13 June 2009

Welcome to Paine's County

By Lee Marsden

While visitors to Norfolk are welcomed by road signs proudly proclaiming that Norfolk is "Nelson's County" last weekend's bicentennial celebrations in Thetford demonstrate that honour rightfully belongs to Norfolk's greatest son, Thomas Paine. Paine is one of the most politically significant figures of modernity, a leading figure and inspiration in the American and French revolutions that helped shape the modern world. A Thetford boy who attended Thetford Grammar School before becoming a corset maker, excise officer and then, after a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin, a major political figure on both sides of the Atlantic. The University of East Anglia and Thomas Paine Society hosts a biannual Thomas Paine lecture, and UEA's politics department awards its best student with the Thomas Paine prize each year, but for many Norfolk residents Paine remains largely unappreciated. Throughout the summer and autumn, however, Thetford hosts a variety of events to commemorate the life of this great thinker.

Paine challenged the existing order of his day, writing three of the greatest political tracts ever written which still have resonance. In 1776, Common Sense became the best selling book of the eighteenth century, selling 125,000 copies in just three months in a population of just two and a half million people in the thirteen American colonies. Paine made the case for American independence, railed against the monarchy, inheritance and privilege, arguing in favour of representative democratic government, and to establish America as a safe haven for the world's oppressed. Written in two parts The Rights Of Man in 1791 and 1792 offered justification for the French revolution, opposed hereditary rule as being as "absurd as a hereditary mathematician", sought elected leaders, term limits, a judiciary acceptable to the public, redistribution of income, pensions, state education, a system of welfare benefits, the end of wage restrictions, a complete separation of church and state and the abolition of the monarchy. Finally, in 1794 and 1795 Paine wrote the Age of Reason, the application of reason to the Bible. In exposing inaccuracies and contradictions within the Bible, Paine produced a far more devastating critique of religion than anything produced by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens; suggesting that "the whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum".

Paine was vilified in his home country for attacking the monarchy, in France for opposing the execution of the King, and in America for opposing religion. And yet, throughout the ages, Paine has continued to inspire those who believe that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood". In a year that has been marked by the greed of bankers and politicians, the death throes of the New Labour project, the upsurge in support for racist and Little England parties, and the inability of the leader of the opposition to articulate any coherent policies, the memory of Thomas Paine behoves us to rediscover the radicalism that inspired previous generations. To read Thomas Paine's work is to again be challenged about the potential of political engagement to change the world. Paine fought to defend and advance democracy, to oppose inheritance and privilege, to oppose offensive warfare, and to defend reason and secularism against religious fundamentalism.

Thomas Paine is radical and an antidote to a political culture that is more impressed by presentation than substance, is more concerned about personality than character, and is more concerned about self rather than community. Paine believed that a better world was possible and set about doing something to achieve it, and so can we. So let's celebrate that inheritance and be proud that we live in "Paine's County".

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