The Radicalism of Thomas Paine

The land, the earth God gave man for his home, sustenance, and support, should never be the possession of any man, corporation, society, or unfriendly government, any more than the air or water.”  – Abraham Lincoln

The word ‘Bastille’ was also fresh in the mind in 1791, as the symbol of the French absolutist monarchy and as a synonym for the many dark prisons in which the liberals of Europe had so long been confined and tortured. The Marquis de Lafayette, chivalric hero of both the American and the French Revolutions, gave the key of the Bastille to Thomas Paine and requested him to forward it to President George Washington as a token of French regard to the American people. Paine had done so with delight in the year before he published Rights of Man, adding a covering letter which described the key as ‘this early trophy of the spoils of despotism, and the first ripe fruits of American principles transplanted into Europe’. The key hangs to this day on the wall of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. The date of Paine’s letter was the first of May, which a century or so later was the date selected by American workers as the one on which to begin the struggle for the eight-hour day, and afterwards by the labour movements of all countries as May Day: the holiday and carnival and fiesta of the oppressed.1

The name of Paine will always be indissolubly linked to those resonant words, the ‘rights of man’. The book which bears that noble title was, however, not just a paean to human liberty. It was partly a short-term polemic, directed in particular at Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, a very exceptional contribution to the energetic ‘pamphlet wars’ that made the late eighteenth century, with its clubs and pubs and coffee-houses and printshops, such an enlivening period in Britain and France and America. It was also partly a revisionist history of England, written from the viewpoint of those who had gained the least from the Norman Conquest and the successive monarchical coups and usurpations. Then again it was a manifesto, setting out the basic principles of reform and, if necessary, of revolution. It did not disdain to put forward certain practical and immediate programmatic suggestions, designed to alleviate suffering and injustice in the here and now. But it always kept its sights raised to a point somewhat beyond the immediate political and social horizon. It is, in that sense, one of the first ‘modern’ texts. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress may have kept alive the spirit of the English Revolution in countless poor and down-trodden homes, and the careful research of John Stuart Mill and others may have laid the basis for later Victorian social reform, but Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man is both a trumpet of inspiration and a carefully wrought blueprint for a more rational and decent ordering of society, both domestically and on the international scene. (ibid.)

Thomas Paine as the First to Propose a Base Income For All

In 1797, Thomas Paine, responding to a priest who said that “God created rich and poor”, wrote an essay called “Agrarian Justice”, in which he said Nonsense! “God created male and female and gave them the earth for their inheritance … everyone who owns land owes ‘ground rent’ to the community … and from this revenue I propose to establish a fund that will pay everyone a sum.”

In his book Agrarian Justice Paine would outline his plan for Base Income and Shared Wealth:

To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state…Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state…

In taking the matter upon this ground, the first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period…

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

But the earth in its natural state, as before said, is capable of supporting but a small number of inhabitants compared with what it is capable of doing in a cultivated state. And as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, upon which that improvement is made, the idea of landed property arose from that inseparable connection; but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.

There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue…

The value of the improvement so far exceeded the value of the natural earth, at that time, as to absorb it; till, in the end, the common right of all became confounded into the cultivated right of the individual. But there are, nevertheless, distinct species of rights, and will continue to be, so long as the earth endures…

Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.

In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for…

I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is, to create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property; and also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age…[For context, the average annual wage of an agricultural laborer was around £23, which is almost US$50,000 today. £10 would translate to about US$21,000 and £15 to nearly US$32,000.]

It is proposed that the payments, as already stated, be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions. It is also right it should be so, because it is in lieu of the natural inheritance, which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited from those who did. Such persons as do not choose to receive it can throw it into the common fund.

