Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Tom Paine

A Political Life

by John Keane

“A good introduction to a complex historical character. . . . Provide[s] an engaging perspective on England, America, and France in the tumultuous years of the late eighteenth century.” –Pauline Maier, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 672
  • Publication Date February 15, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3964-1
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

‘more than any other public figure of the eighteenth century, Tom Paine strikes our times like a trumpet blast from a distant world.” So begins John Keane’s magnificent and award-winning biography of ‘democracy’s greatest propagandist” (Library Journal). The author of the incomparable Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, Paine earned his reputation as a notorious Revolutionary pamphleteer only to become one of the most extraordinary figures of his day. Setting his thrilling narrative against both the American and French Revolutions, Keane splendidly melds the public and private sides of Paine’s life into a remarkable piece of scholarship.


“A good introduction to a complex historical character. . . . Provide[s] an engaging perspective on England, America, and France in the tumultuous years of the late eighteenth century.” –Pauline Maier, The New York Times Book Review

‘many of the questions that Paine posed remain fresh and challenging two centuries later.” –Sean Wilentz, The New Republic

“Paine possibly did more to change the world than anyone has managed by the pen alone.” –New Statesman

“It is hard to imagine this magnificent biography ever being superceded. . . . It is a stylish, splendidly erudite work, which celebrates Paine while frankly registering his vice. . . . It is the only book so far to do full justice to this near-mythical figure.” –Terry Eagleton, The Guardian

“Not only a book of the year, but a book of the decade.” –Michael Foot, Evening Standard


Thetford Days
Child of ViolenceFROM THE HOUR of his birth, Tom Paine felt the deathly hand of the English state. Some called him a child of state violence, for the thatched cottage where he came crying into the world in Thetford, England, in the winter of 1737, stood near an execution site, on the slopes of a low, windswept hill known locally as the Wilderness.1 Townspeople favored this name because of its wretched soil and winter winds, but also because each year, with the arrival of spring, convicted criminals were herded through the area from the borough gaol, a quarter of a mile away, up to a nearby chalk ridge resembling Golgotha. There, on Gallows Hill, within plain sight of Paine’s cottage within the Wilderness, the gaol governors and town constables arranged hangings, watched by wide-eyed crowds.
The yearly ritual of Thetford executions dated back at least six centuries, to the time when the medieval gaol was first built.

On Paine’s birthday – Saturday, January 29, 1737 – the gaol stood on the same site that it had first occupied in the reign of King Edward I. Square-built of black flint and stretching three stories upward from its basement dungeon, the gaol symbolized the cruel punishment system in whose shadow the young Paine became an adult. From an early age, he undoubtedly knew of the building, for it was renowned as a house of horrors to which prisoners from all over Norfolk County were brought to await trial or sentencing. Townspeople saw the gaol as a hellish maze of bars and doors, dirt and debauchery, which left prisoners scarred or dead. One contemporary observer likened it to the black hole of Calcutta; another considered it a sewer of vice where the old were hardened in iniquity and the young instructed in crime.2 Still others gossiped about its rough routines. Each morning, it was said, prisoners were loaded with irons or forced onto the treadmill, while at dusk, as female prisoners were flung into solitary confinement in the top floor cells, the most dangerous men were stuffed into the low-ceilinged basement dungeon. The men were then forced by the duty constables to lie down, head to toe, on a stone floor and to sleep, if sleep it could be called, without either mattresses or bedding. The accused complained constantly about the filth and poor food, while long delays in trials and sentencing added to their misery. That is why, townspeople said, prisoners often yearned for the courtroom – for “gaol delivery” – which gave them momentary release into the outside world, where prisoners could hear birds twittering and feel sunlight or rain splash on their faces, reminding them that death was not yet theirs.
