The future writer and revolutionary was born on January 29, 1737, in a thatched cottage in Thetford, a small town in the English county of Norfolk, some ninety miles northeast of London. Named Thomas, he was the only surviving child of Joseph Pain and his wife, Frances. (In his twenties, Thomas added the e to his last name; to avoid confusion, we will always use Paine.) A daughter born the following year soon died, a common tragedy, since half the infants born in Europe died before their second year because of poor diet and disease.
Frances was eleven years older than her husband and nearly forty when she gave birth to Thomas. Neighbors had a low opinion of her. She was, they recalled, “a woman of sour temper,” sharp-tongued, petty, and quick to take offense. Most likely, this was due to regrets at having married “beneath her station,” that is, lower on the social scale than her own family. One’s place in eighteenth-century society depended upon family background, wealth, and religion. The daughter of a successful attorney, Frances belonged to the Church of England, the established, or official, state church. Only its members could sit on the throne, hold public office, or have a government job.1
Frances’s husband was a gentle, easygoing man, a corset maker by trade. To give them narrow waists, fashionable ladies wore linen corsets stiffened with whalebone, laced so tightly that they made breathing hard. A skilled artisan, Joseph carefully sewed the polished strips of whalebone into place. He was also a Quaker, one of several Protestant groups called nonconformists because they did not follow, or conform to, the teachings of the Church of England. Besides Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends), nonconformists included Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Thomas attended both his parents’ places of worship.
Whatever their religion, English people believed their country the most advanced on earth. They took pride in their overseas colonies, in the Royal Navy--the world’s largest--and, most of all, in the British constitution. This is not a written document like the United States Constitution, but all the laws and customs relating to the monarch and Parliament, the national legislature. The constitution guaranteed rights unknown anywhere outside England and her American colonies: trial by jury, free speech, and habeas corpus, Latin for “present the body.” This meant that a person arrested for a crime must be either formally charged and put on trial within a short time or released. Elsewhere in Europe, the authorities could keep suspects in jail for years without pressing charges or giving them their day in court. France, Spain, Italy, Russia, and some German states allowed torture to gain evidence or a confession. Unable to bear the pain, people often confessed to crimes they did not commit.
The British constitution rests on a central principle: nobody is above the law. The idea that there is one law for everyone, no matter their station in life, originated in the Middle Ages. In June 1215, the nobility forced King John, who had ruled pretty much as he liked, to sign the Magna Carta, or Great Charter. His Majesty agreed (Article 39) that “no free person shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed . . . except by the legal judgment of his peers or the law of the land.” Kings learned that they broke the law at their peril. For example, King Charles I was publicly tried and beheaded in 1649, and King James II was driven out of the country for “high crimes and misdemeanors” in 1688.
The rule of law, however, did not mean political, social, or economic equality. Far from it. In young Thomas Paine’s day, government was of, by, and for a few thousand wealthy families. The king, nobility, leading landlords, lawyers, merchants, and bankers controlled every aspect of public life. One needed a certain amount of property to vote or run for office. For example, Thetford, a town of two thousand, had only thirty-one qualified voters. This meant that a tiny minority of men, and no women, had a voice in making the laws. (Women were thought to lack the intelligence to make important decisions.) Wealthy men voted other wealthy men, or their own followers, into Parliament. The king, however, was the wealthiest person in the realm. So His Majesty usually got the laws he wanted by offering members “golden pills”--that is, government posts with grand titles, big salaries, and little if any work to do.
England’s wealthy saw themselves as a race apart, naturally superior to everyone else. Inequality, supposedly, was God’s law, meant to keep the lowly in their place. As Samuel Johnson, among the greatest English writers of his day, declared: “Mankind are happier in a state of inequality and subordination.” The lot of those “common wretches that crawl upon the earth,” others said, was “to be born and eat and sleep and die, and be forgotten.”2
A familiar jingle went:
It is a sin
To steal a pin.
Parents drilled this into their children’s heads, for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knew that almost any misdeed could cost you your life.3
Eighteenth-century England was a cruel place, and life cheap. Savage laws protected property. When Thomas was a boy, some 250 offenses carried the death penalty. These ranged from high treason and murder to burglary, arson, rape, highway robbery, picking pockets, counterfeiting, and fishing or hunting on private estates.
Justice was truly blind, as the law made no distinction between young and old, between serious and petty crimes. Newspapers routinely reported executions that would be unthinkable in any civilized country today. We read, for example, of a boy of ten hanged for stealing a penknife. A hungry seven-year-old girl went to the gallows for snatching a petticoat, and a fourteen-year-old girl for taking a handkerchief from a shop. Afterward, an official announcement read: “Let children beware of committing crimes, for their youth will not always save them.” All executions were carried out in public, before large audiences, as warnings to would‑be offenders.4
Until 1789, English women were strangled and their bodies burned at the stake for killing their husbands, even in self-defense. This law, a judge explained, was “founded on a well-known part of the Christian religion which says, ‘That wives should be obedient to their husbands in all things.’ ” Nor could someone charged with “self-murder”--that is, suicide--escape the gallows. The Gentleman’s Magazine described how an angry crowd dug up a suicide’s body, “dragged his guts about the highway, poked his eyes out, and broke almost all his bones.” Whipping and branding on the cheek with a red-hot iron punished non-death-penalty offenses, such as loitering or begging in forbidden places. If you owed money to a merchant, he could have you put in debtors’ prison until a relative or friend paid up. If not, you rotted in a damp, dark, dirty dungeon.5
Thomas saw the law’s cruelty with his own eyes. His cottage stood alongside the main road, with a clear view of Gallows Hill, a bare chalk ridge used for hangings. The youngster often peered from a window as the condemned shuffled past in chains. Afterward, he watched their bodies outlined against the sky, swinging back and forth in the breeze. They swung for an hour to make sure they were dead and as a lesson to children about the “wages of sin.”
1. Hawke, Paine, 8.
2. Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 15; Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 27, 235.
3. Porter, English Society, 166.
4. Ibid., 18; Noel Rae, The People’s War: Original Voices of the American Revolution (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2012), 27.
5. Porter, English Society, 18.
Copyright © 2014 by Albert Marrin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.