…it can only be done by subtracting from property a portion equal in value to the natural inheritance it has absorbed. Various methods may be proposed for this purpose, but that which appears to be the best…is at the moment that property is passing by the death of one person to the possession of another…

From this [value]…annually revolving, is to be subtracted the value of the natural inheritance absorbed in it, which, perhaps, in fair justice, cannot be taken at less, and ought not to be taken for more, than a tenth part [a 10% estate tax to nuclear family members]…

Considering, then, that man is always related to society…it is therefore consistent with civilization to say that where there are no direct heirs society shall be heir to a part over and above the tenth part due to society…(an addition of ten per cent more) [a 20% estate tax if there are no direct heirs]…

There are, in every country, a number of blind and lame persons totally incapable of earning a livelihood. But as it will always happen that the greater number of blind persons will be among those who are above the age of fifty years, they will be provided for in that class. The remaining [estate tax funds] will provide for the lame and blind under that age, at the same rate of £10 annually for each person…

It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for…I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it…There are, in every country, some magnificent charities established by individuals. It is, however, but little that any individual can do, when the whole extent of the misery to be relieved is considered. He may satisfy his conscience, but not his heart. He may give all that he has, and that all will relieve but little. It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pulleys, that the whole weight of misery can be removed.

The plan here proposed will reach the whole. It will immediately relieve and take out of view three classes of wretchedness – the blind, the lame, and the aged poor; and it will furnish the rising generation with means to prevent their becoming poor…The plan here proposed will benefit all, without injuring any. It will consolidate the interest of the republic with that of the individual…

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally…All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came…

…for if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.

…when the ostentatious appearance [property] makes serves to call the right of it in question, the case of property becomes critical, and it is only in a system of justice that the possessor can contemplate security…

A revolution in the state of civilization is the necessary companion of revolutions in the system of government.

Speaking of the distinctions of Natural Rights for the people, Paine in a letter to Jefferson written in 1788/9,  draws a distinction between ‘rights they could individually exercise fully and perfectly, and those they could not’ (CW II, 1298). In the reply to Burke this is used to show that every civil right grows out of a natural right or ‘is a natural right exchanged)’; that the civil power is made up of the aggregate of that class of the natural rights of man, which becomes defective in the individual in point of power; and that the power produced from the aggregate of natural rights, imperfect in power in the individual’, cannot be applied to invade the natural rights which are retained by the individual…’ (CW I, 276).

Paine then develops a series of welfare proposals that seem to have no underlying principle of justice, but are proffered wholly as a way of redirecting spending. He advocates that poor relief be removed as a local tax and replaced by central provision from government coffers; that pensions be offered for those advanced in age, starting at 50, and in full form at 60; that provision be made for the education of the poor; that maternity be benefit be granted to all women immediately after the birth of a child; that a fund be established for the burial of those who die away from home; and that arrangements be made for the many young people who travel to the metropolis in search of a livelihood to provide initial accommodation and support until they find work. Paine ends by identifying provision for those who have served in the army and navy, and suggesting that, as demands on the public purse from these sources declines, then items of indirect taxation might also be lifted, and the burden of taxation gradually shifted towards a progressive taxation on landed property, coupled with the abolition of primogeniture, and a progressive tax on the income from investments.

That Paine wrote with the bluntness and sweeping rhetoric that alienates the more philosophically inclined modern reader was an essential element in his success and his continuing importance. Paine spoke to ordinary people—and they read him in their thousands—indeed, he was often read aloud in public houses and coffee shops. He claimed no authority over them, but helped them to doubt those who did claim such authority, whether civil or religious, and he affirmed over and over again their right and responsibility to think for themselves and to reach their own judgment on matters. He did so at a time when the press had become capable of reaching even the poorest of society…

Because of his radicalism Paine was vehemently attacked in his own lifetime—if the scurrilous biography was not invented for him it certainly attained something of an art form in his depiction. He was outlawed in England, nearly lost his life in France, and was largely ostracized and excluded when he returned to America. He spoke up for those who had not voice of their own against power, the poor, the outcast, the excluded; and, for all those of hard workers who were bound to the grist and mill of life, whose blood, sweat, and tears would provide the surplus value that lined the coffers of the Rich and Proud.

Where is the Thomas Paine for our time?


  1. Christopher Hitchens. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (Kindle Locations 117-124). Grove Press. Kindle Edition.

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