Brave, Brave Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine, the most radical of our Founding Fathers, was so enamored of the French Revolution, and in turn so thoroughly embraced by its leaders (who gave him French citizenship), that he was elected to the Convention, even though he spoke no French. I’ve just read in Adam Gopnik’s anthology “Americans In Paris”a speech Paine delivered — or rather, had translated and delivered in French as he stood by — to the Convention,
pleading for them to spare the life of the King. Paine’s radical credentials were unquestionable, but things were spinning out of control in revolutionary Paris, and it took a great deal of courage for him to have taken this stand. Excerpts:
For myself I seriously confess, that when I reflect on the unaccountable folly that restored the executive power to his hands, all covered as he was with perjuries and treason, I am far more ready to condemn the Constituent Assembly than the unfortunate prisoner Louis Capet.
But abstracted from every other consideration, there is one circumstance in his life which ought to cover or at least to palliate a great number of his transgressions, and this very circumstance affords to the French nation a blessed occasion of extricating itself from the yoke of kings, without defiling itself in the impurities of their blood.
It is to France alone, I know, that the United States of America owe that support which enabled them to shake off the unjust and tyrannical yoke of Britain. The ardour and zeal which she displayed to provide both men and money, were the natural consequence of a thirst for liberty. But as the nation at that time, restrained by the shackles of her own government, could only act by the means of a monarchical organ, this organ—whatever in other respects the object might be—certainly performed a good, a great action.
Let then those United States be the safeguard and asylum of Louis Capet. There, hereafter, far removed from the miseries and crimes of royalty, he may learn, from the constant aspect of public prosperity, that the true system of government consists not in kings, but in fair, equal, and honourable representation.
In relating this circumstance, and in submitting this proposition, I consider myself as a citizen of both countries. I submit it as a citizen of America, who feels the debt of gratitude which he owes to every Frenchman. I submit it also as a man, who, although the enemy of kings, cannot forget that they are subject to human frailties. I support my proposition as a citizen of the French republic, because it appears to me the best, the most politic measure that can be adopted.
Monarchical 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 has so long shocked the sight and tormented the patience of the people, that now, in their turn, they practice in revenge upon their oppressors. But 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, and to find out a milder and more effectual substitute.
In the particular case now under consideration, I submit the following propositions: 1st, That the National Convention shall pronounce sentence of banishment on Louis and his family. 2d, That Louis Capet shall be detained in prison till the end of the war, and at that epoch the sentence of banishment to be executed.
In other words, Paine argued that the American Revolution owed a debt to the French king, and that from whatever motive, Louis did a great good, and France should exile him to America. He also contended that France should not stain itself by doing to the monarch what monarchs do to others. Finally, he said the death penalty was immoral.
The Convention voted to execute the king anyway. Paine, even more bravely, stood before them and, through a translator, denounced the decision and begged them to reconsider. Notice the role the wicked Marat played in the moment:
Very sincerely do I regret the Convention’s vote of yesterday for death.
Marat [interrupting]: I submit that Thomas Paine is incompetent to vote on this question; being a Quaker his religious principles are opposed to capital punishment.
[Much confusion, quieted by cries for “freedom of speech,” on which Bancal proceeds with Paine’s speech.]
I have the advantage of some experience; it is near twenty years that I have been engaged in the cause of liberty, having contributed something to it in the revolution of the United States of America. My language has always been that of liberty and humanity, and I know that nothing so exalts a nation as the union of these two principles, l under all circumstances. I know that the public mind of France, and particularly that of Paris, has been heated and irritated by the dangers to which they have been exposed; but could we carry our thoughts into the future, when the dangers are ended and the irritations forgotten, what to-day seems an act of justice may then appear an act of vengeance. [Murmurs.] My anxiety for the cause of France has become for the moment concern for her honor. If, on my return to America, I should employ myself on a history of the French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors on the side of mercy, than be obliged to tell one act of severe justice. I voted against an appeal to the people, because it appeared to me that the Convention was needlessly wearied on that point; but I so voted in the hope that this Assembly would pronounce against death, and for the same punishment that the nation would have voted, at least in my opinion, that is for reclusion during the war, and banishment thereafter.
That is the punishment most efficacious, because it includes the whole family at once, and none other can so operate. I am still against the appeal to the primary assemblies, because there is a better method. This Convention has been elected to form a Constitution, which will be submitted to the primary assemblies. After its acceptance a necessary consequence will be an election and another assembly. We cannot suppose that the present Convention will last more than five or six months. The choice of new deputies will express the national opinion, on the propriety or impropriety of your sentence, with as much efficacy as if those primary assemblies had been consulted on it. As the duration of our functions here cannot be long, it is a part of our duty to consider the interests of those who shall replace us. If by any act of ours the number of the nation’s enemies shall be needlessly increased, and that of its friends diminished,—at a time when the finances may be more strained than to-day,—we should not be justifiable for having thus unnecessarily heaped obstacles in the path of our successors. Let us therefore not be precipitate in our decisions.
France has but one ally—the United States of America. That is the only nation that can furnish France with naval provisions, for the kingdoms of northern Europe are, or soon will be, at war with her. It unfortunately happens that the person now under discussion is considered by the Americans as having been the friend of their revolution. His execution will be an affliction to them, and it is in your power not to wound the feelings of your ally. Could I speak the French language I would descend to your bar, and in their name become your petitioner to respite the execution of the sentence on Louis.
At this point someone protested, “This is not the language of Thomas Paine.” Then Marat proclaimed that the interpreter must be lying. But Marat was corrected. The assembly went into uproar. Paine, standing next to his interpreter, indicated that the words were his own. Then Paine (through his interpreter) continued:
Your Executive Committee will nominate an ambassador to Philadelphia; my sincere wish is that he may announce to America that the National Convention of France, out of pure friendship to America, has consented to respite Louis. That people, by my vote, ask you to delay the execution.
Ah, citizens, give not the tyrant of England the triumph of seeing the man perish on the scaffold who had aided my much-loved America to break his chains!
The fanatical Marat yelled, “Paine voted against the punishment of death because he is a Quaker!”
Replied Paine, “I voted against it from both moral motives and motives of public policy.”
Unsurprisingly, during the Terror, Paine was thrown in the Luxembourg prison (as it happens, a short walk from where I write this). Fortunately, Robespierre, whom he had publicly denounced — again, with tremendous courage — fell before Paine could go to the guillotine.
I had no idea about any of this. Amazing, the bravery of that man.
UPDATE: I should add as a clarification that Paine has always been my least favorite of the significant participants in the American Revolution, because of his radicalism. But his courage can’t be denied.