzzle. American historians have traditionally advanced the idea that Paine, who already hated the British ruling classes and had been disillusioned in his battle to improve working conditions for his fellow customs collectors in England, needed only to step onshore and catch the revolutionary fever raging all around for his literary gifts to ignite.
But Paine’s democratic republicanism had deep British roots. He might have been influenced by some of the world’s earliest, least-known and best political journalists, such as the late 17th-century pamphleteers Sir William Molesworth and Walter Moyle. But such high-brow English republicans had no notions of democracy or universal suffrage - not to mention representative government, which they considered anarchic and dangerous. Those were Paine’s additions. He broadened his definitions of “the people” to include laborers, slaves, women, fishermen, and artisans. Paine’s journalistic writings about these new notions of democracy in Common Sense, wrote Jefferson, “rendered useless almost everything written before on the structures of government.”
Were Paine to enjoy in 1995 the kind of literary success he had in his day, he would earn millions in royalties, rights, and speaking fees. But Paine didn’t earn a shilling from the book. He paid the cost of publication for one edition - 30 pounds - himself, then donated the copyright and all royalties to the colonists’ struggle for independence. Royalties would make his work more expensive, he feared, and thus less accessible. It’s tough to imagine Paine’s words coming out of some Washington journalist’s mouth today: “As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author, by the publication (of Common Sense) … and there I gave up the profits of the first edition” - to be disposed of, he stipulated, “in any public service or private charity.” This idea cost him, in the most literal sense: Paine was impoverished for much of his life.
Paintings of Washington ferrying his troops across the Delaware have bored schoolchildren for 200 years. Kids might have more interest if they could see Paine’s ghost hovering in the background. In 1776, the Colonial Army was virtually defeated, its dispirited troops freezing and starving outside Philadelphia. Even the most die-hard revolutionaries were giving up. Then Paine started cranking out a series of pamphlets called “The American Crisis.”
At dusk on Christmas Day, a desperate George Washington ordered what remained of his hungry, ill-equipped army - the snow was spotted red from their bleeding bare feet - to gather into small squads and listen as their officers read them excerpts from Paine’s latest rant. In countless letters and diaries, the soldiers were later to recount how many of them wept when they heard what Paine wrote. They found in his now-famous words the strength to continue: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
That night, crossing the river through a storm of hail and sleet, Washington’s army surprised and defeated the mercenaries occupying Trenton. The victory is considered one of the major turning points in the war.
If it sounds like a fairy tale from another world, it was. But it pales next to the fairy tale that our world would seem to him. We can conceive and transmit ideas and send them all over the world in seconds. We can leave them and store them for others to see and answer. But for Paine, moving an idea from one place to another at all was a spiritual notion, a miraculous vision. He imagined a global means of communication, one in which the boundaries between the sender and receiver were cleared away.
Such freedom was, to Paine, one of the fundamental rights of mankind. And it was the essence of media. He shared this notion most intensely with his cohort Thomas Jefferson. The two corresponded constantly about how ideas were conceived and distributed.
Their foresight and their relevance to the promise of the Net was captured by Jefferson when he wrote: “That ideas should spread freely from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.”
Herewith, to be put under your protection, some of the more striking connections between the Net and its rightful intellectual father.
Paine called for a “universal society,” one whose citizens transcend their narrow interests and consider humankind as one entity. “My country is the world,” he wrote. The Internet has, in fact, redefined citizenship as well as communications. It is the first worldwide medium in which people can communicate so directly, so quickly, so personally, and so reliably. In which they can form distant but diverse and cohesive communities, send, receive, and store vast amounts of textual and graphic information, skip without paperwork or permission across borders. Where computers are plentiful, digital communications are nearly uncensorable. This reality gives our moral and media guardians fits; they still tend to portray the computer culture as an out-of-control menace harboring perverts, hackers, pornographers, and thieves. But Paine would have known better. The political, economic, and social implications of an interconnected global medium are enormous, making plausible Paine’s belief in the “universal citizen.”