The court sessions, or so-called Lent Assizes, for the county of Norfolk were always held in Thetford during the month of March. In the year of Paine’s birth, proceedings were conducted by Sir John Willes, recently appointed as Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and later satirized as a red-nosed, triple-chinned lecher in William Hogarth’s painting The Bench. “In politicks he was a right ol” bugger,” locals often said, “but a lawy”r of great learnin” an” a judge of ability.” Escorted by a livery of forty mounted men, he had traveled from Cambridge to Thetford by way of Newmarket, arriving in Thetford on Saturday afternoon, March 5. His arrival in Paine’s hometown was bathed in pomp, above all because the Lord Chief Justice symbolized the power of George II’s government over outlying courts and regions. After stepping from his gilded coach, Willes was welcomed by the splendidly dressed High Sheriff of Norfolk and the Mayor, Henry Cocksedge. He was then escorted to his lodgings in the King’s House, where he dined privately that evening on pheasant, spit-roasted spring lamb, and fine burgundy wine.
The arrival in Thetford of the Lord Chief Justice usually triggered a week of town celebrations. There was an old Norfolk saying, “There no be warm weather “til the prison”rs are now goin” to Thetford.” As if to prove that maxim and hasten the arrival of spring, hundreds of visitors flocked to the little town of some two thousand people to witness the spectacle of punishment. Necrophilia hung in the air. On Saturday, hours before the appearance of the Lord Chief Justice, the town grew excited. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor rubbed shoulders for a time at the marketplace near the gaol, or lingered in small groups to watch the to-and-fro of stagecoaches at the Bell and other local inns.
Travelers often remarked that there was nothing gloomier than an English Sunday. So it was with ‘size Sunday in Thetford. By law, Sunday was a vestige of the Puritan day of enforced godliness and compulsory inactivity. The town residents and visitors were forbidden to sing or play musical instruments, dance, or play ball games, cards, or skittles. Religion and law ruled supreme, as was obvious to the handful of townspeople who watched the Lord Chief Justice walk a private path to St. Peter’s Church, accompanied by the High Sheriff, the Mayor, and black-gowned members of the Thetford Corporation. There a mid-morning sermon was preached by the High Sheriff’s chaplain, who emphasized in solemn tones the wrath of God and the necessity of obeying His King’s laws.
Early next morning, the sobriety vanished. Booths selling ale and cider were set up, and street corners came alive. The temporary population of Thetford continued to mushroom. Accommodations in the town were always in short supply, and beds were let at inflated prices of half a guinea each, with the poorest townspeople taking in lodgers to reap some grain from the harvest. In one recorded case, a poor family had its six children sleep in one bed, three at the head and three at the foot, to earn a few shillings from a lodger. Gentlemen, taking up residence in their town houses, suffered no such discomforts. By day, they tallyhoed their hounds across the surrounding heathland and indulged in horse racing, stag hunting, and pheasant shooting. By nightfall, the same gentlemen gathered at the White Hart Inn, just down the hill from Paine’s cottage on a street named Bridgegate, to drink ale, play cards, and bet on cockfights. The courtyards of other local inns had meanwhile been turned into commoners’ theaters, filled to capacity every night for a week, their jesting, heckling audiences charmed and taunted with a mixture of classics and vaudeville performed by touring companies.3
After several days and nights of unbroken reveling, the Assizes were formally opened in the Guildhall – a short walk from the Paines’ – on the morning of Thursday, March 10. The Lord Chief Justice, seated high above a packed courtroom watched over by the High Constable and the Petty Constables, read aloud his commission from the King, sealed with the Great Seal. The names of all Justices of the Peace in the county of Norfolk were then read out, and the gentlemen of the Grand Jury were administered the oath of faithfulness to their King, Church, Country, and conscience. The accused, prevented from giving evidence themselves or even knowing beforehand the charges against them, were expected to stand mute. The whole ceremony mimicked the description of the English justice system in the third part of the famous Commentaries of Sir William Blackstone, who himself later presided at the Thetford Lent Assizes in March 1777, three years before his death.4 Blackstone praised the assize system as an example of “the wise oeconomy and admirable provision of our ancestors, in settling the distribution of justice in a method so well calculated for cheapness, expedition, and ease.” He went on to describe the architects of the ancient system as “an illustrious train of Ancestors, who are formed by their education, interested by their property, and bound upon their conscience and honour, to be skilled in the Laws of their Country.”
