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Tom Paine, patron saint of Libertarians

I ran across this article on Thomas Paine tonight and thought our readers might also find it of interest.

There is a great deal of detail here about his life that I had never known before.

18 comments to Tom Paine, patron saint of Libertarians

  • Nuke Gray

    Please, if we’re going to have patron saints, can’t we find one who didn’t die in poverty, or didn’t back all the excesses of the French Revolution?
    How about an Australian example- Leonard Casley? He now calls himself Prince Leonard of hutt River Principality. He started his land in peaceful protest at the antics of the government of the day, and he is still alive and running his principality!
    Are there any other role models out there?

  • the other rob

    If one is going to aspire to a human expression of an ideal, what’s wrong with the man in the mirror?

  • Thanks for that, Dale.

    I met Prince Leonard once. Anyone who flys an amphibian can’t be all bad.

  • M

    Perhaps another reason why I’m not a ‘libertarian’. Paine was a proto-socialist and a propagandist for two unjustified revolutions. An interesting man historically, but not one I find admirable.

  • “Details of his life”.

    Well, yes, not sure I’d put all that much weight on some of them.

    “Paine grew up in mid-18th century England under “a criminal code that would hang a ten-year-old boy for stealing a penknife or permit women to be stoned to death in the pillory.” The thatched cottage in Thetford, where he was born in 1737, stood near one of the execution sites, a wind-swept hill known locally as the Wilderness. There, each spring, convicted peasants were hung with great ceremony under the direction of a pompous hypocrite from Cambridge known as the Lord Chief Justice.

    Murder among the poor was uncommon; the offenses usually involved crimes against property, such as stealing a bushel of wheat or purchasing a stolen horse. The courts viewed the well-to-do quite differently. Even in cases of homicide, they were often acquitted or given nominal sentences.”

    Umm, no, the Lord Chief Justice did not preside at County Assizes. And he wasn’t from Cambridge, either.

    And here’s the list of those who were hanged at the Norfolk County Assizes in those years, the executions sometimes happening at Thetford.


    Between three and none each year…..some for horse theft, yes, others for burglary, rape, murder, highway robbery…..

    I know it’s terribly fashionable to think of 18 th century England being festooned with gallows from which the rotting corpses of the oppressed peasantry were routinely left swinging….yes, I know smaller population and all that but a rough average of 90 executions a year for the whole country might be 90 too many but it’s slightly at odds with folk wisdom.

    Absolutely no one was “stoned to death in the pillory”, most certainly no women. The list of all female executions for the 1735-1799 period is here:


    More than 50% were for murder (including infanticide).

    As I say, take some of those details with a pinch of salt.

  • Laird

    I agree with Tim that this hagiography of Paine is far over the top. And he is far from being “the patron saint of libertarians”; if to anyone, that honor belongs to Jefferson. Paine was a rabble-rouser; not content with helping to foment one revolution he had to go the France to help start another.

    Still, the man deserves his place among the pantheon of heroes of the American revolution, and had his moments of true foresightedness. Witness this quote from a letter in 1789:

    A thousand years hence (for I must indulge in a few thoughts), perhaps in less, America may be what England now is! The innocence of her character that won the hearts of all nations in her favor may sound like a romance, and her inimitable virtue as if it had never been. The ruins of that liberty which thousands bled for, or suffered to obtain, may just furnish materials for a village tale or extort a sigh from rustic sensibility, while the fashionable of that day, enveloped in dissipation, shall deride the principle and deny the fact.

    Off by roughly 200 years, but can anyone deny that this is an eerily accurate description of our current dismal state of affairs?

  • Laird

    Oops, that should have been “off by roughly 800 years . . .”

  • Sadly Laird you are quite right. I think we got that point so quickly because, like typical Yanks, we do everything faster than in the old world.

  • He ended a deluded socialist, but I must always credit him for “Common Sense”, without which The American Revolution might well have not happened.

    No matter his later injustices to those concepts, he goes in the pantheon.

  • ian

    An interesting modern example might be Tom Wintringham – a flawed character but probably not given the attention he deserves.

  • Tom

    William Cobbett doesn’t get the attention he deserves…. a Cobbett is orely needed at the moment.

  • Paul Marks

    There is a lot of basic ignorance at work here – and I am not using the word “ignorance” in the modern insulting sense (I am not using the word to mean “stupid”), I am using the word in its traditional sense – “lack of knowledge”.

