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A READER'S JOURNAL

To Spit Against the Wind
A Novel about the Turbulent
Life and Times of Tom Paine

by
Benjamin H. Levin

Published by Citadel Press/NY in 1970
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007

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Tom Paine was an innovator. He saw ways of doing things that no one had perceived clearly before. In his writing, he moved people to action with his visions. His most memorial work, a short pamphlet entitled Common Sense, fanned the flames of independence in the colonies to a fiery heat. This novel takes us from his early life in England, through the Revolutionary war in America, and later through his life during the French Revolution.

He began in his father's girdle shop showing him how to save half the time of marking up and cutting a girdle by marking one-half and then folding it over and cutting both sides at once. His father objected that people are not symmetrical like such a pattern would be. Tom's explanation was simplicity in itself, "Then we shall make them that way." In this novel Levin portrays Tom Paine as a man who found people who were asymmetrical, the king and the pauper, for example, and, in his writings, he showed with reason and logic how they were symmetrical: that each were endowed with common sense in equal measure. As such, no man could assert the right to rule over another. He even went so far in his "Rights of Man" to equate the king's (or anyone's) claim of infallibility with that of a fool.

[page 382, quote from "The Rights of Man"] When it is laid down as a maxim, that A KING CAN DO NO WRONG, it places him in a state of similar security with that of idiots and persons insane, and responsibility is out of the question with respect to himself.

His publisher refused to print those words and Tom objected, "Do you not believe they are true?" "Yes, but they are treason," he replied.

Treason was no reason to stop Thomas Paine. Symmetry and reason were his great shears and if people were not made that way, then, he was going to make them that way. His will was the force of intellect which drove the American Revolution, rightly understood, and led to a new birth of freedom throughout the world.

Another innovation Tom brought into the world was the first arched steel bridge. His idea for it began in the pub room of the Bell Inn in the little village of Thetford where he lived and often met with his friend Harry Snook, who worked in a blacksmith shop. Snook would bring in half hoops of metal and place them on the table. He and Tom would hang weights on them and wondered why the half hoops could hold weight without bending while a flattened strip of the same metal would bend in the middle. Tom discerned the reason and explained it to Snook, "The stress is carried away from the center by the arch and exerts a portion of the forces at its ends." (Page 23) It was this insight that led Tom later to the design of the steel bridge which was later built in England and may still be carrying load today across a river there. When Tom went to France in 1987, he carried with him a thirteen foot long iron bridge model which he wanted to obtain the endorsement of the French Academy of Science. Unfortunately they did not understand the principles of his design, and Paine was forced to take the model to England where the first full-scale bridge was made using his design.

One of the mainstays of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the riders on carnival floats tossing golden doubloons to the parade watchers who scramble to their feet to pick them from the ground. I had wondered about the origin of such a practice. No doubt it had its origins in the practice of kings and royalty, but what led them to do it in the first place. As I read this passage, it became clear to me that it was a practical way of clearing the path for a dignitary from his carriage to the door: tossing a handful of coins would part the sea of beggars.

[page 132, 133] Paine looked out upon the sea of unwashed, starving faces. Like starving dogs the cudgels did not seem to frighten them. Instead, they pressed upon the coach with wild cries and Craigstone, judging well the exact moment, opened the further door and tossed out a handful of copper coins upon the flagstones. The tavern guards opened the near coach door and helped Paine and Craigstone alight, while beggars, on hands and knees, searched for coppers that were but half visible in the failing light. Unintelligible cries arose from them as Craigstone took Paine's arm and marched him to the door.

Returning home from the pub one night, his wife, Mary, pregnant with his child, had been crying, and sobbed to him, "Ye do not love me, Tom. Ye married me because . . . because . . ."

[page 50] He placed his hand upon her mouth and would let her say no more. "There is no one else, Mary. I go to the tavern more to talk than to drink. New ideas are taking shape in the minds of men. I want to know what they are. The world is at the beginning of a new destiny. I want to be a part of it. When our son grows up, I want him to live in a world where he can earn more than just bread for his belly and clothes for his back. I want him to afford pride. To look his fellow man in the eye and not have to say, 'Sir' and 'm'Lord.' "

We hear Tom as he has revealed to him the folly of the coercive imposition of a tax on windows. This may seem ludicrous to us in 2007, but believe me, such folly exists at so many levels in our current coercive society as to cause this exemplar to pale in comparison. He asks the owner of the Drum Tavern about the Tinneville Courts which used to be filled with townsfolk and now filled with the poorest of the poor(1).

