F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.01 - May 1995

The Age of Paine

By Jon Katz

If any father has been forsaken by his children, it is Thomas Paine. Statues of the man should greet incoming journalism students; his words should be chiselled above newsroom doors and taped to laptops, guiding the communications media through their many travails, controversies and challenges. Not so. A fuzzy historical figure of the 1700s, Paine is remembered mostly for one or two sparkling patriotic quotes - "These are the times that try men's souls" - but little else.

Yet Thomas Paine, Professional Revolutionary, was one of the first to use media as a powerful weapon against an entrenched array of monarchies, feudal lords, dictators, and repressive social structures. He invented political journalism, creating almost by himself a mass reading public aware for the first time of its right to read controversial opinions and to participate in politics.

Between his birth in 1737 and his death in 1809, enormous political upheavals turned the Western World upside down - and Paine was in the middle of the biggest. His writings put his own life at risk in every country he ever lived - in America for rebellion, in England for sedition, and in France for his insistence on a merciful and democratic revolution. At the end of his life, he was shunned by the country he helped create, reviled as an infidel, forced to beg friends for money, denied the right to vote, refused burial in a Quaker cemetery. His grave was desecrated. His remains were stolen.

A popular old nursery rhyme about Paine could as easily be sung today:

Poor Tom Paine! there he lies:
Nobody laughs and nobody cries.
Where he has gone or how he fares,
Nobody knows and nobody cares.
Certainly that's true of today's media. The modern-day press has become thoroughly disconnected from this brilliant, lonely, socially-awkward ancestor who pioneered the concept of the uncensored flow of ideas and developed a new kind of communications - journalism - in the service of the then-radical proposition that people should control their own lives.

In the US, his memory has been tended in the main by a few determined academics and historians, and a stubborn little historical society in New Rochelle, NY, where he spent most of his final, impoverished days. In Britain, the Thomas Paine Society (president, Michael Foot MP) is widely regarded as no more than a harmless hobby for old lefties.

But if journalism and the rest of the country has forgotten Paine, why should we remember another of history's lost souls?

Because Paine is for the taking and he is worth having. If the old media - newspapers, magazines, radio, and television - have abandoned their father, the new media - computers, cable and the Internet - can and should adopt him. If the press has lost contact with its spiritual and ideological roots, the new media culture can claim them as its own.

For Paine does have a descendent, a place where his values prosper and are validated millions of times a day: the Internet. There, his ideas about communications, media ethics, the universal connections between people, the free flow of honest opinion are all relevant again, visible every time one modem shakes hands with another.

The Net offers what Paine and his revolutionary colleagues hoped for in their own new media - a vast, diverse, passionate, global means of transmitting ideas and opening minds. That was part of the political transformation he envisioned when he wrote: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Through media, he believed, "we see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used."

Tom Paine's ideas, the example he set of free expression, the sacrifices he made to preserve the integrity of his work, are being resuscitated by means that hadn't existed or been imagined in his day - via the blinking cursors, clacking keyboards, hissing modems, bits and databytes of another revolution, the digital one. If Paine's vision was aborted by the new technologies of the last century, newer technology has brought his vision full circle. If his values no longer have much relevance for conventional journalism, they fit the Net like a glove.

Paine's life and the birth of American media prove that information media were never meant to be just another industry. The press had a familiar and profoundly inspiring moral mission when it was conceived: information wants to be free. Media existed to spread ideas, to allow fearless argument, to challenge and question authority, to set a common social agenda.

Asked about the reasons for new media, Paine would have answered in a flash: to advance human rights, spread democracy, ease suffering, pester government. Modern journalists would have a much rougher time with the question. There is no longer much widespread consensus, among practitioners or consumers, about journalism's practices and goals.

Of course, the ferociously spirited press of the late 1700s that Paine helped invent was a very different institution, dominated by individuals expressing their opinions. The idea that ordinary citizens with no special resources, expertise or political power - like Paine himself - could sound off, reach wide audiences, even touch off revolutions, was brand new to the world.

