This Is Not The Language Of Thomas Paine

This Is Not The Language Of Thomas Paine

By Scott Lipkowitz  

  "This is not the language of Thomas Paine". Such was the response of Thuriot, Deputy to the National Convention of Revolutionary France, upon hearing that his fellow deputy, and British-born American citizen, Thomas Paine, did not support the execution of the deposed king, Louis XVI. Deputy Marat, echoing Thuriot's incredulity, accused Paine's interpreter, Deputy Bancal, of misinterpreting his words, of providing an "untrue translation." Yet Paine, who did not speak French himself, had not been misrepresented; he opposed the execution from both "moral motives and motives of public policy" and provided the National Convention with a lengthy explanation of his reasoning. Still, Marat, Thuriot and others, could not believe that anyone, much less a vocal opponent of monarchy and hereditary power such as Thomas Paine, could be against the seemingly obvious 'justice' of executing the French king. Embodied in this exchange is the clash between vengeance on the one hand, and justice on the other; and it is a struggle in which Paine, ever a champion of the human ability to reason, stood firmly in line with the latter. 

  Thomas Paine found himself defending leniency for Louis XVI in the National Convention in January 1793 as the result of a life-long commitment to, and participation in, democratic and republican revolution. The son of a Quaker sail manufacturer from Thetford, England, Paine made his first foray into politics working for the British government as an Excise officer, petitioning Parliament on the behalf of his colleagues for better pay and working conditions. Although this effort would be denied, a meeting between Paine and Benjamin Franklin in London would place him in a position of much greater influence. Arriving in Philadelphia in late 1774, Paine soon found employment with the printer, Robert Aitken, and by 1775 had risen to become the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. When conflict between Britain and her American colonies erupted later that year, Paine saw his pen as a formidable weapon for democracy, independence, and for the overthrow of the despised form of government that was monarchy.

   The result was Common Sense, perhaps the most influential work of the American Revolution, solidifying Paine's place not only as a founding father, but also as a life long opponent of hereditary forms of government embodied by aristocracy and tyrannical monarchy. "How a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or misery to mankind." To a man who viewed humanity as "being originally equals in the order of creation", the answer to whether or not the rule of despots and monarchs was a blessing or a curse was decidedly the latter. "In short", Paine would write, "monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes."

   Paine would continue his efforts to further the ideology of the American Revolution, authoring multiple parts of The American Crisis, throughout the conflict. His influential writings would prove to be a cornerstone of the Revolution's success and would reach a readership that went beyond the borders of the United States. Many in France, the major ally of the colonies during their struggle for independence - the result of support from a monarch no less - had read many of Paine's pamphlets. In his 1791 treaties The Rights of Man Part I and II, penned as a response to the Englishman Edmund Burke's derision of the French Revolution and it's goal of replacing Louis XVI with a form of republican government, Paine emphatically rejected the notion that any allegiance to monarchy sworn by generations long since passed in an way condemned current generations to do the same. In France, as everywhere else that kings and aristocracy ruled, there exists, Paine writes, "hidden from the eye of common observation, a mass of wretchedness, that has scarcely any other chance, than to expire in poverty or infamy.” As America was justified in throwing off the chains of such oppression, so too were the people of France. Having contributed much to the cause of the Revolution, to the  Declaration of the Rights of Man, and having received the key to the Bastille -the symbol of Louis XVI's oppression- from the Marquis de Lafayette as a gift for George Washington, Paine was viewed by many French Revolutionaries as a true friend and brethren. Under these auspices Paine was elected to represent Calais, Oise, Somme, and Puy de Dome in the National Convention in the fall of 1792.

   Thus the stage was set for Paine's confrontation with Thuriot and Marat in January of 1793. It is important to note that Paine was one of nine deputies tasked with drafting a new constitution for the French Republic, that he had plastered the streets of Paris with  a denunciation of the rule of kings when he heard that some sought to restore Louis XVI to the throne with limited powers, and that he publicly defended these positions in a letter to the Abbe Sieyes. No one, in light of all of his work, could accuse him of not seeking justice for the common man. However, Paine was not blind to the fact that after generation upon generation of fealty to hereditary rule and the strain of its perpetual yoke, forging a different path would not be easy.