One need only think of ramshackle public housing today to be disabused of the thought that our current so-called government is better than that of Tom's 18th century England.

[page 59] "In the courts, I saw all the windows bricked over as though to keep out the cold. But sealing them also keeps out the light and air. And keeps in the heat of summer. It seems foolish."
       The tavern owner let out a guffaw that was half belch and half laughter. "Wot! Dost think the landlords give a fat monk's fart 'bout light an' eat. 'Ere's been a tax put on windows in the shire. An' so the landlords brick 'em up. An' when the poor basta'ds used more candles they up an' taxed the bloody tapers! An' now the filthy beggars sit in the dark like sick cats. Me, I'd go t'London or Manch'ster, could I sell the Drum Tavern. The stinkin' ole wot its become! I c'n read an' rite an' figure."

Have you ever given any thought that the very existence of the head of any country is a relic of having a King? It wasn't until I studied carefully Andrew Joseph Galambos's works in Volitional Science that I found proof that we have no need for the modern day equivalent of a king today. Paine knew in his day the onerous effects of having a king and sought about slaying, not the King himself, but the very need for a king! Tom recognized back then what we have yet to have sink into our heads today, that a king or a president or any head of state or country is a relic of barbarism -- it opens the way for top-down rule and coercion instead of bottom-up service which matches that required by the common-sense wielding everyman on a volitional basis. That our so-called modern government is a relic of barbarism is well-hidden by politicos and the mass-media both, up until now. Rightly understood, the time has come for another strong dose of "Common Sense" for the modern citizen.

[page 71] "The King. Now, there you have it. The very King himself. Do you gentlemen realize, have you given it any thought, that the very existence of a king, in any country, is a relic of barbarism?"

Strangely enough, Tom Paine worked as a lobbyist before the name was in the vernacular as an official occupation. He saw how his fellow tax-collectors lived well while on the job, but whose meager incomes went mostly to support their clothing, horse, and travel expenses and whose families lived in the direst poverty on what was left after expenses of the job. He collected money to go to London to protest against the insufficient pay and raised enough for his lodging and expenses for months, all to no avail, given the centuries of precedents for how excisemen were paid, but it brought him to the attention of several influential men, especially Benjamin Franklin. It was this meeting which led Tom Paine to arrive years later in Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation, and his subsequent close attachment to the events of the separation of the colonies from Britain.

Franklin tells him, after reading Paine's pamphlet for the excisemen, "Justice doth not beg, sir. Justice insists!" He adds:

[page 88] "But I like thy spirit and thy phrases. I am, among other things, a printer and am impressed by the memorial. I would say that it shows talent. Would you consider going to the Colonies, Tom Paine? We have a need for such men as you." He lifted his glass and chuckled, "In the Colonies, we have no precedents."

When Tom arrives in the Colonies later, he hears people talking about asking for justice from Britain and professing that their loyalty to the King matches that of Ben Franklin's. He admonishes them from his own experience at petitioning the King and the aristocracy of England:

[page 121] "I am acquainted with Dr. Franklin," said Paine. "I have the greatest respect and admiration for him. But you do not know England, gentlemen. England, with her nobility and her corrupt wealth! To her we are a colony -- a possession -- such as the West Indies or India. You deceive yourself because you speak the same tongue. You dream of representation. But I have observed that we have an opportunity for freedom, for equality, and for self-government . . . government in which all will have a voice. But it will not be offered, gentlemen. It must be insisted upon!

The men had met to speak of slavery and now Paine was reminding them of their enslavement to a cruel plantation master who restricted their freedom. They could only buy goods where He decided they could buy them and sell only where He decided, and that was England. One man laughed aloud, "Government in which all will have a voice? The common man? Come now, Mr. Paine, dost not know that if the common man can but sign his name and count to ten, he considers himself literate?" Does not this strike a resonant note even in the advent of the 21st century? Tom Paine rebuts:

[page 122] "But he has common sense! A common sense that makes him aware of his natural rights. A common sense that insists upon his dignity and stirs up his heart against oppression!"