He would recognize its style and language, too. Paine believed that journalists should write in a short, spare, unadorned language that everyone could understand. He was the first modern political writer to experiment with the art of writing democratically and for democratic ends, writes John Keane in Tom Paine: A Political Life (the newest and perhaps best of the Paine biographies). Paine hammered out his own colloquial style that eschewed “purple passages, sentences without meaning, and general humbug” because he considered it the highest duty of political writers to irritate their country’s government.
Reading Paine is eerie after spending time online and in political conferences on The Well, say, or after poring through the most provocative BBS postings. From reasoned arguments to raging flames to the staccato shorthand (LOL, IMHO) of countless e-mailers, digital communications are spare, blunt, economical, and efficient. Paine’s style is the style of the Internet; his succinct voice and language could slip comfortably into its debates and discussions.
Paine would understand, too, the loner at the heart of computer lore. Many of the teenagers, academics, and visionaries who pioneered the computer culture see themselves, and have been seen by others, as nerds or misfits - outcasts alone in their labs, bedrooms, or garages.
Paine met with, corresponded with, and plotted with and against some of the most powerful people of his time, from George Washington to Napoleon. But he never partied at Mount Vernon or Fontainebleau and he has never joined the gallery of heroes whose statues adorn Washington’s marble halls. He saw the world with agonizing clarity, but never figured out how to live comfortably in it.
His rare social appearances were uncomfortable. He never danced or joked much, and he dressed frumpily and simply in an era of frilly pomp. He never spoke or wrote about the worst personal tragedy in his life, the death in childbirth of his first wife, Mary Lambert, and their child. Friends claimed Paine seemed to hold himself responsible for the deaths in some way. His second marriage was brief and unhappy. For the rest of his life, he was an unyielding ascetic, one of the earliest supporters of women’s rights but an asexual man who spent most of his time around men. He seemed lost without a repressive regime to undermine, disconnected if the conversation didn’t revolve around politics. He hated small talk. A friend described him at one party as a “solitary character walking among the artificial bowers in the gardens.” Paine, said the friend, “retired frequently from company to analyze his thoughts and to enjoy the repast of his own original ideas.” He seemed at ease only when writing and railing against various forms of tyranny.
Where would Tom Paine go today for some serious rabble-rousing?
To get any real attention on TV or in the papers, he’d have to march, blockade, or burn something. Maybe he would try to get through to a radio talk show or Larry King Live. But if he had a computer and a modem, he could instantly spread his message. Anyone online can recognize the idea - suddenly in circulation again - of countless ordinary people participating in public opinion, their ideas “expansible all over space.”
Net culture, as it happens, is an even greater medium for individual expression than the pamphlets cranked by hand presses in colonial America. It swarms with the young and the outspoken. Its bulletin boards, conferencing systems, mailing structures, and Web sites are crammed with political organizations, academics, and ordinary citizens posting messages, raising questions, sharing information, offering arguments, changing minds. From thousands of newsgroups to the vast public-opinion forums growing on giant bulletin boards, the Internet would give the old hell raiser’s unhappy spirit a place to rest.
Cyberspace, not mainstream media, would be Paine’s home now. Commentary has virtually vanished from TV, and the liveliest newspaper Op-Ed pages are tepid compared to Paine’s tirades. But online, millions of messages centering on the country’s civic discourse are posted daily, in forums teeming with the kind of vigorous democratic debate and discussion that Paine and his fellow pamphleteers had in mind. Gun owners talk to gun haters, people in favor of abortion message people who think abortion is murder, journalists have to explain their stories to readers, and prosecution and defense strategies in the O.J. Simpson trial are thrashed out.
If Paine would feel at home there, he would also fight to protect this nascent medium. Learning what had happened to the media he founded as corporations moved in, he would spot commercialization as Danger Number One. He believed in a press that was not monopolistic but filled, as it was in his time, with individual voices; one that was cheap, accessible, fiercely outspoken. He believed that media like the Net - many citizens talking to many other citizens - were essential to free government.
He was right: journalism’s exclusion of outside voices and fear of publishing any but moderate opinions has made it difficult for the country to come to grips with some of its most sensitive issues - race, gender, and violence. Media overwhelmed and monopolized by large corporations, inaccessible to individual people and motivated primarily by profit, is the antithesis of Paine’s life, his work, and his vision for the press.