But Paine could not have foreseen how fragile and easily overwhelmed these values and forms of expression would be when they collided with free-market economics. The rotary press and other printing technologies that made it possible for him to broadcast his pamphlets also led newspaper publishers to make papers tamer and more moderate so that their numerous new customers wouldn't be offended. Paine once warned a Philadelphia newspaper editor about the distinction between editorial power and the freedom of the press. It was a caution neither the editor nor his increasingly wealthy and powerful successors took to heart: "If the freedom of the press is to be determined by the judgment of the printer of a newspaper in preference to that of the people, who when they read will judge for themselves, the freedom is on a very sandy foundation."

So it is. But if the old media has blithely ignored Paine, it is incumbent upon the new to pay heed. The digital age is young, ascending, diverse, and already nearly as arrogant and, in parts, as greedy as the mass media it is supplanting. It faces enormous danger from government, from corporations which also control much of the traditional media, from commercialisation, and from its own chaotic growth.

Paine is a guide, the conscience that can help new media remember the past in order not to repeat it. He can cut across time.

Paine often introduced his most controversial ideas formally and courteously: "The following notion is put under your protection. You will do us the justice to remember that he who denies the right of every man or woman to his own opinion makes a slave of him or herself, because they preclude the right of changing their own minds."

This notion is put under your protection, too: Thomas Paine is the illegitimate father of the Internet. Thomas Paine should be our hero.

The sad part of Paine's story is that it's necessary to pause here and tell it to those who may have never heard any of it. He lived a life that would make the cheesiest Hollywood screenwriter blush. Born in England in 1737, he ran away from home to sail as a privateer, then worked as a staymaker and matched wits with smugglers as a customs collector. He quit to lobby Parliament for better pay for himself and fellow customs collectors. He lost his job but met Benjamin Franklin, who urged him to move to America, and with whom he maintained a lifelong correspondence.

One of the regulars at Independence Hall, Paine was a philosophical soulmate of Thomas Jefferson. He fought and froze with his buddy George Washington at Valley Forge. George III badly wanted to hang Paine because he helped touch off the American Revolution with his writings, then tried him for sedition after Paine had the gall to return to England and lobby for an end to the monarchy.

He fled to France, where the bloodthirstier leaders of the Revolution ordered him killed because he urged leniency for the members of the overthrown regime and because they feared he would alert Americans to their increasingly undemocratic uprising. Clergymen all over the world cursed him for his heretic religious views. Businessmen despised him even more for his radical views about labour.

In between was high drama, great daring, narrow scrapes - wandering Revolutionary War battlefields dodging British bullets, fleeing England 20 minutes ahead of warrants ordering his arrest, coming within hours of being guillotined in Paris. Paine seemed to live most happily in boiling hot water.

The Big Concept man of his time, the deep ideas he advanced still resonate: An end to monarchies and dictatorships. American independence from England, of course. International federations to promote development and maintain peace. Rights and protections for labourers. An end to slavery. Equal rights for women. Re-distribution of land. Opposition to organised religion as a cruel illusion or a corrupt hoax. Public education, public employment, assistance for the poor, pensions for the elderly. And above all, a fearless press that told the truth, gave voice to individual citizens, tolerated opposing points of view, transcended provincialism and was accessible to the poor as well as the rich.

He was as astonishingly productive as he must have been obnoxious, mouthing off about everything from yellow fever to iron-bridge construction. Although he wrote countless articles and pamphlets, his core works are four powerful, sometimes beautifully written, flaming-with-indignation essays.

"Common Sense" was the argument for independence which helped spark the American Revolution. "Rights of Man", an essay written in support of the French Revolution, attacked hereditary monarchies and called for universal democracy and human rights. "The Age Of Reason" challenged the logic behind organised religion's grip on much of the Western World, and "Agrarian Justice" called for radical reforms in the world economy, especially in land ownership. The first three constituted the three best-selling works of the 18th Century.

In 1774 Paine was 37 and arrived in Philadelphia with little more than a letter of reference from Franklin. He landed a job as executive editor of a new publication called Pennsylvania Magazine. In January of 1776, "Common Sense" went on sale for two shillings.

"Common Sense" became America's first bestseller, with more than 120,000 copies sold in its first three months, and possibly as many as half a million its first year - this in a country whose population was three million. Newspapers, then crammed with controversial viewpoints, scrambled to reprint it.

It had, wrote a contemporary historian, "produced most astonishing effects; and been received with vast applause, read by almost every American; and recommended as a work replete with truth." It was nicely written, too, one of the first and most dramatic of the anthems and calls-to-arms that run through Paine's writing.