In this vignette fashioned by Benjamin Levin, the author of this novel, we find ensconced the seed of the idea for the pamphlet which Tom Paine will be led to write in which he lays out for the common man a common sense approach to the reasons for independence from Britain and its despotic plantation master, the King.

Tom puts the matter to a businessman in a convincing way:

[page 129] "You, Mr. Rittenhouse, will bear me out that the owners of smelting furnaces are required to send the raw iron to England. There is it worked up and sent back to us in a finished form. Can anyone deny that a growing metalworking industry has been destroyed? Are we so lacking in courage that we cannot insist on what is right? If we are English, we should be permitted to live and work as Englishmen. If we are not, then we have a right to our own destiny!"

The author also portrays how Tom Paine was inspired to write the Declaration of Independence while musing over the last page of "Common Sense."

[page 162] Were a manifesto to be published and dispatched to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceful methods which we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring at the same time, that not being able, any longer, to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we have been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connection with her; at the same time, assuring all courts of our peaceable disposition toward them . . .

His own writing conjured up within him the need for such a manifesto, one that would not beg, but insist, "A Declaration of Independence."

[page 162, 163] There was as yet no such manifesto. He, Thomas Paine, would write one. He would call it a . . . A Declaration of Independence! As in Common Sense, he would point out the grievances of the Colonies, the cruel disposition of the British court, the necessity for independence, and a peaceable disposition to all governments. A declaration of independence!

No one should doubt that the idea for a Declaration of Independence was Thomas Paine's. It is and shall always remain his primary property, a derivative of his own thoughts and ideas. He began to work on an elaboration of the idea for which his pamphlet Common Sense contained merely a prologue, a sketch of the need for a fuller and more comprehensive document, which he proceeded to write. At one point, his initial draft was given over to a committee of the Continental Congress that was headed by Thomas Jefferson who smoothed out the prose somewhat, edited it to the committee's liking, and produced the final document in his own fine cursive script which we know today as our founding document, "The Declaration of Independence." The idea for the document sprung, not from a committee, not from Thomas Jefferson's pen, however, but full-grown from the mind of one man, Thomas Paine. The subsequent obfuscation of this essential point of American history, namely who actually wrote this document, can only highlight the serious and fatal disregard the rulers of modern America have for primary property, providing no adequate means of acknowledgment or protection thereof of ideas which can only derive from a single person's life and thoughts. Except for detailed biographical records such as Levin used to create this novel, everyone attributes the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the wrong Thomas, up until now!

We catch a brief glimpse, looking over the Paine's shoulder, of the changes made by the other Thomas to his initial draft of the document:

[page 181] As he read on, Paine noted more and more alterations. "Undisguised tyranny of the King" had been entirely omitted. "Deluge us in blood" had been modified to "destroy us." There were so many changes that the draft had lost the mask of Thomas Paine and now wore the façade of sensitive Jefferson. But it was a Declaration of Independence . . . independence! And Jefferson had retained the antislavery clauses.

What is the importance of primary property? Why bother to give such a pretentious sounding name to a person's thoughts and ideas? The reason is this: it is necessary to remind people everywhere that ideas are not free! They do not simply float in the air for anyone to grab and use as if it were one's own idea! I quote Paine's pamphlet The Crisis, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; tis dearness only that give every thing its value." The pervasive illusion that ideas are free causes them to be esteemed so lightly that few people recognize the paucity of ideas coming as a unique derivative of their own lives!

[page 222, The Crisis ] These are times that try men's souls.
       The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
       Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph.
       What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; tis dearness only that give every thing its value.
       Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.
       Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, hath declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but to "bind us in all classes whatsoever," and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then there is no such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

Things were difficult for Paine. He offered his services as an infantryman to one general and soon ended up handling correspondence for General Washington, even crossing the Delaware with him on that frozen night. Ever in his thoughts was the admonition of Jason Witherspoon, "Tom Paine. Mr. Common Sense! Why, your name is cursed by Whig and Tory alike. By the one for urging an impossible task . . . and by the other for destroying the peace!" (Page 266) One can put Witherspoon's words in a topical perspective if one noted that the opposition today in portions of both parties to George W. Bush's urging the War on Iraq. To paraphrase Witherspoon: "George W. Bush. Mr. Iraq War! Why, your name is cursed by Republican and Democrat alike. By the one for urging an impossible task . . . and by the other for destroying the peace!"

