How Thetford’s most famous son became a forgotten figure
PUBLISHED: 15:10 11 February 2014 | UPDATED: 15:10 11 February 2014
He has been described as “the most influential writer in modern human history” and the father of the American revolution.
Who was Thomas Paine?
These days Thomas Paine’s reputation is riding high.
Praised as a democratic hero and a man ahead of his time on both sides of the Atlantic, it is a far cry from 200 years ago when he was considered a traitor in this country.
Even in the second half of the last century, the suggestion he should be honoured with a statue in Thetford caused uproar and he is still more renowned in America than in Britain.
Born in Thetford in 1737, in modest circumstances, he was to alienate many English people with his radical writing and sympathies.
He supported revolutions aimed against his own country in America and France, which led to indictment for treason in the 1790s.
Paine may have encountered the first inequalities that later galled him while at what is now Thetford Grammar School, for his family was not rich.
On leaving school, aged about 13, he had a better education than most boys of his class.
Talented but frustrated, Paine tried several jobs as sailor, schoolteacher and exciseman.
Influenced by his friend Benjamin Franklin, the articulate spokesman for the American colonists at loggerheads with the British government, his future course was set.
In 1774, aged 37, he set sail for America and was thrust headlong into the propaganda war leading to revolution.
An effective writer, Paine was the first to use the term United States of America and his writings helped sustain American morale during the War of Independence.
Back in England in 1791 he wrote his best-known work, The Rights of Man, a defence of the French Revolution and a clarion call for democracy.
Paine demanded votes for all, abolition of monarchy, religious toleration and an end to war.
In the 1790s, with Britain fighting for its existence against Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, such sentiments were dangerous.
He had to flee for his life.
Making for revolutionary France, he was initially hailed a hero but later came close to being guillotined during the Terror. Despite this, he wrote The Age of Reason, reiterating his call for religious freedom.
He died in America in 1809, controversial to the end.
Yet despite being born in Thetford, those committed to keeping alive the memory of Thomas Paine fear the town may have forgotten its most famous son.
Now, as his modern-day supporters mark the 50th anniversary of a Paine statue installed in Thetford town centre, residents are being urged to find out more about one of history’s leading political theorists.
“People in Thetford have got to have more knowledge about him,” said Stuart Wright, Thetford’s mayor and a member of the Thomas Paine Society set up in the writer’s memory.
“He is Thetford’s most famous son, yet I don’t think we do enough for him really.
“His life story is fantastic. There are lots of people who live in the town who pay no attention to the story behind the man.
“Whether you agree with his writings or not, people need to learn a little more about him.”
Mr Wright believes that historically, that lack of recognition might have something to do with Paine’s revolutionary nature.
Paine rose to fame after meeting publishing a short pamphlet entitled ‘Common Sense’, which made the case for American independence from British rule.
That should have earned him the elite status as one of the country’s founding fathers – but when back in England in 1791 he wrote The Rights of Man, a defence of the French Revolution and a call for democracy.
Given that Britain was fighting Napoleon’s France at the time, his views did not go down well. He had to flee for his life and his reputation was left in tatters, with the plan to put the statue in Thetford attracting much opposition in 1964.
However, his standing has since recovered, with current US President Barack Obama quoting Paine in his 2009 inauguration speech.
However, Mr Wright believes there are other more practical reasons why Paine might have been forgotten.
“If you look back 50 years, you didn’t have access to the internet and you actually had to go down to the library and get a book out to find out about him,” Mr Wright said.
“Being more than 100 years old, his work was still quite heavy going. Today, there is greater access to people’s stories.”
Mr Wright hopes events like the Thomas Paine Lecture at the University of East Anglia later this year will help to raise awareness.
Gez Chetal, the owner of the Thomas Paine Hotel – Paine’s birthplace – also organised an event attended by 40 people to celebrate the historic writer’s birthday.
Mr Chetal plans to make it an annual occasion.
“People come from as far as America to see Thomas Paine’s birthplace yet if you ask children at local colleges, no-one has heard of him,” he said. “We’ve got memorabilia all around the hotel and I’m going to promote Thomas Paine as much as I can.
“There is so much history on our doorstep which we don’t realise.”
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