We could use his clear direction at a time when mainstream journalists are losing their ethical grounding. Some of the most visible reporters accept fat speaking fees from lobbyists and associations whose issues they often cover. They accept money to appear on quasi-entertainment panels where they pretend to be passionate and argue the issues of the day.
Paine would never appear on talk shows or garner fat speaking fees. At one point during the Revolutionary War - when he was completely broke, as usual - he was offered a thousand pounds a year by the French government to write and publish articles in support of the Franco-American alliance against Britain. He said no. He told friends that the principle at stake - a political writer’s ability to express opinions free of any party’s or government’s taint - was sacred, even if it meant being a pauper. And for him, it did.
During his life, his value system remained intact. Shortly before he died, bedridden, penniless, and mostly alone, he fired off a note to an editor in New York City who had messed with the outspoken prose in one of Paine’s final essays for the American Citizen.
“I, sir,” Paine wrote, “never permit any- one to alter anything that I write; you have spoiled the whole sense that it was meant to convey on the subject.”
His deathbed scene was perhaps the greatest example of Paine’s refusal to compromise.
Lapsing into unconsciousness, in agony from gangrenous bedsores, Paine woke occasionally to cry “Oh, Lord help me! Oh, Lord help me!” Convinced that Paine’s time on earth was nearly up, a physician and pastor named Manley took advantage of one of Paine’s last lucid moments to try to save his soul. “Allow me to ask again,” Manley inquired, “Do you believe - or let me qualify the question, Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?”
Incapable of acquiescence, even when it might have provided him some comfort, Paine uttered his quiet last words: “I have no wish to believe on that subject.” Small wonder one colonial wrote of him: “The name is enough. Every person has ideas of him. Some respect his genius and dread the man. Some reverence his political, while they hate his religious, opinions. Some love the man, but not his private manners. Indeed he has done nothing which has not extremes in it. He never appears but we love and hate him. He is as great a paradox as ever appeared in human nature.”
It’s easy to imagine Paine as a citizen of the new culture, issuing his fervent harangues from http://www.commonsense.com. He would be a cyber hell raiser, a net.fiend.
Picture him logging on from the small brown wooden cottage still standing on his New Rochelle farm - the one given him by New York State in appreciation of his services during the Revolutionary War. He would get up late, as always, breakfast on his customary tea, milk, and fruit. The six chairs downstairs would be piled high with pamphlets, magazines, printouts, discs, letters, papers, tracts, and research. Technologically challenged, Paine would have an older Macintosh he’d be loathe to replace. A friend would have given him the screen saver with the flying toasters, which he would scoff at as frivolous but love dearly. Friends, surely, would also have given him a PowerBook to write on when he had to retreat to his sick bed.
He might belong to contentious conferencing systems like The Well or Echo, but he would especially love cruising the more populist big boards - Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online. He would check into Time Online’s message boards and tear into Republicans and Democrats daily. He would e-mail the New England Journal of Medicine his tracts on the spread of disease, and pepper Scientific American’s home page with his ideas about bridges.
He would bombard Congress and the White House Internet site with proposals, reforms, and legislative initiatives, tackling the most explosive subjects head-on, enraging - at one time or another - everybody.
The Net would help enormously in his various campaigns, allowing him to call up research papers, download his latest tract, fire off hundreds of angry posts, and receive hundreds of replies.
They would hear from him soon enough in China and Iran, Croatia and Rwanda. He would not be happy to find a Royal Family still reigning in England, but he would be relieved to see George III’s heirs reduced to tabloid fodder. And he’d delight in seeing France a republic after all. He would emit nuclear flames from time to time, their recipients emerging singed and sooty. He would not use smileys. He would be flamed incessantly in turn.
He would be spared the excruciating loneliness he faced in later life on that modest farm, where neighbors shunned him, where visitors rarely came, and where he pored over newspapers for any news of his former friends’ lives. No longer an outcast, thanks to the Net, he would find at least as many kindred spirits as adversaries; his cyber mailbox would be eternally full.
