Happy Birthday Tom Paine!

When I was being interviewed for a second six pupillage (at the chambers I’m currently still at), I was asked who my three ‘off beat’ heros were. One was Tom Paine. I still stand by that.

This is a man who kick-started two revolutions, was burned in effigy in England, wrote two of the best selling books of the 18th Century, and laid the intellectual foundations of the welfare state. Not bad going by any standards.

He is, by a long way, the best thing to have come out of Norfolk (not that there’s much competition) – Thetford to be precise. There’s now (I’m told) a small memorial to him there, but for such a heroic figure, he is sadly so little known. By way of example, a colleague from Chambers who went to Thetford to do a parole board hearing hadn’t really heard of him and had no idea why I expressed any jealousy.


For anyone in their 30s and looking for a career change, what can give us hope is that Paine didn’t take up writing until the age of 35, co-penning a pamphlet (in support of officers of what is now Customs & Excise). After various failed business and the collapse of his marriage, he cleared off to America at the age of 37.

Over the ocean, he found his destiny. He arrived towards the end of 1774 and starting writing. Just over a year later he published Common Sense setting forward his views on independence, republicanism and democracy. There was a bit of an argument about tea and taxes, and you probably know what happens next.

There are some great biographies of him that set out all the adventures in his life far better than I can, but everyone should read ‘Rights of Man‘ and ‘Common Sense‘. Michael Gove should really put them on the national curriculum.

He has been co-opted as a figure of the American right and, whilst he would approve of the call to liberty, he also set forward plans to alleviate poverty and take other social measures, all to be funded by progressive taxation (unlikely to find favour with the Tea Party). His views on religion (‘I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church’) would also be beyond the pale of most Americans.

Tomorrow, 9th February, would have been his 276th birthday. I think that it’s worth noting – he is one of the greatest men England has produced. We could use some of his passion and thoughts today.

One quote that the Daily Mail, Chris Grayling, and all Judges could well be reminded of :

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty” because it can accustom a nation “to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws

And another that all ‘tweeters’ should keep in mind :

I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.


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