Ancestors of the realm loomed large in the architecture of the Guildhall courtrooms. In the smaller Nisi Prius court, where Lord Chief Justice Willes turned to the day’s business, hung a fine oil painting of Justice. Its inscription read: “Judge righteously, and plead the cause of the Poor and Needy. Proverbs 31 and 9.” The civil cases were heard first. Business was brisk. About two-thirds of the accused were convicted of offenses such as petty larceny, forgery, libel, and the use of unjust weights. A boy who robbed his master and a man who stole hats were ordered to be transported to the American colonies.5 A trader convicted of dishonesty and a woman accused of being a shrew were humiliated on the ducking stool on the river Thet. The remaining convicted were ordered to be branded, put in the town pillory, publicly or privately whipped, or fined and imprisoned.
After hearing the civil cases, the Lord Chief Justice moved on to criminal business in the Crown Court, where he sat facing the Grand Jury Gallery. Behind him was a draped canopy submounted by the Royal Arms and the motto Pro rege, lege, et grege (For the king, the law, and the people); in the window to his right were stained-glass Royal Arms, while to his left were the Arms of the Borough of Thetford. The crowded courtroom hushed. All eyes fixed on the Lord Chief Justice, the gentlemen of the jury, and the accused, who stood motionless as their fetters were temporarily removed, their eyes sunken and glazed, convinced that the sand in their hourglass was running for the last time.
Criminal cases at the Thetford Assizes normally included burglary, stealing livestock, highway robbery, and arson. Very few were charged with murder. Crimes were as a rule ad hoc acts against property – that is, driven by material desperation and not by any widespread culture of criminality within the ranks of the poor. Sometimes the proceedings were entertaining, as when a packed courtroom watched a man capitally convicted for burglary compulsively eat oranges throughout his trial and sentencing. There were also tales of the time when the courtroom watched with amazement an accused man rob a constable in their midst, or heard the case of a boy who had picked a constable’s pocket as he was arrested and was subsequently transported for fourteen years. By these standards, the criminal hearings of March 10, 1737, were uneventful. Stamped with the unsmiling authority of George II, they followed the harsh maxim of Voltaire, who had commented when visiting the area a few years before that the English were a people who murdered by law.
The nearby Norwich Mercury reported that in the year of Paine’s birth, three of the accused were sentenced to death by the Grand Jury.6 James Blade, age forty-one years, a former ship’s carpenter apprentice, confessed to stealing money and goods to the value of twenty shillings four years earlier from the owner of the King’s Head tavern in nearby Stanfield High-Green. He also confessed to keeping fairs at which members of the public played unlawful games such as pricking the girdle, thimbles and ball, and the newly invented game black joke. William Wright, “a poor stupid Creature” born at Silem in Suffolk County, was convicted of stealing a bushel of wheat from a barn and robbing a woman on the King’s Highway near Dickelburgh by cutting off her pocket and escaping with one guinea, six shillings, and six pence. John Painter, about thirty-five years of age, was born of ‘very poor, but honest Parents’ and lived near Brandon with his wife and children, working as a warrener. He was convicted of purchasing a stolen horse and stealing a parcel of tea and hiding it in a blacksmith’s shop, where he was apprehended. He strongly denied the charges, insisting that the most unlawful act in his life was to poach several dozen rabbits one evening from a nearby warren.
The Lord Chief Justice ordered that each man be executed the next day. “Wretches hang that jurymen may dine,” wrote Alexander Pope. And so it was in Thetford. Overnight, as the Chief Justice banqueted with the Grand Jury at the King’s House, the three were held groaning in the Thetford gaol, double-ironed and handcuffed. A large yoke circled their necks, and their limbs were chained to the floor of the cell. What they thought or did overnight went unrecorded. We know only that a few minutes before eight o’clock next morning, shortly after sunrise, Blade, Wright, and Painter were escorted by the Borough Sheriff, several petty constables, a clergyman, the executioner, and his two assistants from the gaol up through the nearby Wilderness, past Paine’s cottage, to the chalk ridge known as Gallows Hill.
The prisoners, dressed in the same shabby blue coats worn during their trial, looked cadaverous before the murmuring crowd bunched beside the scaffold. Prayers were said. A mournful hymn was sung by a small group in the crowd. The blue-coated men mounted the scaffold. The executioner let fall three ropes, which the assistants adjusted in turn around each prisoner’s neck. The convicted joined hands. Staring into the distance, they exchanged no words. Their nightcaps were pulled down over their faces, and a black handkerchief was tied over their eyes. The crowd stilled. The clergyman called, “God bless you! God bless you!” A signal was given, and each man’s shoulders were suddenly flung into convulsions. The violent breathing and choked gasps that followed went as quickly as they had come. The convicted criminals had been launched into eternity.
