Thomas Paine, drawn by Roger Davidson, from The New Humanist, June 2009. Click here.
London, 1774. An interpretation.
Thomas Paine, 37 years old, was in trouble. He was in a boatload of trouble. He had written a pamphlet (surprise, surprise) criticizing the Crown’s excise tax collecting system, and guess what – it wasn’t well received. He asked his friends what in the world he was going to do and to a man they said something like, “I don’t know what you should do, but try and stay the hell away from me!”
In London, a scientist friend and member of the Excise Board said, “I can’t help you either but perhaps you should go see a man from the American Colonies living here, maybe he can suggest something. oh yeah, and don’t call me, I’ll call you!”
Scholarship is iffy about where and how Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin actually met. Howard Fast, in his wonderful novel and stage play, Citizen Tom Paine, suggested they met in Franklin’s office. But hey, Fast was under investigation by Senator Joe McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee, and may have been loath to suggest the obvious, that they met in a pub. At least that’s where I put them first shaking hands.
|Ben Franklkn, seen here playing his
invention, the glass harmonica..
In any event, the conversation between Franklin and Paine was a short one.
Franklin: I know you, you’re Tom Paine, I read your pamphlet on the tax. Nice job, on the pamphlet, I mean. I’m a bit of a printer myself.
Paine: Thanks, but I think I may be in a bit of a pickle.
Franklin: Well if you’re referring to your future here in England, I feel it’s safe to say – you don’t have one.
Paine: WTF am I gonna do?
Franklin: Well, you can stay here and spend the rest of your now very short life in irons, sick, diseased, and starving to death, or maybe they’ll just lop off your head. But the King usually likes to set an example with his felons, heretics, and seditious types, such as yourself, so he’ll probably let his boys have some fun with you first. Disembowelment is all the rage. I understand the Royal Carver is pretty handy w a rusty blade.
Paine: I was really hoping for something a little more, upbeat.
Franklin: Well, in that case, here, I’ll write you a couple of letters of introduction. I’ll say you’re a good printer and not bad with a turn of phrase or some such. But you’ll have to cross the pond to Philadelphia for them to do you any good.
Paine: Awesome! I can’t wait to get my ass out of England!
What Happened Next: Tom Paine In Philadelphia, 1774-1776
When Thomas Paine’s boat docked in Philly from England late in 1774, he tumbled down the gangplank sick as a dog. A few weeks later he was up and running. He had contacted a few folks recommended by his new pal Ben Franklin, back in England, and was slowly getting the lay of the land. One of his first impressions in his new hometown was, to him, absolutely astonishing! He noticed that in the local pubs, magistrates and bankers, tradesmen and laborers, and even leather and feather clad natives, were gathering under one roof to break bread, quaff tasty beverages, and gab about the events of the day! To you this may not seem much to write home about, but in the world from which Tom Paine had just landed it was nothing short of world shaking! Different classes of people gathering under one roof? Sharing opinions? Where Paine came from, you could fuggeddabouddit!
The next thing he noticed, once his ear adjusted to the lively texture of the lingo, was that the chatter in the pubs had changed from the chest-beating bombast of the “Shot heard ’round the world” in Lexington & Concord to a more plaintive, “Oh, holy crap, Batman! WTF are we gonna do? We just shot and killed some soldiers from the most powerful nation on earth! What are we going to say when they get here? Tell ’em we’re sorry? Pay for some extra stamps?” Worried that this new idea of appeasing the Crown might actually be getting some traction, he went home and sat down to write.
Listen, he said, (I’m paraphrasing here) you people don’t know who you’re dealing with! You’re real proud about asserting your independence and shooting a few red coats, but get it through your heads! The British army and navy are on their way, and instead of wondering what your going to say when they get here, you should be thinking very very seriously about how you’re going to protect yourselves! Further, Paine used the occasion to administer a minor lesson in contemporary economics. The British Empire, he informed his readers, was broke. Its vast army and navy were costing much more than the empire was bringing in. The taxes and profits from trade with their colonies weren’t keeping up with their military machine. What the British war machine requires isn’t your taxes, nor your loyalty, nor the value of your trade. What it requires now is PLUNDER!
The British GOADED you into firing the first shot! They’ve been trying to drag you into a fight all along! And once you spilled their blood, they now feel justified to come and put you down once and for all, to rob you of everything you’ve got!
Is there a modern term for the syndrome of a child repeating the sins of his or her parents? Think of Paine’s observation of the British goading the colonies into a fight when you revisit our own more recent history: The Gulf Of Tonkin, the WMD, the Battleship Maine, and the Spanish American War…
NEXT: America is Born! — STAY TUNED…..
Thomas Paine celebrates his 271st birthday on Saturday, January 29. Think something radical in his honor. For more on Paine, click here for “Freedom’s Foghorn” by Roger Davidson. And if you have not read Paine’s book Common Sense, read it now !!!!! Get a free copy from our friends at TheCapitol.Net at http://www.thecapitol.net/Publications/PaineCommonSense.html
James J. Patterson, author of Bermuda Shorts and co-founder of Alan Squire Publishing, describes himself this way: “I’m the man the first ten amendments to the American Constitution were intended to protect. I’ve read them, memorized a few even, and I can tell you, until further notice, I’m watching my back.” Read the Bill of Rights. Visit him at jamesjpatterson.com/
Roger Davidson, creator of the striking drawing of Paine at the top, is a British illustrator and artist living in Canada. Visit him at http://www.rogerdavidsonillustration.com/.