Another innovation from the fertile mind of Thomas Paine was the idea of Manifest Destiny whereby these United States were destined to bridge the entire continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This was a brilliant conception, one whose authorship is forgotten by the same common man that Paine championed in his writings. Another illustrative case of the lack of regard for primary property, up until now. Not only did Paine argue for our boundaries extending westward, but that the expansion should be accomplished by the adding of new states, not by the aggrandizement of the expansion by existing states such as Virginia proposed to do. The young Colonel John Laurens had booked Tom passage to France to gain support for his innovative iron suspension bridge and wondered why Tom hesitated to look up from what he was writing, "Do you consider a pamphlet on state boundaries of such importance that it cannot wait until our return?"

[page 299] To his surprise, Paine flung down his quill and cried, "Important? Why Virginia claims land that stretches back to the Mississippi River and then runs northwestward to an indeterminate boundary. I can understand the conservatism of the old, but the young . . . ! You, John, have you no vision? In the natural course of events new states will be formed in the West. Will Virginia then claim such states as subsidiary provinces? If we permit this, then North Carolina, Georgia and even Connecticut and Massachusetts will insist upon their own claims to western territories."
       "Virginia will detest you for this, Mr. Paine."
       "Then must she detest the truth too, for her claim to the Western Territory rests on some misty titles granted by a king of that England to whom we no longer owe allegiance. . . Titles that were established, theoretically, upon a piece of parchment, long before the geography of the continent was known. Do you think I expend myself for the creation of thirteen independent Republics whose acquisition of feudal territories will make them no different than the jealous and competitive countries of Europe!"

If Paine had taken Laurens advice and waited, Wisconsin might be part of Virginia today, among other similar displacements of what evolved as America's destiny manifested itself along the vision laid out for her originally in the thoughts, ideas, and writings of Thomas Paine!

When he arrives in France, he finds himself handicapped by his speaking the King's English, but not the King of France's French in a country which presumed that even God spoke French. One statesman comments to Paine, "I understand you have no regard for aristocracy, Monsieur Paine?" To which Tom replies with a smile, "I have no objection to anyone's being an aristocrat, Count Vergennes. Only to their insistence that the rest of the world be their subjects." (Page 307)

When offered a salary by Robert Morris, Robert Livingston and George Washington, Tom asks what is the salary for, and is told by Robert Livingston, "We shall expect only that you comment, from time to time, upon public affairs."

[page 320] "Expressing my personal opinions or yours, Robert?"
       Morris hesitated. He glanced at Livingston and promised, "Expressing your own, Tom. We have learned that you would express no other."

Not longer did Tom offer only his opinion on matters moral, economic, but even on matters political. He was wise enough to turn down a seat on the convention which met to draft a constitution. Ben Franklin proposed him as a delegate. He stated his reasons cogently, as usual, when he declined the invitation.

[page 334, 335] "Do not think me ungrateful, Dr. Franklin, but I do not wish it," said Paine. "When my Dissertations on Government was published, half my friends turned their backs upon me. The rest swung this way and that, like weathercocks. The Union needs men who can compromise. Were you not so long in France, to hear of me only by hearsay, you would know that there is something within my nature that insists that a matter is, like mathematics, either right or wrong. I cannot, with the butter of politics, rub the two together without friction. . . . How can I partake in compromise when I insist, whole hog, upon a central government? . . . Let me but insist upon a measure and, for purely personal reasons, it will be defeated!"

On his arrival in London from France he accepted an invitation to the English Revolution Society. He met there Mary Wollstonecraft, who was later to marry the radical philosopher William Godwin and die in giving birth to her daughter. Mary Wollstonecraft acknowledged to Paine the debt she owed him. His Rights of Man had already inspired her to write her famous feminist manifesto, The Rights of Women.(2)

[page 379] The only woman to attend the dinner was introduced to Paine as Mary Wollstonecraft. She was escorted by William Godwin and insisted that she be seated next to Paine. Just turned thirty, with inquisitive grey eyes and a tumbled mass of blond hair, a few strands of which she permitted to fall down upon her forehead as though to shorten the brow, she seemed to possess both the gentleness of femininity and the spirit of an indomitable man. "I have read your essays on women's rights," she confined to Paine in a slightly husky voice. "I am deeply gratified by both your opinions and your boldness in expressing them. I do not know how they were received in America but here, . . ." She waved a hand about the table to indicate that she was the only member of her sex present. "I am at work on a feminist document. I shall call it Vindication of the Rights of Women."