According to custom, the bodies were left to swing in the cold March wind for a full hour. They were then cut down and carted from the scaffold to the gaol, the dispersing crowd trailing along. John Painter’s corpse was placed in a coffin, returned to his family, and later buried in a churchyard. The bodies of James Blade and William Wright were delivered to the county surgeons, who picked through their flesh and bones in the name of science, in accordance with the instructions of Lord Chief Justice Willes.
Each Lent for the next nineteen years – all of them spent in Thetford – Tom Paine likely grew conscious of the imprisonment, trial, and execution of scores of figures like Painter, Blade, and Wright. Mid-eighteenth-century punishment was an ugly sight to Paine’s eyes, as it is to ours. In his youth, the field of criminal law was the most violent patch of English life. Certainly by European and world standards, Georgian England was not a murderous country. In contrast to the previous century of failed revolution, political assassinations were unknown, soldiers rarely fired on crowds, and kings lost their heads only mentally. The means of state violence were often overstretched, policing was an amateurish affair, and the resort to murder in everyday life was comparatively rare. Other forms of violence – the routine beating of wives, servants, and children, the flogging of soldiers, the brawls of drunken hirelings during election campaigns – were undoubtedly commonplace, and the ubiquity of symbolic violence, such as the seizure of overpriced bread and stone throwing against the excisemen and profiteering millers, shocked visitors to the country. But with few exceptions, even this popular symbolic violence was constrained by considerations of moral economy – that is, limited by custom to specific purposes and clearly targeted at specific objectives such as the defense of ancient liberties and the remedying of perceived injustices.
The tough application of a vicious penal code was the exception. During Paine’s youth, capital statutes mushroomed, even for paltry offenses such as stealing a packet of tea, being out at night with a blackened face, purchasing a stolen horse, or stealing a few shillings. While well-to-do homicides were often acquitted or given nominal sentences, servants who pilfered from their masters or rural laborers who stole a sheep found themselves sentenced to death by hanging. England seemed destined to have laws for the rich and laws for the poor. In 1689, there had been fifty capital offenses in the country. During Paine’s century, the number quadrupled, most of the additions being related (as might be expected in a burgeoning capitalist economy) to securing absolute rights of private property – against those who continued to think in old-fashioned usufructuary terms of property as the right of peacefully enjoying the use and advantages of another’s property. Among the supreme ironies of the period, which Paine himself quickly grasped, was that just as Continental absolute monarchies were beginning to liberalize their statute books, England, renowned as the home of liberty and good government, was imposing Europe’s most barbarous criminal code on a population that was among the least violent in the region.7
The Graftons
The executions at Thetford two months after Paine’s birth confirmed this ironic trend. They contradict subsequent accounts of his birthplace, which has conventionally been pictured, in romantic language, as an ancient haven of poetic stillness and beauty. Francis Blomefield (1705–1752), who was educated at the same school as Paine and became the first historian of Norfolk County, introduced his account of Paine’s birthplace with a strain of poetry:
Thetford, thy age shall introduce my rhymes,
I honour all thy joys in ancient times,
And wish thee happy, in what now appears
The relicts of above a thousand years.8
The Suffolk poet Robert Bloomfield (1766–1823), Paine’s later acquaintance and critic, compounded the romance:
To where of old rich abbeys smil’d
In all the pomp of Gothic taste
By fond tradition proudly styl’d
The mighty “City in the East.”9
And Moncure Conway, Paine’s most-quoted biographer, wrote lyrically about its quaint streets, pretty landscape, historic vistas and (quoting Robert Browning) its “beauty buried everywhere.” It is as if the young Paine played in the same kind of unspoiled rural utopia that inspired the idyllic prose of his contemporary, a Genevan writer whom he later read with great interest, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Thetford and its surrounding brecklands were actually little like that. During Paine’s youth, it is true, Thetford was aptly designated “a town in the midst of a large heath,” and his later love of nature undoubtedly stemmed from his familiarity with its windswept beauty. Pitted by meres, dotted with villages and houses tipped with smoking chimneys, the heath was a four-hundred-square-mile stronghold of some of the rarest English plants and insects. During the spring and summer months – or so it was said locally – the heath’s bracing air and twisted lines of Scotch pines were filled with wild ducks, nightjars, lapwings, and the weird cries of the stone curlew.
