In 1792, on this day at the Port of Dover in Kent, republican intellectual Thomas Paine was arrested on charges of seditious libel.
Bring it on HomePaine had been charged with "inflammatory eloquence" at a gathering of the "Friends of Liberty" on September 12th. As he rose to leave, William Blake laid his hand on the orator's shoulder, saying, "You must not go home, or you are a dead man".
"Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens ... It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set foot for the promotion of idolatry"Paine planned to flee the country along with his companions Frost and Audibert. However, they never made it to France because the collector of customs had received general instructions to be vigilant, and searched the three men, even to their pockets. Whereupon sealed letters were discovered, given into Paine's charge by the American minister in London, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. One letter was addressed to the American minister at Paris, the other to a private gentleman; a letter from the president of the United States, and a letter from the secretary of State in America. Whilst his friends attempted to intercede on his behalf, Paine's warrant arrived and he was put under arrest. Had he arrived just twenty minutes earlier, Paine would most likely have missed the order and made it to Revolutionary France.
"What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly"On 18th December Paine was charged at The Guildhall, London, that he "being a person of a wicked, malicious and seditious disposition" etc "did publish that the crown of this kingdom was contrary to the rights of the inhabitants" and so forth. The Attorney-General, who prosecuted, said that he would not read out the many "false, wicked and scandalous assertions" but would read only a few more, such as "to inherit a crown is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds". The famous Thomas Erskine defended Paine but the carefully selected jury, which received two guineas each and a free dinner for a conviction and nothing otherwise, decided to return a verdict of guilty. Paine was hung, and laws were soon passed to restrict free speech and publication. Almost inevitably, martyrdom transformed Paine into a rallying point for English revolutionaries. And so after his death, his revolutionary agenda would overthrow the British monarchy.
During the 1960s, Socialist Prime Minister Tony Benn would often refer to Paine's punchy political language and his inspirational quest for accountable government, presenting copies of Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason to the Heads of State from Developing Nations.