The cause of America, wrote Paine, was the cause of all mankind. "O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."

Paine's democratic republicanism had deep British roots. He might have been influenced by some of the world's earliest, least-known and best political journalists such as the late 17th-century pamphleteers Sir William Molesworth and Walter Moyle. Such high-brow English republicans had no notions of democracy or universal suffrage - not to mention representative government, which they considered anarchic and dangerous. Those were Paine's additions. He broadened his definitions of "the people" to include labourers, slaves, women, fisherman, and artisans. Paine's writings about these new notions of democracy in Common Sense, wrote Jefferson, "rendered useless almost everything written before on the structures of government."

The publication of "Rights Of Man" made Paine the most controversial figure in Britain. He was followed by government spies, targeted for propaganda attacks and gossip campaigns. He experienced more fear than ever before, and for the first time, was threatened with loss of freedom of speech. No book had ever sold like it in Britain. By May of l792, 50,000 copies had been sold. "Rights Of Man" broke every existing publishing record. There was only one possible outcome to Paine's challenge to the monarchy and the government of William Pitt, and his defence of the revolutionary stirrings in France.

On May 21, the government issued a summons ordering Paine to appear in court on charges of seditious libel, which carried a possible - and probable - death penalty. At the end of the first week of September, his trial looming, Paine's friend the poet William Blake warned him not to go to his house or he would be killed. On September 13, he fled to Dover, boarding a ship to Calais and France while an angry dockside crowd jeered.

Three months later, The Honourable Spencer Perceval rose in Guildhall to denounce Paine as a traitor and a drunk. Defenders of Paine's republican notions failed to impress the jury. Mr Campbell, the jury foreman explained that he had been instructed by his brother jurors to save time by avoiding deliberations and delivering an immediate verdict - guilty. Thousands of Paine supporters had gathered outside, shouting chants of "Paine for ever!" and "Paine and the liberty of the press!"

Herewith, to be put under your protection, some of the more striking connections between the Net and its spiritual father. Paine would have loved the Internet's inclusiveness. For Paine, moving ideas from one place to another at all was a spiritual notion, a miraculous vision. He imagined a global means of communication, one in which the boundaries between the sender and receiver were cleared away.

The freedom to send and receive these ideas was, to Paine, one of the fundamental rights of mankind. And it was the essence of media. He shared this notion most intensely with his soulmate Thomas Jefferson. The two corresponded constantly about how ideas were conceived and moved.

Paine called for a "universal society", one whose citizens trans-cended their narrow interests and considered humankind as one entity. "My country is the world," he wrote. The Internet has, in fact, redefined citizenship as well as communications. It is the first world-wide medium in which people can communicate so directly, so quickly, so personally and so reliably. Where computers are plentiful, digital communications are nearly uncensorable.

This reality gives our moral and media guardians fits; they still tend to portray the computer culture as an out-of-control menace harbouring perverts, hackers, pornographers and thieves. But Paine would have known better. The political, economic and social implications of an interconnected global medium are enormous, making plausible Paine's belief in the "universal citizen".

He would recognise the Net's style and language too. Paine believed that media should speak in short, spare, unadorned language that everyone could understand. His writing brims with humour, sarcasm, exaggeration and paradox. He was the first modern political writer, writes John Keane in Tom Paine: A Political Life, the newest and perhaps the best of the Paine biographies "to experiment with the art of writing democratically and for democratic ends. He hammered out a colloquial style that eschewed meaningless sentences, purple passages and general humbug because he considered the highest duty of political writers was to irritate their country's government."

Reading Paine is eerie after spending time online in online political conferences on the WELL, say, or poring through the most provocative e-mail. From "smiley" emoticons to reasoned arguments to raging flames to the staccato shorthand (LOL, IMHO) of countless e-mailers, digital communications are spare, blunt, economic and efficient. Paine's style is the style of the Internet; his voice and language could slip comfortably into its debates and discussions.

If Paine would feel at home there, he would also fight to protect this nascent medium. Learning what had happened to the media he founded as corporations moved in, he would spot commercialisation as Danger Number One. He believed in a press that was not monopolistic but filled, as it was in his time, with individual voices, one that was cheap, accessible, fiercely outspoken. He believed that media like the Net - many citizens talking to many other citizens - were essential to free government.