The annual executions at the Thetford Assizes cast a lurid light on such romancing. So too did the presence of the Grafton family, with whose vast wealth and power the young Paine was surely familiar. A contemporary sketch of Euston Hall, the county seat of the dukes of Grafton, conveys something of their grip on the local inhabitants.10 The estate was immense. The young Frenchman Fran”ois de la Rochefoucauld, who spent a year in the area during Paine’s lifetime, noted how the barrenness of parts of the estate seemed to multiply its vastness. “You cross the duke of Grafton’s estate, remarkable for the great numbers of rabbits you see and foxes you don’t see,” reported la Rochefoucauld. “All this country, which the road crosses for eight miles, is covered only with heather, reaching out of sight in all directions; not a shrub, not a decent herb, except in the little valleys that one sees some way off, shallow and so hardly damp.”11
Nearly forty miles in circumference, the estate dwarfed the borough of Thetford and encompassed a number of villages and hamlets, as well as perhaps the most elegant seventeenth-century church in England, St. Genevieve, where Paine’s parents were married in the summer of 1734. Most visitors found the estate charming. “It lies in the open country towards the side of Norfolk not far from Thetford; a place capable of all that is pleasant and delightful in nature, and improv’d by art to every extreme that Nature is able to produce,” reported Daniel Defoe on a visit several years before Paine’s birth.12 “The park and plantations are well worth your viewing: they are very expensive and sketched with great taste,” observed Arthur Young during a visit in 1769. ‘remark particularly the approach to the house from Bury; it is exceedingly beautiful.”13

At the center of the Grafton estate there stood a magnificent seventeenth-century brick house arranged around a central court with four pavilions at the corners –”after the French” as the dukes liked to tell their guests. John Evelyn, the famous diarist and expert on gardening, stayed there for a fortnight in the autumn of 1671. He noted with delight that the house was “not onely capable and roomsome, but very magnificent and commodious, as well within as without, nor lesse splendidly furnish’d.”14
The interior, from which humble folk like Paine were excluded, contained painted ceilings by Antonio Verrio, a state portrait of King Charles II by Sir Peter Lely, and a conservatory adorned with maps. Showcases contained armorial plates made to order in China, a Venetian gilt table, exquisite dining chairs, mirrors, card tables, and Spanish painted cabinets. The dukes were especially proud of a painting of Charles II dancing with his sister the princess of Orange at the great ball held in the Mauritshuis, at The Hague, the night before his return to England in 1660. Downstairs and out through the front door, visitors admired the sundial in the center of the courtyard. Nearby was a walled garden with a stone seat by William Kent and a little garden house from one of his designs. From there a broad path led through the orangery past the end of the house and through the pleasure grounds to the octagonal temple, from which the Graftons watched their racehorses or expensive hounds exercising in the park amid the beeches, firs, elms, and limes.
Beside the path leading back from the temple to the house stood a dead oak, said to have been grown from an acorn from the oak in which Charles II had hid at Boscobel after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The oak, of course, was a royalist symbol, and the thought that that dead oak pointed to the future of the English aristocracy would have been lost on the Graftons. The second duke of Grafton, Charles Fitz Roy (1683–1757), and his family formed part of a tiny class of agrarian millionaires whose point of pride was the rural palace. They felt no modesty about displaying their wealth. Like all eighteenth-century gentlemen, they were convinced that property was the very basis of civilization, that ‘dominion follows property” (as Bernard Mandeville famously wrote), and that the first duty of government was to preserve both. The grandeur of their estates radiated their confidence that they would rule forever, and history certainly seemed to be on their side.15 From the end of the seventeenth century, technical improvements and big farming profits in wool, cattle, and corn made the possession of great estates a coveted investment. Through careful purchases, prudent marriages, and their control of Parliament, families like the Graftons amassed wealth far in excess of any other stratum of English society, to the point where the shape of the rural landscape and society was altered irreversibly.
