He has a statue and a hotel named after him in the town where he was born, but how many Thetford people really know who Thomas Paine was? It’s a question a few of those who do know have been asking, with some justification.
And it’s not just in Thetford that the author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason is less well known than he should be.
A dozen years ago, in a poll run by the BBC, Paine was placed 34th in a list of the 100 “greatest Britons”. Just above him were a so-so footballer, David Beckham, and a slightly better than so-so comedian, Eric Morecambe, which says everything about how seriously that poll should be taken.
Of course, it’s impossible to name the greatest Briton with anything resembling scientific objectivity. But if it could be done, Paine would be a contender for the title, alongside Shakespeare, Darwin and Newton.
In its day (it was published in 1791), The Rights of Man was a million-seller, probably the most widely read book in the world after the Bible and Koran.
Paine can’t really be said to be responsible for either the American or French revolutions, but he provided the intellectual justification for them.
And since it’s hard to imagine Karl Marx without the giant shoulders of Paine for him to stand on, you might say he had a big hand in the Russian revolution too.
Not that Paine (or Marx) should be blamed for all the horrors the revolutions wrought. His concern was always to make life better for the common man (and woman).
His writing, and his thinking, were clearer than Marx’s too.
Broadly speaking, he was against monarchy and for democracy. Against the private ownership of land. For factory workers and against factory owners. Against capital punishment (which he twice came close to suffering himself). For liberty, equality and fraternity.
His ideas made him popular, and then unpopular, in both America and France, in both of which countries he became an honorary citizen.
His claim of American nationality almost certainly saved him from execution in England as a traitor for his polemic against the “tyranny” of George III – and for encouraging the idea of a French invasion to spread the revolution.
By the time the invasion came close to reality, France was under the rule of Napoleon – a tyrant Paine regarded, rightly, as a traitor to the revolution. (Much as Stalin would be to the Russian revolution, but that is another story.)
Understandably unpopular with the ruling and property-owning classes, Paine – the son of a corsetmaker and educated at Thetford Grammar School – was never a traitor to the working class of this or any country.
The fact that he eventually fell out of favour in America, whose independence he had done so much to encourage, was largely due to his opposition to two things the new Americans held dear – slavery and religion.
Not that Paine was non-religious. He believed in God, just not in church.
“All national institutions of churches,” he wrote, “whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” And amen, say I, to that.
Once one of the most popular men in America and the friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, he had just six mourners at his funeral in New York in 1809.
Back in 1776, one of Paine’s American opponents, James Chalmers, had argued that if the colony rejected the British monarchy, the country would “degenerate into democracy”. It would take the clear thinking of a Thomas Paine to untangle all the ironies in that.
Knocking down the Mail (can’t really call it Royal any more) at a fraction of its real value. Piecemeal privatising, de-professionalising and de-skilling of teaching. Is there anything this tawdry government won’t sell?
Now there is talk that the next vital thing to go under the hammer could be access to NHS care records.
Had a drug problem? A sexually transmitted disease? A mental health issue? An abortion? Heart trouble? Cancer? Until now, these things were private matters between you and your GP.
But soon private companies may be able to buy all this information from the new universal patient database.
What they get shouldn’t include your name and address (though NHS staff can already put it all together with a few clicks of a mouse). But it will all be linked to your postcode, gender and ethnicity, so a little automated cross-checking against other databases could make it very personal indeed.
You can imagine how insurance companies might take advantage of such knowledge. And how that might work in a future where health care is increasingly placed in private hands.
Well, it works in America, doesn’t it?
Before you settle happily for an increasingly Americanised, post-NHS future, just consider these figures:
- 62 per cent of US bankruptcies are the result of medical bills
- 75 pc of those bankrupted had health insurance before they became sick.