    Like the later J.S. Mill (another man who falls apart when one actually reads his works), Thomas Paine used a lot of high sounding pro freedom language – but, sorry, that is not who he was.

    In policy terms Thomas Paine was exactly the “friend of big government” that the article denies he was.

    Take the “Rights of Man” itself (his main work).

    In the first half of the work there is a lot of pro freedom talk (although it is mixed in with a lot of pro democracy talk – indeed representative government is confused with freedom, which is a very bad sign indeed), but in the second half of the work we get the actual agenda.

    The new elected government is to provide lots of nice things for the people – the costs of education for the children is going to get picked up, as is the costs of income support for the poor, medical bills and income in old age.

    The work implies that all this can be paid for by getting rid of the King and people who got pensions from the Crown.

    The mathematics is totally cracked – the bill for paying for millions is vastly higher than paying for a few people (even ignoring the fact that, contrary to anti Royalist propaganda, 18th century British Kings did NOT live in luxury – for example George III spent most of his sane years living in a small house).

    A few years later (but still years before his death – so we are not dealing with the effects of senility or the abuse of booze) Thomas Paine accepted this by bringing out the book “Agrarian Justice”.

    In this the pretence that getting rid of the King and hangers on could pay for a Welfare State is dropped – instead a land tax (going up to ONE HUNDRED PER CENT for big landowners) is supposed to do the job instead. By the way the sums still do not add up – but at least is not been as wildly dishonest as in his get-rid-of-the-Crown-and-we-can-have-anything-we-want stage.

    Thomas Paine was not a bad person – for example he was shocked by the killings of the French Revolutionaries (these were not “excesses” by the way – “virtue by blood letting” was what the French Revolution was about, it was what it was for), and he RISKED HIS LIFE to speak against the policy of killing – of creating “virtue”, by creating rivers of blood.

    However, Thomas Paine was not a “patron Saint of libertarianism” (any more than J.S. Mill is – if one actually reads his policy works, rather than just his “uplift” talk), he was not a libertarian at all.

    By the way even Glenn Beck (often accused of making things too simple and ignoring complexity) understand the above.

    When the left (for once quite correctly) attacked him for citeing Thomas Paine, Beck (without any prompting from people like me) replied that he had never said that Thomas Paine was a libertarian and that he fully accpeted believed in income “redistribution” (I dislike the words “redistribution” and “distribution” in this context – but I will not bore people by explaining the political philosphy reasons why, in a comment).

    He cited Paine because Tom Paine believed in American independence (not an America ruled by Britain – or ruled by some world empire of “globel governance”) and because Paine believed in REPRESENTATIVE governent – i.e. in the sense (rather different from how Edmund Burke defines “representative”) of the government doing what the people wanted (not dismissing the people as too stupid to decide policy matters).

    If Glenn Beck (almost totally uneducated – and a man who works almost every hour of the day and night) has time not to fall into this trap (the trap of thinking that Thomas Paine was a libertarian), then there is no excuse for educated libertarians to fall into it.

  • Dale Amon

    I am totally aware of his shortcomings and have read Rights of Man as well as Commonsense. Nonetheless, he is one of those who stand at the base of the tree of Liberty and is one of the founding fathers of the principles I believe in. No matter that later he played with ideas that went the other way, although I do not believe he thought that. He lived in a time when an idealist could still believe in cheap fixes within the context of a small government. He was wrong there, but so was Phlogiston theory and much else from the great thinkers of the day. That does not mean I do not give those thinkers respect and their place in history.

    Whether technically correct or not, the four men who led me into the libertarian fold were: Eric Frank Russell; Robert Heinlein; Thomas Paine and JS Mill.

    Protestations that any of them are not really truly flawlessly philosophically correct libertarians does not change the fact. They led me here. The led others here.
    That is ultimately what I find important.

  • Nuke Gray

    Laird, I must object to Thomas Jefferson being labelled a patron saint of libertarianism- he was a slave-owner all his life, and he started a line of black bastards with his slave servant, as modern DNA has proved. If he had given his slaves their freedom when the Declaration was signed, that would have been a gesture that would have made him a hero, but he didn’t, and so he isn’t.
    Of course, as an Australian, I am glad that the Americans told Britain to colonise the new continent of New Holland, but I don’t have to like all the characters in the drama!