It is here, perhaps, that the gap between Paine’s tradition and modern journalism seems the most poignant and stark. Journalism no longer seems to function as a community. Since it no longer shares a definable value system - a sense of outsiderness, a commitment to truth-telling, an inspiring ethical structure - journalists seem increasingly disconnected from one another as well as from the public.
Online, feuds rage and people storm at one another, but the vast digital news and information world contains many distinct communities. On bulletin boards and conferencing systems, there is already a moving and richly documented tradition of rushing to one another’s assistance, of viewing oneself as part of a collective culture. In America’s media capitals - New York, Washington, and LA - there seems to be no such sense of common ground.
Paine in particular might not find much friendship from other journalists. He would hate Manhattan media movers and shun them like the plague.
Paine would greatly prefer the chat room to the cocktail party. His notions of spare, direct writing would work beautifully on the Net, permitting him productivity and an audience even after his gout made traveling difficult. He would find himself, in fact, embarking on his greatest dream, to become a member of a “universal society, whose mind rises above the atmosphere of local thoughts and considers mankind, of whatever nation or profession they may be, as the work of one Creator.”
Life might be easier for him, but it would not be easy. Intense personal relationships would still elude him, but he seems a good candidate for one of those online romances that flourish all across cyberspace. Like some of his Net successors, his social skills were not substantial. He would still be reclusive and moody, too offensive to have dinner with Bill and Hillary, too combative to be lionized by academia, and too ornery to get hired by major media outlets. He would probably find most of today’s newspapers unbearably bland and write angry letters to editors canceling his subscriptions.
He and the massing corporate entities drooling over the Net would be instantly and ferociously at war as he recognized Time Warner, TCI, the Baby Bells, and Viacom as different incarnations of the same elements that scarfed up the press and homogenized it. He’d have lots to say about the so-called information highway and the government’s alleged role in shaping it. One of his pamphlets - this may be the only thing he’d have in common with Newt Gingrich - would surely propose means of getting more computers and modems into the hands of people who can’t afford them.
Instead of dying alone and in agony, Paine would spend his last days sending poignant e-mail all over the world from his deathbed via his PowerBook, arranging for his digital wake. He’d call for more humane treatment for the dying. He’d journal online about the shortcomings of medicine and the mystical experience of aging, while digging into his inexhaustible supply of prescriptions for the incalculable injustices that still afflict the world.
I know not whether any Man in the World has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine,” John Adams wrote to a friend after Paine’s death in 1809, “for such a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf, never before in any Age of the World was suffered by the Poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.”
It’s odd that so spectacular a force of media and political nature should be so vaguely remembered. Unfortunately for Paine, the historian Crane Brinton reminds us, revolutionaries need to die young or turn conservative in order not to lose favor with society. Paine did neither and fell from grace. Many of his reform programs will remain unacceptable to political conservatives and his religious views will always offend believing Christians. Though his memory is invoked from time to time, his resurrection will never be complete.
At the moment, though, he is showing signs of minor resurgence. In 1994, officials in Washington, DC, were considering funding a monument to him somewhere. And Sir Richard Attenborough, the famed British actor and director, has been struggling for several years to get studio backing for a film about Paine.
A Paine bio - featuring two bloody revolutions, standoffs with Napoleon, tangles with the British royals, and cameo roles for Washington, Jefferson, Robespierre, and his nemesis George III - would make a socko TV miniseries, too. Nigel Hawthorne could play Paine’s father, who intercepted his runaway teenage son in 1756 as he was about to board the Terrible, a privateer captained by a man named William Death. Heeding his father’s desperate plea, Paine didn’t sail. Shortly afterward, the Terrible was engaged by a French privateer, the Vengeance, and was horribly mauled. More than 150 members of its crew were killed, including Captain Death and all but one of his officers.
Anthony Hopkins could star in Rights of Man, playing the role of the Honourable Spencer Perceval, who stood up at the Guildhall in London to read out the sedition charges against the absent Paine in 1792 and accuse him of being “wicked, malicious, and ill-disposed.”