Well before Paine was born and still during his youth, large landowners throughout the country excluded certain land from common or public access. Trackways and paths were blocked off, roads redirected and swept away, without compensation. Many of the traditional common rights of grazing and wood collecting, the ancient privileges of rural folk and villagers, disappeared. The dramatic growth of rural poverty followed immediately. In Norfolk and elsewhere, such enclosure ensured the disappearance of the class of agricultural laborers eking out a precarious living on their small allotments and exercising their common right of access to their masters’ property. Small proprietors – peasants or yeomen – were similarly squeezed out of existence. The dispossessed swelled the ranks of the rural poor and made their snaring and poaching presence felt in towns such as Thetford, searching for parish relief.
Although the Anglican Church and private benefactors (including the Graftons) continued to collect and distribute alms for the poor, the relief system provided by the parish authorities was constantly overburdened during Paine’s youth. Especially in lean years, Thetford was stalked by migrant paupers, who were attracted to the town because of its position at the junction of several main roads. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the desperation of the poor resulted in food riots, looting, burning, and mob violence in the Thetford area. Things had probably not yet reached this point during Paine’s youth, although there is evidence that many Thetfordians felt that the fabric of society was threatened and regarded those trapped in poverty with constant suspicion. Town ordinances dating back to the sixteenth century ruled that no stranger could live in the town without the permission of the Thetford Corporation. Since these rules were easily evaded, there were occasional house-to-house searches for illegal immigrants, the idle, and the feckless. The Law of Settlement and Removal of 1662 confirmed the local parishes’ responsibility for relieving the poverty of its permanent residents. From there on, the ‘deserving poor” –the elderly, helpless, or unavoidably unemployed – were eligible for outrelief (assistance while resident at home) or were put to useful work organized by the parish or town authorities – for instance, in the workhouse located in the lower room of the Guildhall.
Although the parishes functioned as ‘miniature welfare states’ for the ‘settled” inhabitants of Thetford, the growing number of “unsettled” idle and vagrant were treated harshly.16 The sick, poor, and old were ruthlessly driven out or bribed to leave. Unmarried pregnant women were bullied into leaving, even when in labor, in order to “pass the baby.” Since it was in the financial interest of Thetford’s three parishes to deny settlement certificates to nonresidents, the local authorities obtained the maximum number of removal orders. Justices of the Peace, local constables, and parish overseers of the poor cracked down hard in other ways. As Paine knew from playing in Thetford’s streets, it was often a crime simply to be poor, the punishment for which was rough treatment, trial, whipping, transportation, or hanging.
It would be misleading to say that the Graftons themselves were directly responsible for creating a vulnerable underclass of rural poor in and around Thetford. The family certainly had engaged in several acts of enclosure – for example, during Paine’s teenage years in the early 1750s, when the second duke of Grafton concluded that the vista from his Pink Bedroom was spoiled by the sight of Euston village. The duke proceeded to solve the problem by contracting the famous English architect Matthew Brettingham to supervise the physical resiting of the entire village and redirect the Little Ouse River to fit in with the “cleansed” rural landscape. Such megalomania was practiced elsewhere in England – Thomas Coke resited the whole Norfolk hamlet of Holkham, for instance – but the Graftons’ case was exceptional, if only because they already owned all the land of the surrounding parishes and therefore did not need to enclose through recourse to Acts of Parliament. It might even be said that the bulk of the population in the Thetford area, living as they did within closed parishes protected by ‘my lord,” was shielded by the Graftons’ paternalism from the social corrosion caused by countrywide enclosure. That conclusion was reached by some contemporary observers, including Robert Bloomfield, whose poem “Autumn” waxed lyrical about the Graftons: “Lord of pure alms, and gifts that wide extend; The farmer’s patron, and the poor man’s friend.”17
The prose was exaggerated, but it correctly pointed to the swollen system of patronage operated by the Graftons. The family had been persuaded of the classical theory that when masters neglect their subjects, the mob clamors for ochlocracy. They consequently took precautions by cultivating an elaborate system of patronage that bolstered their own power and divided their potential opponents, ensuring their reputation (in Edmund Burke’s famous words) as the “great oaks that shade a country.” The methods were less formal and escapeproof than feudal homage, more personal and comprehensive than the contractual relationships of capitalist competition, but they were hardly new. In 1574, Thetford had been granted a charter of incorporation, becoming a nominally self-governing body. It thereby gained possession of the fee farm – the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Crown and to remit only a fixed annual sum, so that any profits were retained for the use of the town. This change left Thetford wide-open to aristocratic intrigue. Thereafter, until the parliamentary reforms of 1835, it was renowned throughout the country as among the most rotten of rotten, or pocket, boroughs, in which local talent was normally prevented from climbing into national politics, high office, and high society.
