Thomas Paine, “Agrarian Justice” and Comments on Capital Punishment

My reading has been slowed this weekend do to a “daddy-daughter” weekend, but I did manage to work through some more of Tom Paine between playground visits and other academic labors.  In about three hundred pages, the LOA volume on Thomas Paine included all of The American Crisis, “Agrarian Justice”, some of his letters – including  a fascinating defense of The Age of Reason directed to Samuel Adams, and some of his writings from his participation in the French Revolution.  I will not go through all of these.  Many are dealing with issues of funding the American Revolution or, as in the “Crisis” pamphlets, expand on the themes of Common Sense or can best be classified as revolutionary propaganda.

Let me first deal with his failed attempt to preserve the life of Louis Capet (Louis XVI, King of France).  Now Paine was a strong supporter of the French Revolution, without any doubt.  This was maintained even though he almost lost his head in the Terror.  His argument is useful to us, particularity as we think about crime and punishment in our own time.  One of his arguments was that we should make a distinction between the position of monarchy (which we should violent toward) and the person who happens to be king (who may or may not suffer the same fate as the position).  “I am inclined to believe that if Louis Capet had been born in an obscure condition, had he lived within the circle of an amiable and respectable neighborhood, at liberty to practice the duties of domestic life, had he been thus situated, I cannot believe that he would have shewn himself destitute of social virtues.” (382)  What is useful about this to us is that this opinion applied broadly almost makes capital punishment impossible.  Who is to say that any run of the mill their or murderer would have been a member of a cooperative and stable community or family?  It would be not enough to prove a crime (certainly Paine could have pointed out crimes of Louis XVI) but the accuser would also need to prove a degree of irreparable malice that is disentangled from their life – an impossible position to argue.  His second argument was that Louis Capet should be praised and defended as a supporter of American liberty during the Revolutionary war.  The third, an again, quite apt for us is that capital punishment was a tool of monarchy and should not be used recklessly by the new republic.  “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 on their oppressors.  But it becomes us to be strictly on our guard against the abomination and perversity of Monarchical examples.” (387-388)

Louis Capet as King Louis XVI

For a brief summary of Robespierre’s position in response to this seen this clip of Zizek.

“Agrarian Justice” will long be remembered and used by leftist, not because it provides a plan that is applicable to our own life, but rather because it makes one of the clearest cases for each human being’s stake to a share of the Commons.  Paine’s plan in “Agrarian Justice”  was basically a citizen’s wage to be paid at the age of 21 paid through an inheritance tax.  Combined this has the goal of giving everyone their rightful share of the earth’s and their ancestor’s inheritance, while also ensuring that no family would have a unacceptable claim to power through entrenched wealth (a cause, as you might recall of aristocratic power).  “It is not charity but a right – not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for.  . . . Thought I care as little about riches as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good.  I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it.”  (405)  This final point seems to be drawn from Locke, who claimed a labor theory of property rights as long as enough was left behind for the potential prosperity of all others.  I will not make the case here, but I think we can use this principle to make a Lockean argument against property in most of its forms that manifest in a capitalist society, everything from banks owing foreclosed homes while the homeless flood the streets, to capital abstractly owning factories worked by others.

The basic principle of the Commons that Paine posits here is that since no one made the earth or “civilization” the most just way to distribute the wealth and value contained in these areas is through basic equality.  “I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be, the COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE — that in that state every person would have been born to property — and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those who it dispossessed, without provided, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.” (400-401)

The Diggers made the same argument, but informed it with religious zeal.

Peter Linebaugh discusses the history of the idea of the Commons here.


In addition to working on Paine, I read Beer and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880-1914 by Tom Goyens.  This text is a nice study of the German anarchists in Southern Manhattan and Brooklyn during the turn of the century.  As many other scholars have pointed out, 19th century American radicalism was aided by the strong ethnic working class communities.  The “Beer” part of the title likely attracted my attention and Goyens does suggest the strong role that taverns played in cultivating anarchist communities in New York.  Most of the discussion on this point comes in his coverage of the geography of anarchism in New York, which did seem to be connected to the beerhalls, singing societies, and working class organizations of all types.  Of these Justus Schwab’s saloon on First street was the most well documented.  He shows how the beerhall itself was not only a meeting place for radicals but also served as a sustainer of a radical historical memory.  On the saloon, I still prefer Bryan Palmer’s more general account given in Cultures of Darkness, which I will certainly blog on in the future.   Still, Goyens supports my position that anarchism has to be lived in communities (as in Chicago before Haymarket or in 1930s Barcelona) if it can be sustained.  Goyens almost makes us want to add New York at the turn of the century as another place where anarchism was a lived tradition of many, and not a subculture or lifestyle.


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