Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Kramnick’

Radical Balladry and Prose for Proles: Tom Paine on the Evils of Aristocratic Rule

May 20, 2014

Common Sense Cover

One of the pieces collected by Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove in their anthology of democratic, republican, Socialist and radical texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, is an excerpt from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Paine was a committed democrat and revolutionary. He was born in Thetford, and made his living from making ladies’ stays, before emigrating to Pennsylvania in 1774. IN 1776 he published Common Sense, attacking British rule in America and demanding a revolutionary, republican government. He became a firm supporter of the French Revolution when it broke out, writing the Rights of Man in 1791 to answer the criticisms of the Revolution made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections of the Revolution in France. He was arrested and imprisoned as a suspected counter-revolutionary for arguing against the execution of the king. He was eventually released, and moved back to Britain.

Rickman, Paine’s friend, described him in 1819 was

In dress and person very cleanly. He wore his hair cued with side curls and powder like a French gentleman of the old school. His eye was full brilliant and piercing and carried in it the muse of fire.

The Rights of Man is the first complete statement of republican political ideas. In the passage included by Firth and Arnove, Paine argues against aristocratic rule and a House of Lords:

Title are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character which degrades it…

Hitherto we have considered aristocracy chiefly in one point of view. We have now to consider it in another. But whether we view it before or behind, or sideways, or anyway else, domestically or publicly, it is still a monster.

In France, aristocracy had one feature less in its countenance than what it has in some other countries. It did not compose a body of hereditary legislators. it was not ‘a corporation of aristocracy’, for such I have heard M. de la Fayette describe an English house of peers. Let us then examine the grounds upon which the French constitution has resolved against having such a house in France.

Because, in the first place, as is already mentioned, aristocracy is kept up by family tyranny and injustice.

2nd, Because there is an unnatural unfitness in an aristocracy to be legislators for a nation. Their ideas of distributive justice are corrupted at the very source. The begin life trampling on all their younger brothers and sisters, and relations of every kind, and are taught and educated to do so. With what ideas of justice or honor can that man enter a house of legislation, who absorbs in his own person the inheritance of a whole family of children, or metes out some pitiful portion with the insolence of a gift?

3rd, Because the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

4th, Because a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, o8ught not to be trusted by anybody.

5th, Because it is continuing the uncivilized principle of governments founded in conquest, and the base idea of man having property in man, and governing him by personal right.

6th, Because aristocracy has a tendency to degenerate the human species.

(Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) 108-9.)

More than 200,000 copies of the Rights of Man were sold in England, and Paine denounced by the authorities. The book was banned and its printer arrested. Nevertheless, the book continued to circulate underground, especially in Ireland and Scotland. It even inspired a hornpipe tune, a Scots version of which was included by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, in his collection of folk melodies, English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish Fiddle Tunes (New York: Oak Publications 1976). Here it is:

Tom Paine Hornpipe

Paine’s arguments are clear very relevant today, when reform of the House of Lords is very much on the political agenda following Tony Blair, and with a cabinet of Tory and Tory Democrat aristos, like David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, and Iain Duncan Smith, who have no knowledge of and absolutely no sympathy for ordinary people. They seem to see us very much as their ancestors did: as proles, peasants and ‘rude mechanicals’, to be exploited, whilst government should be very firmly held in the hands of an aristocratic elite.

An edition of Paine’s Common Sense, edited and with an introduction by Isaac Kramnick, was published by Penguin Books in 1976.