Young Paine was presented a lesson in scandalously undemocratic local government, and it is not far-fetched to suppose that his belief that pride and prejudice must be continually pricked by public criticism stems from this period. It is true that Paine’s contemporary the third duke of Grafton (1735–1811) was widely regarded as a Unitarian, showed liberal tendencies, and as prime minister of England during the years 1767 to 1770 was sacked by George III after pressing for more independence for the American colonies. But in and around Thetford, the Graftons’ rule was virtually absolute. They dispensed a rich harvest of patronage in the form of salaried jobs, tenancies, and, through the borough, licenses, building contracts, and provisions for elections and charity dinners. Uniting in their persons practically all executive power, they acted as the satraps of the community, watching and controlling its public life, scheming to disappoint later historians by ensuring that no class of plebeians emerged to take revenge upon the patricians.
In the matter of parliamentary elections, for example, the Graftons’ rule was a synonym for venality. There were occasional signs of anti-Grafton rebellion, as when the incumbent mayor, who had fallen out with the dukes, had his clothes removed by Grafton supporters during an election rally. The mayor refused to conduct the election and withdrew, taking his mayor’s robes with him.18 Such naked challenges to the parliamentary game were exceptional. Throughout the eighteenth century, the two Thetford Members of Parliament, representatives of an electoral roll of only thirty voters, elected themselves. By purchasing votes and distributing favors, the Grafton family exercised virtually undisputed control over the town. Their power of patronage peaked during Paine’s first years in Thetford. Thirty years before his birth, it was said that the going rate for a Thetford vote was fifty guineas, and in 1708 one of the successful candidates, Robert Baylis, reportedly spent “3,000 to secure his return.19 The tightening grip of the Graftons slowly brought such electoral contests to an end. Knowing the difficulty of sailing over political seas in eggshells – their fathers had reminded them of the political debacles of the 1640s – they applied patience, time, and money to their cause. At a by-election in February 1733, Lord Charles Fitz Roy, the second duke’s son, was returned. This was the last parliamentary contest for seventy years. Thereafter, all parliamentary candidates went unopposed, and a Fitz Roy was nominated at each one of the next six elections held over twenty-eight years and at eight of the subsequent sixteen elections during the years to 1826.20
The Graftons perfectly matched Daniel Defoe’s famous description of the eighteenth-century English aristocracy as the most confident in Europe. Picturing themselves as “the great, who live profusely,” they traditionally celebrated their parliamentary triumphs with a splendid dinner given for the prominent men of the borough of Thetford. In aristocratic circles, handsome dining was a measure of success. The Graftons certainly liked their guests to be up to their chins in beef, goose, and venison and up to their ears in claret, punch, and port – so much so that the young Fran”ois de la Rochefoucauld expressed surprise at the decadence of the election dinner he attended:
There were, I think, eighty of us, at two tables, each presided over by one of the new members, each magnificently waited on. Even so, we sat down at table at two o’clock and did not leave it till nine, to go dancing. Three quarters of the guests were very drunk, and everyone had had rather too much to drink. As we left the table, a great fat farmer asked me to dance a minuet, and leapt about like a twenty-year-old. The duke of Grafton’s nephew, brother of one of the members, was so drunk that he was obliged to go to bed for a few hours, and then returned to the ball; and, having asked a lady to dance with him, he couldn’t find her again. I have never before attended such a grand banquet, and I was very glad to judge for myself all these good Englishmen who are all very watchful of their rights, but who would give them still, I think, for a few tonnes of their port.21