An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. -Thomas Paine
On this date in 1794, revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine got a date with the guillotine when the public prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville put his name on the list for the next batch of heads.
Paine — “Mad Tom” to foes of his fire-eating opposition to despotic church and crown — is best-known for his part in the American Revolution; his pamphlet “Common Sense” made an incendiary and influential case for revolution.
More so than any other high-profile compatriot in the cause of American independence, Paine took to heart the age’s revolutionary spirit, the fine principles of solidarity, the zeal to put life and fortune at liberty’s service.
Not content to retire to the estate granted him for his services to the fledgling United States of America — Paine coined that name, by the way — the hellraiser sailed for the Old World to help overthrow the sclerotic Bourbon despotism whose geopolitically-minded aid* had had such material effect for American liberty.
Paine served in France’s National Convention, one of the highest-profile and least-impeachable members of that body as well as one of only two foreigners. These distinctions offered him some safety in the Revolution’s internecine tempests — some, but not quite enough. He drew the ire of the Montagnards by opposing the execution of Louis XVI.
The terrible gears of mass fratricide which apparently doomed Paine as the Terror unfolded turned out to be his refuge, and that of three fortunate fellows with him. Had he gone to the scaffold as a single high-profile traitor, there would have been no mistake about it; now, at the height of the Terror, jailers marked dozens for death by the fallible expedient of chalking their cell doors. If the guillotine made mass execution feasible, the bureaucratic apparatus to manage it was still catching up.
Here’s the version of a Paine’s preservation that he himself later related — albeit second-hand, since he was suffering this day “a violent fever which had nearly terminated my existence” and “was not in a condition to be removed, or to know of what was passing, or of what had passed, for more than a month. It makes a blank in my remembrance of life. The first thing I was informed of was the fall of Robespierre.”
[T]he manner in which I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.
The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow-prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuile, of Bruges, since president of the municipality of that town, Michael Robins, and Bastini, of Louvain.
When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they, knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.
During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate.
Presumably this would have been a short reprieve, had not Jacobin rule (and rulers) promptly expired.
We noticed two days ago the U.S. mission’s willingness to exert itself for Lafayette’s wife, who surely had not done better service for the American Revolution than had Paine himself.
Paine waited in vain for American intervention, and was incandescent with rage at George Washington and his envoy Gouverneur Morris for abandoning him (Morris was replaced by the more Paine-friendly James Monroe a few weeks later). In a wide-ranging 1796 denunciation of Washington’s conduct and American political tilt towards Britain and away from France, Paine accused his country** of giving the Jacobins the green light to cut off a gadfly’s head.
Could I have known to what degree of corruption and perfidy the administrative part of the Government of America had descended, I could have been at no loss to have understood the reservedness of Mr. Washington toward me, during my imprisonment in the Luxembourg. There are cases in which silence is a loud language.
Soon after I was put into arrestation and imprisonment in the Luxembourg, the Americans who were then in Paris went in a body to the bar of the Convention to reclaim me. They were answered … that I was born in England, and … their reclamation of me was only the act of individuals, without any authority from the American Government.
A few days after this, all communication from persons imprisoned to any person without the prison was cut off by an order of the police. I neither saw, nor heard from, anybody for six months; and the only hope that remained to me was that a new Minister would arrive from America to supersede Morris …
One hundred and sixty-nine were taken out of the Luxembourg one night, in the month of July, and one hundred and sixty of them guillotined. A list of two hundred more, according to the report in the prison, was preparing a few days before Robespierre fell. In this last list I have good reason to believe I was included. A memorandum in the hand-writing of Robespierre was afterwards produced in the Convention, by the committee to whom the papers of Robespierre were referred, in these words:
Demander que Thomas Payne soit de decrete d’accusation pour les interets de l’Amerique, autant que de la France.
I had then been imprisoned seven months, and the silence of the Executive part of the Government of America (Mr. Washington) upon the case, and upon everything respecting me, was explanation enough to Robespierre that he might proceed to extremities.
This venomous open letter and the deistic tract The Age of Reason he was banging out during the Revolution, combined with the frightening turn of the French Revolution itself, helped send Paine’s public regard into decline. “Atheist,” they tutted, and he’s been the most untouchable Founding Father ever since.
Next year is the bicentennial of his death in obscurity and pauperhood; his homelessness, so to say, in the annals of political thought and national pantheons testifies in some ways to the defeat his principles suffered in his very lifetime. The American Revolution turned conservative; France’s fell to despotism; England’s was strangled in its crib.
Even so, he fired the imaginations of many troublemakers still to come. A man of no wealth or position who etched in fire the spirit of his times, Paine saw further and spoke plainer than most of his contemporaries. If a prophet is not welcome in his own country, it scarcely diminishes the power of the prophecy.
|And/or, enjoy this free biography at Google Books.|
* Given by the French crown in opposition to France’s great rival Britain, of course.
** Paine certainly considered himself American, though he wouldn’t have made that inconsistent with being French, too. The matter of his citizenship between England (where his pamphlets had him attainted in absentia on a capital charge), France and the United States was a contested one at a time when the very notion was being reforged in the heat of revolution; at any rate, as diplomatic pretext for failing to ask for his life, citizenship makes a feeble excuse.
Republican radicals in England didn’t mind claiming him as their own, developing this alternate lyric sheet to the national anthem:[audio:God_Save_the_Queen.mp3]
God save great Thomas Paine
His ‘Rights of Man’ explain
To every soul.
He makes the blind to see
What dupes and slaves they be,
And points out liberty,
From pole to pole.
Thousands cry ‘Church and King’
That well deserve to swing,
All must allow:
Birmingham blush for shame,
Manchester do the same,
Infamous is your name,
Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.