Thursday, 20 August 2009

Thomas Paine - Champion of the Common Man - at Salford Museum and Art Gallery

‘Government in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one’. These words, written by the political thinker Thomas Paine over 200 years ago, still ring true today, and a new exhibition about Paine’s life at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery reminds us of what we have learned from him. The words, which are among Paine’s best known, are taken from the book with which he made his name in 1776, the hugely influential Common Sense.

A foreword to the exhibition by Tony Benn sets Paine up as a ‘symbol of change’. Benn argues Paine’s dictum that ‘God did not make rich and poor. He made man and woman’ is just as true now, and points out that with the British political system in a time of great uncertainty today, we could do well to look again at his theories. We’re told Paine, who argued for an elected head of state, the welfare state and end in state involvement in trade, would be ‘shocked’ if he knew that there is still no world peace, and that Britain still has a monarchy, unelected peers and no written constitution.

In Rights of Man: Part One, Paine argued that ‘the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries’. His warning against a government that is ‘accountable to nobody and not trusted by anybody’ is just as relevant today, with growing calls for electoral reform and confidence in politicians plummeting with every new scandal and blunder.

Paine was a great advocate for the need for a written constitution, saying it should codify ‘everything that relates to the complete organisation of a civil government, and the principles on which it should rule and by which it should be bound’.

He would be dismayed that so many of his beliefs, which we take for granted today, were only achieved in relatively recent times: universal suffrage, free universal education, old age pensions and the abolition of slavery and the death penalty (the death penalty was only abolished in Britain in 1969, France in 1981 and still has yet to be ended in America).

Born in in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737, the son of a corset maker, Paine took advantage of a grammar school education to become versed in reason and science and debate the ideas of the Enlightenment. The exhibition sets the scene of a grim eighteenth century life which was at the mercy of the wealthy and aristocratic. In Thetford, out of a population of 30,000, only 20 men could vote. Public executions were common, with the condemned having no right to defence. Unsurprisingly, Paine had a thirst for adventure and, after meeting Benjamin Franklin, set off for the New World, where he became a campaigner for revolution.

Paine was a passionate driving force behind the American and French revolutions, as well as an advocate of Irish Independence; in Common Sense, he claimed ‘we have it in our power to begin the world over again’. He convinced George Washington of the need for revolution, to end American’s governance from afar by the British monarchy, and even coined the phrase United States of America. He also spent time in France, where he wrote Rights of Man: Part One as a retort to the conservative thinker Edmund Burke’s attack on the French revolution.

Yet the exhibition, which is comprised of material from the archives of the nearby Working Class Movement Library, argues that Paine’s most important legacy is his championing of the rights of the common man; Paine said we should endeavour to ‘make our fellow creatures happy’, and that man should ‘respect his neighbour, to do as he would be done by’.

Paine wrote his books in plain English, and produced inexpensive editions of his works which became best sellers and were read aloud to the illiterate. As well as early editions, the exhibition displays cartoons and satire based on Paine’s work. Naturally, this spread of ideas panicked the establishment, who tried to prosecute Paine for libel.

The exhibition also displays works by Paine’s contemporaries, alongside writers and movements on which Paine had an influence, including Chartism and women’s rights. Paine was an inspiring individual: he was also an inventor, and the exhibition shows it wasn’t just his political ideas in which he was ahead of his time - he invented an innovative bridge, the design of which is still in use today.

There are plenty of fact sheets and lists of quotes to take away, as well as recommendations for further reading in the WCLM’s archives. As Veronica Trick, volunteer co-ordinator at the Library, said: “If our Library had a patron saint it’d be Thomas Paine. He’s so much the starting point, both chronologically and ideologically, for working class history.”

Thomas Paine, The Voice of the Common People
Salford Art Gallery
Peel Park
M5 4WU
Until November 22

Working Class Movement Library
51 The Crescent
M5 4WX

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.