Christopher Hitchens
Thomas Paine's Rights of Man

Resorting again to his favourite weapon, the printing press, he composed yet another pamphlet: Opinion de Thomas Paine sur l'affaire de Louis Capet. It was read to the delegates and evidently had a powerful effect on them, for they only decided by a majority of one to recommend the death of their former absolute ruler. Paine's argument was a classically liberal one. Public torture and execution was the problem, not the answer. It was the very signature of what France was trying to transcend, or to leave behind: 'It becomes us to be strictly on our guard against the abomination and perversity of monarchical examples: as France has been the first of European nations to abolish royalty, let her also be the first to abolish the punishment of death.'

These were the Enlightenment days in which the celebrated work of Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, had influenced numerous European and American figures to repudiate medieval methods of terrifying deterrence and retribution. But such thoughts were alien to the Jacobins, who wished to show by a stroke of the blade that there was no going back. They also brushed away Paine's suggestion that the king be rehabilitated by exile in America. Nor had they any time for his historic example of the banishment of the Stuart dynasty, which had withered after its exile from England. A roll-call of votes was announced, and more than a day was devoted to the spectacle of member after member announcing his vote and his reasons. The two non-French delegates took opposite sides of the question. Anacharsis Cloots, the colourful revolutionary aristocrat from Holland, denounced Louis for high treason and demanded his death 'in the name of the human race.' Paine, speaking in French for the first time, voted 'for the confinement of Louis until the end of the war, and for his perpetual banishment after the war.' When the votes were tallied, 287 had voted with Paine, 77 for death with a recommendation of clemency and 361 for death without conditions or delays.

Perhaps irritated by this less than imposing majority, and by Paine's later address reminding France of its dependence on the friendship of America, no less a revolutionary hero than the charismatic Jean-Paul Marat interjected that Paine had no right to a vote on the matter. 'He is a Quaker, and of course his religious views run counter to the infliction of capital punishment.' This sectarian innuendo did not prevent Paine from appealing one last time: 'Do not, I beseech you, bestow upon the English tyrant the satisfaction of learning that the man who helped America, the land of my love, to burst her fetters has died upon the scaffold.' Marat thereupon repeated his inaccurate anti-Quaker slur. The Convention voted again and confirmed the verdict, which two days later, on 21 January, was carried out.

The law which states that revolutions devour their own children is apparently an inexorable one. Within a few months, following battlefield reverses that had shaken the nerve of the leadership, the same Convention was facing furious demands that it be bled and purged. This hysteria against the enemy within was also led by Marat, who inaugurated a campaign to unmask all traitors. Among the many who were sent to the guillotine as a result was Anacharsis Cloots. Indeed, it became as dangerous to be a foreigner in this diseased atmosphere as it was to be a suspected faintheart. Paine was in double jeopardy. As he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in April 1793: 'Had this Revolution been conducted consistently with its principles, there was once a good prospect of extending liberty through the greatest part of Europe; but I now relinquish that hope.'

The remainder of this chapter can be fairly shortly told. After repeated confrontations with Marat, one of them in court and one of them by means of a letter from Paine that has been lost to history, the author of Rights of Man was arrested one night at Christmas 1793, just as he was completing work on The Age of Reason. The Robespierre Terror' had begun in earnest. As one of the Revolution's earliest enthusiasts, William Wordsworth, put it: 'Domestic carnage now filled the whole year. Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks, head after head, and never enough heads for those that bade them fall.'

It could be that Paine was lucky to be one of the first to experience confinement in the Luxembourg prison, because he avoided the 'domestic carnage' that stalked outside the walls. And at least some of his American friends knew where he was, and could try to intercede for him (though the ambassador, Gouverneur Morris, disgraced himself forever by failing to exert any serious pressure). However, conditions inside the prison became consistently worse as the demand for heads increased, and it could only have been a matter of time before Paine was listed for next day's butcher-bill. When that time did come, he was saved by a macabre accident. The chalk mark on the door of his cell, scheduling him for execution, was made by a stupid warder while the door was still open. When it was swung shut again, the number was on the wrong side. This secular version of a 'Passover' took place on 24 July 1794. Four days later the wheel of revolution revolved once more, and Maximilien Robespierre was himself sent to the guillotine. With the immediate threat of death removed, and with the arrival in Paris of a new and more sympathetic ambassador—the future president James Monroe—Paine's release was assured after a few more gruelling months.

His remaining years in France give the impression of the sour aftermath of a love affair. He was not trusted to leave the country as he had wished, and to return to America, but he was offered handsome apologies and the return of his seat in the Convention (with back-pay for the time spent sweltering in the Luxembourg). In a debate on the new Constitution of 1795, he once again took up his pen to criticize—unsuccessfully—the abolition of universal male suffrage. But the Convention itself was going into eclipse, and efforts to prolong its own life led to a riot in Paris on 5 October of that year. This was put down in the most unsentimental fashion by a Corsican officer of the name of Napoleon Bonaparte, who did not hesitate to employ cannon and shot against the crowd. The grave-digger of the Revolution had made his first appearance on the scene. On 4 September 1797, the irruption of the army into politics in its own right was confirmed by a military coup. All power was concentrated in the grip of a five-man 'Directory,' held in place by bayonets and cannons.

Admirers of Paine must confront the unpleasant fact that he welcomed this seizure of power by an armed elite. He justified it, in speeches and on paper, as a necessary pre-emptive strike against a monarchist revival financed from London. It was true that Britain was backing restorationist forces with arms and money, but it was also true that Paine's loathing for King George and his prime minister had blinded him to reality both in France and England. He spent a great deal of his time playing the amateur general and strategist—not the musket-bearing footsoldier of yore—and evolving grandiose plans for the invasion and conquest of the British Isles.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.