THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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It is always a struggle to preserve freedom and fairness in the way society is run. It is even more difficult to establish these values in a state that denies their merit.
Few people have contributed more to this struggle than Thomas Paine, born in Thetford in Norfolk in 1737, the son of a humble artisan. In a courageous and adventurous life, this brilliant writer and campaigner played a crucial role in the fight for American independence. He then witnessed part of the French Revolution, becoming a member of the National Convention, and nearly losing his life in the Reign of Terror.
His most famous book, Rights of Man, became an international bestseller and an inspiration to generations of fighters for democracy.
Many aspects of today’s modern world would shock him. He would be surprised that Britain still has a monarchy, unelected peers and no written constitution. He would be dismayed that the problem of world peace remains as intractable as ever. He might have also been surprised by how long it took for some of his ideas and campaigns to achieve success – universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, free universal education, old age pensions...
Paine’s last years were sad ones; when he died in New York in 1809 only six mourners attended his funeral and his grave was simply under a tree on his farm just outside the city.
William Cobbett was a popular radical journalist, who was in America when the Peterloo Massacre took place in Manchester on 16 August 1819 - armed cavalrymen attacked a large, peaceful crowd of men, women and children who had assembled to listen to speakers calling for the political reform of parliament; at least 18 died, with many hundreds injured. Cobbett was appalled by this and recorded his reactions in his newspaper, Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, a run of which is held in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the city across the river from Manchester (and which also holds a marvellous collection of Paine’s writings).
Thomas Paine was a heroic figure to Cobbett, and in the aftermath of Peterloo he hatched a bizarre plan to dig up Paine’s body, bring it back to England and build a suitable resting place there. More dramatically, he hoped to use the bones as a rallying point to inspire revolution in the name of liberty and democracy.
Cobbett landed with Paine’s bones in Liverpool in November 1819, and brought them to an inn in Irlam, west of Salford, aiming to bring them in to Manchester to a dinner of his supporters. However he was refused entry to Manchester by the authorities, with the horrors of Peterloo just three months previously still fresh. A messenger arrived from the Constables of Manchester and Salford, telling Cobbett: '...we consider such an assemblage of a great mass of the population of this district, in the present situation of the County, is necessarily attended with considerable danger to the public peace. We do therefore caution you against making any public Entry into the Town of Manchester’. The word was that the army were being deployed, with cannon near the bridge by which Cobbett was expected to pass from Salford into Manchester. Such was the power still of the revolutionary nature of Paine’s writings – the authorities felt that he was dangerous even in death.
Cobbett took heed of this warning and instead headed south. The bones were still among his effects when he died fifteen years later – but, in a final twist to the tale, were later lost...
To mark the bicentenary of this curious event and to celebrate Paine’s revolutionary writings and ideas, the Working Class Movement Library and outdoor arts experts Walk the Plank are working together to deliver a fascinating community-driven project.
A processional skeleton puppet has paraded at various locations, including the Peterloo Massacre site, and on Saturday 30 November everyone is invited to join the puppet plus musicians and dancers to create a new and artistic ending for this 200 year old story, as “Paine’s bones” finally make it across the River Irwell to Manchester. Meanwhile there will be an exhibition at the Library, Thomas Paine: citizen of the world, starting 27 November and running until the end of March, Wednesdays-Fridays 1-5pm and the first Saturday of the month, with events alongside including a public reading of Paine’s Common Sense.