He was right: Journalism's exclusion of outside voices and fear of publishing any but moderate opinions has made it difficult for the country to come to grips with some of its most sensitive issues - race, gender, violence. Media overwhelmed and monopolised by large corporations, inaccessible to individual people and motivated primarily by profit was the literal antithesis of Paine's life, his work and his vision for the press.

We could use his clear direction at a time when mainstream media are losing their ethical grounding. Paine would never appear on talk shows or garner fat speaking fees. At one point during the Revolutionary War - when he was completely broke, as usual - he was offered a thousand pounds a year by the French government to write and publish articles in support of the Franco-American alliance against Britain. Paine said no. He told friends that the principle at stake - the freedom of political writers to express opinions free of any party's or government's taint - was sacred, even if it meant being a pauper. And for him, it did.

During his life his value system remained intact. Shortly before he died, bed-ridden, impoverished and mostly alone, he fired off a note to an editor in New York City who had messed with the outspoken prose in one of Paine's final essays.

"I sir," Paine wrote, "never permit anyone to alter anything that I write; you have spoiled the whole sense that it was meant to convey on the subject."

His death bed scene was perhaps the greatest example of Paine's refusal to compromise.

Lapsing into unconsciousness, in agony from gangrenous bedsores, Paine woke occasionally to cry, "Oh, Lord help me! Oh, Lord help me!" Convinced that Paine's time on earth was nearly up, a physician and pastor named Manley took advantage of one of Paine's last lucid moments to slowly save his soul by saying, "Allow me to ask again, Do you believe, or let me qualify the question, Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?"

Incapable of acquiescence, even when it might have provided him some comfort, Paine uttered his quiet last words: "I have no wish to believe on that subject."

Small wonder one colonial wrote of him: "The name is enough. Every person has ideas of him. Some respect his genius and dread the man. Some reverence his political, while they hate his religious, opinions. Some love the man, but not his private manners. Indeed he has done nothing which has not extremes in it. He never appears but we love and hate him. He is as great a paradox as ever appeared in human nature."

It's easy to imagine Paine as a citizen of the new culture, issuing fervent harangues from www.commonsense.com. He would be a cyber-hellraiser, a Net-fiend.

He might belong to contentious conferencing systems like the WELL or New York's Echo, but he would especially love cruising the more populist big boards - Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL. He would check into Time On-Line's message boards and tear into Republicans and Democrats daily. He would e-mail the New England Journal of Medicine his tracts on the spread of disease, and pepper Scientific American home page with his ideas about bridges.

He would bombard Congress and the White House Internet site with proposals, reforms and legislative initiatives, tackling the most explosive subjects head-on, enraging - at one time or another - everybody.

The Net would help enormously in his various campaigns, allowing him to call up research papers, download his latest tract, fire off hundreds of angry posts and receive hundreds of replies.

They would hear from him soon enough in China and Iran, Croatia and Rwanda. He would not be happy to find his old nemeses from the House of Hanover still around in Britain, but would be relieved to see George's heirs reduced to tabloid fodder and France a republic after all. He would emit Nuclear Flames from time to time, their recipients emerging singed and sooty. He would not use smileys. He would be flamed incessantly in turn.

He and the massing corporate entities drooling over the Net would be instantly and ferociously at war as he recognised Time-Warner, TCI, the Baby Bells and Viacom as different incarnations of the same elements that scarfed up the press and homogenised it. The gap between Paine's tradition and modern journalism seems poignant and stark. Journalism no longer seems to function as a community. Since it no longer shares a value system - a sense of outsider-ness, a commitment to truth-telling, an inspiring ethical structure - journalists seem increasingly disconnected from one another as well as from the public.

Paine would have lots to say about the so-called Information Highway and the government's alleged role in shaping it. One of his pamphlets - this may be the only thing he'd have in common with Newt Gingrich - would surely propose means of getting more computers and modems into the hands of people who can't afford them.

He would be spared the excruciating loneliness he faced in later life on that modest farm, where neighbours shunned him and visitors rarely came and where he pored over newspapers for any news of his former friends' lives. No longer an outcast, thanks to the Net, he would find at least as many kindred spirits as adversaries; his cyber-mailbox would be eternally full.