Mary Wollstonecraft acknowledged Paine's primary property and showed her gratitude to him, in fact, insisted on being given the opportunity to do so. She gives us an excellent example to follow which is all too seldom followed by Paine's common man, today. Respecting primary property, rightly understood, is the most important property of the common man, but because the abuse of primary property is so pervasive from the top of society (in the halls of Congress) down to the local public elementary schools, the common man has little understanding for the enormous boon that respect for primary property at all levels would be for his own life -- be he an assembly line worker in an auto plant, a technician in a nuclear power plant, or a T-shirt designer working alone.

Back in France, Paine publishes his "Rights of Man" and unleashes a firestorm. Duchatelet reads some of the inflammatory parts of the document. No loud applause followed his reading. The silence was deafening. It was a pregnant silence. The germination of the French Revolution by the same sperm that had germinated the American Revolution.

[page 396] Paine recalled that he had written almost the same phrases in America, against the King of England. What did it matter? It was worth the repetition as long as there were those who had not read them or refused to accept them.
       [page 397] When Duchatelet finished, a hush hung over the Assembly. The deputies looked to each other as though they waited for someone to cast the first stone. No deputy realized that Thomas Paine's manifesto had planted, within sight of all, the dragon's seed of their revolution.

Close to my heart is this idea that Paine put into his friend Jefferson's head: "Buy Louisiana from Napoleon." Once more the man who wrote up the document and affixed his signature to The Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson, is universally acclaimed as the man who had the original idea for the deed. I live in the southernmost and eponymous region of that great Louisiana Territory, which according to Paine's own writings was apportioned in whole and pieces of 17 states. As you read this passage, you will gather that Jefferson was not so keen on the idea. Most great ideas require a gestation period, and this was truly a great idea which helped manifest the destiny that Paine envisioned for America and these United States which comprise it. Below is his conversation with Jeff, as he called his friend.

[page 539] The conversation drifted to politics, and Paine confessed, "I have never been farther west than the Susquehanna River, Jeff. I would like to go to the Mississippi. And then down to New Orleans." When Jefferson said nothing, Paine added, "When I was a member of the French Assembly, I was consulted on the future of the Louisiana Territory. Even then, I envisioned it as a part of America, not governed by any European power. And now Spain had ceded the territory to France."Jefferson nodded. "The new government of France is not too friendly.""It is not the French. It is Napoleon Bonaparte. He will settle the Louisiana Territory with the scum of Europe unless we buy it."

It may amaze some to discover that Thomas Paine wrote lyrical poetry. Here is one that he wrote to Lady Smythe on Love (from pages 562, 563):

      Tis that delightful transport we can feel,
       Which painter cannot paint nor words reveal,
       Nor any art we know of can conceal.
       Canst thou describe the sunbeams to the blind,
       Or make him feel a shadow on his mind?

       What are the iron chains that hands have wrought?
       The hardest chains to break are those of thought.

Those people whose chains of thought about the need for a King that Paine had broken for them, were still locked so tightly in the need for a specific religion that they rejected Thomas Paine as a heretic and refused burial for his bones after his death on Thursday, June 8, 1809 at age seventy-two. His friend Marguerite had two workman bury his coffin on the grounds of his small farm in New Rochelle, New York. Ten years after his death, William Cobbett disinterred his remains and shipped them to England for burial, but the government of England forbid the burial that Cobbett had planned, so Tom's remains remained with Cobbett in Liverpool. After Cobbett died, the coffin and remains, according to the best information available (rumor) passed into the hands of a furniture dealer who re-used the wood of his coffin. No one knows where Tom's bones were scattered.

It should be surprising to no one that the man who dared to spit into the wind, time after time, country after country, issue after issue, should have his bones literally scattered into the wind.

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---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. In a gross distortion of the facts, modern historians write about the horrors of windowless housing as being due to capitalism, while the truth is that it was due to coercive laws passed by a corrosive bureaucracy. See Capitalism and the Historians by F. A. Hayek.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne

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Footnote 2. For more information on her daughter, who married Percy Bysshe Shelley, read this poem by Lisel Mueller called The Triumph of Life.

Return to text directly before Footnote 2.

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