Thursday, 22 January 2009

The rights of man

Ben McIntyre spots Barack Obama's exhumation of Tom Paine in the inaugural speech and rightly outlines the Englishman's influence on the American revolution. I'm not quite sure he's an 'unsung hero' but that's just nitpicking.

What is equally interesting is Tom Paine's influence on English (and by extension, British) politics. A book that is long overdue a comeback is E.P.Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. He ses the ideas of Tom Paine, especially The Rights of Man as critical to the formation of a revolutionary class- the working class. Things are never neat in English history so our revolution took well over a century to gradually come to fruition. It was the works of Tom Paine in the context of the French revolution that provoked the brutal suppression of free speech and other fundamental rights in the 1790s.

The Rights of Man, banned by the government of Pitt, sold 100,000s of copies in a population that was little over 10million.

His ideas never quite went away and became internalised by the new working classes. When the labour movement, the Chartists, and other reformist and even revolutionary groups sought to fundamentallly change the nature of Britain's politics, economy and society, the ideas of Tom Paine, who above all else was a democrat, were never far away.

And before the obvious unthinking sexism in the title The Rights of Man is pointed out, his work was not irrelevant in provoking and inspiring Mary Wollestonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. That remained the text in argument of gender equality until universal suffrage had been achieved well into the twentieth century.

Tom Paine is indeed a great thinker and inspirer in the American story. He is part of our heritage as well.

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