And imagine the scene of his near-execution. Paine went to France after the Revolutionary War as a hero and supporter of democratization there. But the French Revolution was far bloodier and more violent than the American. Paine tried to save King Louis XVI’s life and pleaded with the country’s new rulers to be merciful and democratic. Eventually, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. In June 1794, six months into his harrowing imprisonment, watching as hundreds of fellow prisoners were led off to be killed, Paine fell into a feverish semiconsciousness. His fellow cellmates barely kept him alive, mopping his brow, feeding him soup, and changing his clothes.
The prison governors were ordered to send him to the guillotine the next morning. At 6 a.m., a turnkey carrying Paine’s death warrant walked quietly down the prison corridors, chalking the cell doors of the condemned, marking the number 4 on the inside of Paine’s door. Usually the turnkey marked the outside of the door, but Paine was seriously ill, and his cellmates had been granted permission to leave the door open so that a breeze could help cool Paine’s profusely sweating body. That evening, the weather cooled, and Paine’s cellmates asked a different turnkey for permission to close the door. Knowing that the number on the door was now inward, the occupants of the cell waited, Paine murmuring on his cot. Near midnight, the death squad slowly made its way down the corridor, keys jangling, pistols drawn. One of his friends cupped his hand over Paine’s mouth. The squad paused, then moved on to the next cell.
A few days later, the Jacobin government was overthrown. A fellow prisoner said Paine had struggled to keep his democratic values alive in prison. “He was the confidant of the unhappy, the counselor of the perplexed; and to his sympathizing friendship many a devoted victim in the hour of death confided the last cares of humanity; and the last wishes of tenderness.”
Despite his close call, Paine stayed in France until 1802 when he managed, inevitably, to alienate Napoleon. At the invitation of Jefferson, he returned to the United States to a hostile welcome.
Although he had left the United States a revolutionary hero, Paine soon outraged the American clergy by publishing The Age of Reason. He infuriated the business community with his pro-labor writings in England and by publishing Agrarian Justice. He also wandered into the middle of increasingly vicious domestic politics. Federalists, looking for ground to attack Jefferson, seized upon his invitation to Paine to come home. Paine was savaged as a heretic, and as an unwashed, drunken infidel. He was attacked in columns and stories, insulted on the streets and in public places. Not only had the children forgotten the father, they had turned on him.
Paine didn’t see, writes Keane, “that he was among the first modern public figures to suffer firsthand an increasingly concentrated press equipped with the power to peddle one-sided interpretations of the world.”
Perhaps, if a movie is made and Paine becomes a focus of attention once more, somebody could locate his bones. That they are missing may be the most fitting postscript to his life. British journalist and Paine contemporary William Cobbett smarted at the way Paine had been neglected in his final years. Cobbett wrote, in his Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, under the pseudonym of Peter Porcupine: “Paine lies in a little hole under the grass and weeds of an obscure farm in America. There, however, he shall not lie, unnoticed, much longer. He belongs to England.”
Just before dawn one autumn night in 1819, Cobbett, his son, and a friend went to Paine’s New Rochelle farm - the hole under the grass is still there, marked by a plaque from the Thomas Paine National Historical Association - and dug up his grave, determined that Paine should have a proper burial in his native country. From there, the story becomes hazy. By most accounts, Cobbett fled with Paine’s bones but never publicly buried the remains. Some historians think he lost them overboard on the return voyage. But certain British newspapers report their being displayed in November 1819, in Liverpool.
After Cobbett’s death in 1835, his son auctioned off all his worldly goods, but the auctioneer refused to include the box that supposedly contained Paine’s bones. Years later, a Unitarian minister in England claimed to own Paine’s skull and right hand (though he wouldn’t show them to anybody). Parts of Paine, truly by now the “universal citizen” he wanted to be, have been reported turning up intermittently ever since. In the 1930s, a woman in Brighton claimed to own what clearly would be the best part of Paine to have - his jawbone. As historian Moncure Daniel Conway wrote a hundred years ago: “As to his bones, no man knows the place of their rest to this day. His principles rest not.”