Instead of dying alone and in agony, Paine would spend his last days sending poignant e-mail all over the world from his deathbed via his Powerbook, arranging for his digital wake. He'd call for more humane treatment for the dying. He'd expound online about the shortcomings of medicine and the mystical experience of ageing while digging into his inexhaustible supply of prescriptions for the incalculable injustices that still afflict the world.

Iknow not whether any Man in the World has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine," John Adams wrote to a friend after Paine's death in l809, "for such a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a BitchWolf, never before in any Age of the World was suffered by the Poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine."

It's odd that so spectacular a force of media and political nature should be so vaguely remembered. Unfortunately for Paine, the historian Crane Brinton reminds us, revolutionaries need to die young or turn conservative in order not to lose favour with society. Paine did neither and fell from grace. Many of his reform programmes will always remain unacceptable to resurgent political conservatives; his religious views will always offend Christians. Though his memory is invoked from time to time, "his resurrection will never be complete".

At the moment, though, he is showing signs of minor respectability. This year, officials in Washington were considering funding a monument to him somewhere. And Sir Richard Attenborough, the famed actor and director, has been struggling for several years to get studio backing for a film about Paine. A Paine bio - which at the very least would feature two bloody revolutions, stand-offs with Napoleon, tangles with the House of Hanover and cameo roles for Washington,

Jefferson, Robespierre and King George - would make a socko TV miniseries, too.

Imagine the scene of his near execution. Paine went to France after the Revolutionary War as a hero and supporter of democratisation there. But the French Revolution was far bloodier and more violent than America's. Paine tried to save King Louis's life and pleaded with the country's new rulers to be merciful and democratic. Eventually, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. In June, 1794, six months into his harrowing imprisonment, Paine fell into feverish semiconsciousness. His cellmates barely kept him alive, mopping his brow, feeding him soup, changing his clothes.

The prison governors were to take him to the guillotine the next morning. At six am, a turnkey carrying Paine's death warrant walked quietly down the prison corridors, chalking the cell doors of the condemned, marking the number 4 on the inside of Paine's door. Usually the turnkey marked the outside of the door, but Paine was seriously ill and his cellmates had been granted permission to leave the door open so that a breeze could cool Paine's profusely sweating body.

That evening, the weather cooled and Paine's cellmates asked a different turnkey for permission to close the door. Knowing that the number on the door was now inward, the occupants of the cell waited, Paine murmuring on his cot. Near midnight, the death squad slowly made its way down the corridor, keys jangling, pistols drawn. One of his friends cupped his hand over Paine's mouth. The squad paused, then moved on to the next cell.

A few days later, the Revolutionary government was overthrown. Despite his close call, Paine stayed in France until 1802 when he managed, inevitably, to alienate Napoleon. At the invitation of Jefferson, he returned to a hostile welcome in the United States, where he spent the last seven unhappy years of his life.

Perhaps, if a movie is made and Paine becomes a focus of attention once more, somebody could locate his bones. That they are missing may be the most fitting postscript to his life. In his Weekly Political Register, William Cobbett, under the pseudonym of Peter Porcupine, smarted at the way Paine had been neglected in his final years. "Paine lies in a little hole under the grass and weeds of an obscure farm in America. There, however, he shall not lie, unnoticed, much longer. He belongs to England."

Just before dawn one autumn night in l818, Cobbett, his son, and a friend went to Paine's New Rochelle farm - the hole under the grass is still there, marked by a plaque from the Thomas Paine Historical Society - and dug up his grave, determined that Paine should have a proper burial in his native country.

The story grows fuzzy from there. By most accounts, Cobbett fled with Paine's bones, but never publicly buried the remains. Some historians think he lost them overboard on the return voyage. But certain British newspapers report their being displayed in November, 1819, in Liverpool.

After Cobbett's death in l835, his son auctioned off all his worldly goods, but Paine's bones weren't among them. Parts of Paine, truly by now the "universal citizen" he wanted to be, have been reported turning up intermittently ever since. In the l930s, a woman in Brighton claimed to own what clearly would be the best part of Paine to have - his jawbone. As historian Moncure Daniel Conway wrote a hundred years ago: "As to his bones, no man knows the place of their rest to this day. His principles rest not."

Jon Katz can be e-mailed at JDKatz@aol.com