  By seeking the execution of Louis XVI, Paine saw that the National Convention was not seeking justice, but vengeance. Some might question the difference between the two, stating that the one is merely a form of the other. However, this could not be further from the truth. Whereas justice is tempered by reason, the latter is grounded in emotion. Humans are, thanks to our evolutionary heritage, emotional beings. We lead complex emotional lives which often serve us well, and which most certainly facilitated our survival as a social species. Yet we also understand that not all emotions are positive, and that others may drive us to actions which in the moment may seem satisfying, but in hindsight are less than honorable. Vengeance is just such a negative emotion; seeking the righting of wrongs no matter the cost to those on the receiving end or to those seeking to carry it out. Justice, on the contrary, is the reasoned search for the same redress against the emotional satisfaction of vengeance.

  By virtue of this definition, justice embodies Paine's firm belief that "the most formidable weapon against errors of any kind is reason." Instead of being shackled by erroneous notions such as vengeance, our ability to contemplate, to understand, to see past "our wickedness" and to "[restrain] our vices", enables us to rise above what, unthinkingly, we might do - but only if we are free to exercise that ability. The long dominion of "men who look upon themselves to reign, and others to obey", seemed to have eroded all faculties for such exercise to such a degree that, even when confronted with the chance to break from the tyranny of human ambition and the degrading power of fear which monarchy had done so much to advance, the citizens of revolutionary France seemed unable to do so.

  What had begun in 1789 as a movement to remove the king and replace him with a more republican form of government, had, by 1793, descended into factional violence as the Jacobins of Robespierre and the Girondists jockeyed for control. Mob violence and political killings were beginning to become the norm. Beyond France's borders Louis XVI, who had fled in exile, attempted to build a coalition of European monarchs in order to put down the ambitions of his former subjects. France was a fledgling Republic surrounded by kings, all of whom viewed the popular uprising as a potential threat should similar movements develop within their kingdoms. It was in their interests to rally to Louis' cause and to prepare for war against the French Republic. Though Louis himself would eventually be apprehended and brought to trial for conspiring against the welfare of his people - the end result of which was the demand for his execution in the National Convention - the existential threat posed to the new Republic by the monarchies of its neighbors did not dissipate. Fours years after the storming of the Bastille, France was being pushed and pulled by the machinations of her would-be rulers and by a very real fear of her enemies both within her borders and without.

   To Marat and Thuriot, the execution of the king would be an act of catharsis; an undoing of centuries of hierarchical oppression; a closure for the people of France to the era of kings and lords. For Paine it was indicative merely of the last leg of a passage from one age of oppression to another. Writing in his pamphlet Preserving the Life of Louis Capet, Paine stated:

"Monarchial Governments have trained the Human race, and inured it to the sanguinary arts and refinements of punishment; and it is exactly the same punishment, which so long shocked the sight, and tormented the patience of the People, that now, in their turn, they practise in revenge on their oppressors."

If the National Convention voted to execute Louis XVI it would not begin with a clean break from the past, but would instead drown the new Republic in the same old blood. Trained in the ways of despotism during the long years of their subjugation, it seemed almost without question that the manner in which the French people chose to deal with their oppressors was through recourse to blind vengeance. Yet, picking up the tools of the monarchy and executing the king to satisfy an emotional need for closure would only further place those tools in the hands of the people; ultimately to be wielded against one another. Paine understood that this was happening, and hoped that by choosing a different path and setting a different example, the National Convention could at least attempt to contain or abolish it.

   "I know that the public mind of France...has been heated and irritated by the dangers to which they have been exposed", Paine stated, "but could we carry our thoughts into the future, when the dangers are ended and the irritations forgotten, what today seems an act of justice may then appear an act of vengeance." Once any human, or any society, gives into the irrationality of vengeance what is to stop it from committing further atrocities? Picking up the sword where the king had let it fall and then using it to repay violence with violence would push the French people away from the enlightened Republicans they viewed themselves to be. And once they had been pushed too far in that direction, could they ever come back? Such a concern was not new. Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian War, wondered what a society loses when it crosses into the abyss of moral ambiguity when he described the lawlessness and depravity that accompanied the Athenian plague of 430 BC. He questioned whether or not that slide from a society based upon the rule of law and limitations, brought on by the uncertainty of the plague, in any way contributed to the atrocities Athens would later visit upon other city states during the course of the war. Thucydides would argue that this one act forced them to lose their moral compass. Paine echoed such a sentiment, believing that killing Louis XVI would result in a similar outcome for Revolutionary France.

   Paine was arguing for the very spirit and image of the French nation. Yes he understood that there were threats, dangers, and fears; but he also understood that unless the fledgling Republic rejected the emotional, immediate response to them, in favor of the reasoned one, the potential for a dark future was immense. Would future generations look back in horror at what the French Republic had done; or would they be so changed by it that they would hardly seem to care? Paine urged the National Convention to allow the 'dust to settle' so to speak; to not take drastic action until the fear and anxiety had diminished; and to "abolish the Punishment of Death, and to find out a milder and more effectual substitute."