  • Nuke Gray

    the other rob,
    In reply to your comment above, patron saints are like role models- that is, they should inspire you to do better by their record, with you thinking “If they did it, so can I!”. Looking at myself is always a pleasure, but if I am my own role model, wherever I have reached will then be sufficient for me!
    A role model should represent an as-yet unreached goal, or level of accomplishment. Narcissism is not libertarianism.

  • Laird

    Nuke Gray, Jefferson’s slave ownership is irrelevant. He was a product of his time and culture. What matters for this purpose is that he produced some of the seminal writings which animate libertarian thought to this day.

    Even saints have flaws. One can learn from the good and the bad.

    And in any event, what I said was “IF” there is a patron saint of libertarianism it is Jefferson. My point was not to beatify Jefferson, but rather to object to the headline of this post which accorded to Tom Paine that honor.

  • Paul Marks

    Dale Amon – you are in good company (although not in mine – see later).

    For example, F. A. Hayek used to say that he was not mainly concerned with what political thinkers of the past believed – he was interested in what thoughts their words inspired in him.

    And M.J. Oakeshott used to cite people like Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin as in the tradtion of important thinkers on “civil association”. Indeed he thought Hobbes was the thinker of the most value of all. Oakeshott fully accepted (and said he DID NOT DISPUTE) an examination of the works of these men which led people (people like ME) to say these writers were supporters of tyranny – but there was a deeper meaning in their words (to Oakshott) that he found inspiring.

    I am very different to Hayek, Oakeshott or yourself. When I read someone’s stuff my main concerns (indeed virtually my only concerns) is “what does this person believe?” and “is he correct?”

    Exactly the sort of old fashioned “Oxford Realist” approach to the history of political thought that Collingwood was sneering at as far back as the 1920’s.

    Be that as it may – I am what I am.

    I read a person’s works to find out what they believe and then (after I have worked out what they believe – and that can take quite a bit of time) I try and work out if they are right or not.

    For example, many people I like a lot have seen the greatness of Plato – but I do not (in poilitics – to me he is just a guy with lots of bad ideas).

    And ditto for J.S. Mill and Thomas Paine – accept they talk about freedom a lot (a real lot). But then when it comes to the thing that actually matters to me (POLICY) they rat on it – at least “freedom” turns out not to mean freedom.

    As with J.S. Mill with all the high talk (which you, like so many others, find inspiring) about freedom – and then we get told (for example) that regulating what someone can sell (or the conditions he can sell it) is nothing to do with freedom – it being an “other regarding” action, not a “self regarding” one.

    In short the harm principle does not turn out to be the nonaggression principle at all.

    Sometimes this is painful:

    For example, for years (in fact decades) I just assumed that by “right to life” John Locke meant a right “not to be murdered”.

    But then I read his stuff (I am ashamed to say that I had only read one of Locke’s works before 1989) and found out that he really did mean a “right to life” with (for example) a ships captain who does not dock in a port (where there are starving people) and goes on to a different port to get a higher price for his cargo of food…….

    Well anyway the Captain is “no doubt guity of murder” – even if there was no contract with anyone in the first port, even if he was just going from port to port trying to find the highest bidder.

    This, of course, means that we are all murderers – as we all eat (more than we need to survive) and there are starving people in the world (just as there have always been).

    So (by the above “right to life” doctrine) we are all “murderers”.

    And this was not the only absurdity – the more I read the more I found.

    “You miss the point Paul – the point is to be inspired”.

    For many people yes – for me no.

    For me the point is to try and work out WHY the absurdites come up – what was wrong with the basic principles the thinkers were using.

    And it is basic principles – someone like Tom Paine did not go wrong in the details (the problem is at the start – his bad policy suggestions do not come out of thin air, they are the logical development of SOME of his principles).

    For example, with Locke there is the problem of the “Lockian Proviso” (which goes back to his misinterpretation of the Bible – yes it really does, these people were deeply influenced by their reading or misreading of such texts – in this case the idea that God gave the world to humanity IN COMMON, Pufendorf and others interpreted the Bible this way, and so private property has to be JUSTIFIED) and also his confusion of crimes and sins.

    The virtue of justice (crime and punishment) and other quite different virtues – such as benevolence (charity).

  • Paul Marks

    By the way I would draw a line right from Pufendorf’s (and others) interpretation of the Bible (the idea that God gave the world to humanity IN COMMON) right to John Rawls and after.

    I am not saying that Rawls was a person who took the Bible seriously – but he comes from a tradition.

    Where does he notion of the “social product” or of income and wealth being “distributed” come from? What is it based on?

    It is based on a notion that the land belongs to everyone – and that (therefore) private enterprise has to be JUSTIFIED – he does that by saying if it can be proved that inequalty is to the benefit of the “least favoured” (i.e. private ownership means even the poorest people get more stuff) it is O.K.

    Note that – one does not just have to not hurt the poor, one has to prove that one’s property actively makes the poor better off. Otherwise one should lose the property (the French Revolutionaries would have supported that – as would any eminant domain lover).

    And it is right in J.S. Mill also – his support for “free trade in land” (when one goes into it) turns out to be basically “bash the landlords” – although his actual position is (logically) equally as hostile to factory owners (as he worked out himself eventually).

    The fact that he was not a Christian did not alter things – he had various baggage (including this interpretation of the book of Genesis) effecting him.

    As did (of course) Henry George – that is where his unquestioned ASSUMPTION that the default state of land (although it should be everything that comes from land also – but George does not go that far) is common ownership, comes from.

    Human beings have free will (by definition – otherwise they would not be “beings”, i.e. agents), so it is possbile for a person to free themselves from all this.

    A classic example is Herbert Spenser – he started off in favour of nationalization of land (because of this baggage) and managed to free his mind of it.

    Last point – oddly enough this theory stuff effects my “ordinary life”.

    As I type this I can hear hear the train in the park in which I work.

    Now this park was created by Charles Wicksteed – who, like so many 19th century liberals, was a land nationalization man.

    However, the socialists who started to join this movement argued (correctly) that if one takes the principles on which this nationalization is based (i.e. that all basic raw materials belong to humanity in common) then the only logical conclusion is socialism – not just the nationalization of land, but of factories and other such also (or turning the factories into cooperatives – for the syndicalists among them).

    Wicksteed (as far as I know) never formally repudiated the land nationalization position – but the nationalization of factories and so just did not make sense to him (and not just because he had built up a manufacturing business) and it may well be that he worked back to basic principles from this.

    “If the nationalization of factories makes no sense, and it is the logical consequence of the common ownership of land – then perhaps the common ownership of land is wrong to” may have been the thinking.

    Anyway on his death he did not leave the park to the local council (which would have been the logical thing to do – from the point of view of his beliefs), he set up an independent charitable trust instead – i.e. he maintained private ownership.

    I wish that J.S. Mill had gone down this road of reasoning – but he did not.

    As for Thomas Paine – unlike say Kant (who shares many of the political opinions of Paine), T.P. was not good at explaining the basic principles his policies were based on.

    Some people are difficult to read – but when one works them out, “where they are comming from” is clear.

    With Tom Paine it is the opposite – he is easy to read (a good writer), but when studies his work in depth his starting points are actually obscure, so I hestitate to say he is drawn to his positions by a misinterpretation of the Bible (although the fact that Paine is not a Christian does not matter for this – someone can be athiest, and Paine was a deist anyway, and still be misled by this stuff).

    But I wish that “complusory charity” Pufendorf (yes he supported this logical contradiction also – and because of the same common ownership start fallacy) had not interpreted the Bible this way.

    It does not have to be – as such writers as the Dutchman Hugo Grontius does not.

    For the Dutchman the world starts out UNOWNED – but available to be claimed.

    Genesis does not make one even choose the German (Pufendorf) over the Dutchman – Locke (and so many others) just ASSUME the common ownership start is correct.

    And, of course, for people who do not place much faith in the Book of Genesis, why should the interpretation of it matter so much anyway?

    And when one finds that the common ownership ASSUMPTION is based on a tradition that goes back to this interpretation (and not much else) then the authority of the tradition is much less than it first appears.

    It is like a vast castle built by highly intelligent men – with all sorts of defences and so on.

    Yet the whole castle turns out to be built on a swamp – the foundations are no good.

    There is no reason to treat the world as in any way rightfully communally owned – and therefore no need to “justify” private ownership.