   "My language has always been that of liberty and [his emphasis] humanity," and while Paine recognized that "monarchy, whatever form it may assume, arbitrary or otherwise, becomes necessarily a centre, round which are united every species of corruption", he was still "inclined to believe, that if Louis Capet [XVI] had been born in an obscure condition, [and] had he lived within the circle of an amiable and respectable neighborhood" that there was little likelihood that he would "have shewn himself destitute of social virtues." Had he been born a pauper, perhaps none would feel ill against him. Or perhaps he himself would be among those in the National Convention outraged at Paine's objection to execution. Anyone, placed in the same situation, under the same conditions, would act as the king and all his predecessors had done. Indeed, the leaders of the National Convention appeared to act in just such a way now that it was they who held the reigns of power.  And the very same sense of vengeance with which they now took aim might one day in the future be pointed at them. Paine viewed all men as being equal in their natural state; and this principle of the equality of all men - and by reason, their potential circumstances in life- was codified in the Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man, which read: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." Paine's opposition to the execution of the king implored the National Convention to remember the words of their founding charter and show the reasoned justice of mercy.

   Vengeance, however, would win the day. Louis XVI would be put to death on January 21, 1793. The political violence, present at some level since 1789, would expand into the Reign of Terror. The Jacobins, who, under Robespierre, ascended to power, quickly declared war on England and Holland, rounded up and executed 'enemies of the Revolution', and imprisoned Paine himself in the Luxembourg prison for almost a year (he would narrowly escape execution due to a mistake made by his jailers). It would seem that Paine's astute observations of human nature were born out by all that followed. Marat himself would become a casualty of the Reign of Terror in the short term increase in violence which Paine had warned against. Over the coming decades the long term repercussions of the National Assembly's actions would also prove Paine right. The growing turmoil and outside threats of war would pave the way for Napoleon Bonaparte, for total war, and the spread of the French army across Europe, often bringing with it horrible atrocities (for instance those in Spain, captured by Francisco Goya in his Disasters of War etchings). It would take France the better part of a century to fully recover from the mistakes of the National Convention. Napoleon would eventually be replaced by the return of the Monarchy in the form of Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis- Philipe I; who would, in his turn, in 1848, be replaced by a second French Republic, which would itself give way to the second empire of Napoleon III. Not until 1871 would the Third Republic be formed, and with it some of the ghosts of the 1790's laid to rest. While the execution of Louis XVI can not solely be blamed for all the horrors that would follow, Paine was none-the-less correct to challenge the emotional appeal of vengeance in the hopes that such a challenge might present a different path for the people of France.

   Though unheeded by the likes of Marat and Thuriot, Paine's desire not to follow in the footsteps of tyranny and oppression make his objection to the execution of Louis XVI worthy of reflection. The conflict between the reason of justice and the emotion of vengeance are still with us today. We are still fundamentally the same people. Our thirst for vengeance has not abated; nor has our tendency to be blinded by fear.  Post 9/11 America posses a siege mentality not unlike that of Revolutionary France; afraid of enemies both at home and abroad. And in our desire to exact revenge upon those who have injured us, we have neglected to pause and contemplate whether or not our actions conform with who we view ourselves to be; or whether engaging in torture, mass surveillance, and domestic militarization would be actions we could walk back from. Our present political climate - with presidential candidates promising more of these moral ambiguities- seems to indicate that we can not. Future generations, looking back on what we have done in the so called 'war-on-terror', might not look upon our deeds as justifiable. However, if we continue as we are, it seems more likely that future generations will be so changed by the precedent we have set, that the ideal of America we currently hold will seem alien to them.



Paine, Thomas. Shall Louis XVI. Have Respite? 1793.

Paine, Thomas. Reasons for Wishing to Preserve the Life of Louis Capet. 1793.

Paine, Thomas. To the Abbe Sieyes. 1791.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. 1776.

Declaration of the Rights of Man. 1789.

Foner's Introduction to the Collected Works. Thomas Paine National Historical Association.

Cools, Amy. Paine on Basic Income and Human Rights. Thomas Paine National HistoricalAssociation.

Chiu, Frances. Modern Prometheus: Thomas Paine and Our New American Revolution. L.A. Progressive.

Hanson, Victor Davis. A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War. Kindle Edition. Random House. 2011.

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