The other day, I was reading that classic work, the “Nottingham Date-Book” when I stumbled upon two little gems. The first was dated September 30th 1793 and showed a Blackadder type of world where alcohol replaces political thought:
“The Mayor’s installation banquet at the “New Change” as it was termed, was distinguished by excessive displays of loyalty. Amongst the toasts were “the King and Constitution,” with three times three, “the Duke of York and the Army,” “the Duke of Clarence and the Navy,” and so on.
The Mayor himself sang the air, “God save the King,” and his guests the chorus, followed by loud huzzas and Constitutional songs.”
These drunken fools in the past made me realise just how free Englishmen are in our present time. Free to do what your rich betters want you to do. A good citizen as long as you think exactly what you are supposed to think. And any thought of a questioning kind is just not welcome. As it is now, so it was then, back in 1793, in the era when first the Americans and then the French had found other ways to rule themselves than with a king.
The next entry in this diary of Nottingham is for November 12th 1793, in an entry where the author of the book promises us that “The spirit of the times will be observed in the following circumstances”. The events all took place in Spalding, just over forty miles from Nottingham, in neighbouring Lincolnshire.
Here is the sorry tale:
“One of the Officers of the Nottingham Regiment of Militia” states the Journal, “now lying at Spalding, went to a shoemaker’s of that place to order a pair of boots, but on observing that detestable outcast of society’s book, Paine’s Rights of Man, lying on the table, he thought proper to countermand the order, and take the book along with him. Next day, the soldiers being under arms and forming a circle round a large bonfire, this knight of the lapstone was summoned to appear before them,, and made to burn the celebrated jargon of nonsense, the music playing “God save the King” during its burning, at the end of which the soldiers and inhabitants gave three loyal huzzas, and then this wonderful would be wiseacre was suffered to depart”.
And just in case you are wondering, a lapstone is, according to the Free Dictionary, “a rounded device or stone on which leather is beaten with a hammer by a cobbler”
Here is Thomas Paine:
According to Wikipedia, Thomas Paine is exactly what you don’t want in a society run by the upper classes, especially when, deep down, they know that they are not particularly clever or competent. And they worry therefore when the ignorant peasant class produces a “political activist, philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary” like Thomas Paine, “The Father of the American Revolution”:
Paine came from Norfolk and his famous book, Rights of Man, was in part a defence of the French Revolution:
Paine believed that each individual has rights and that all the institutions that do not benefit the nation are invalid. Top of the list was the monarchy and the aristocracy.
He wanted a written Constitution for England, a national assembly and a national budget without any money to be spent on military or war expenses.
He demanded lower taxes for the poor and free education for all.
He wanted a progressive income tax, to limit the power of wealthy estates, so that a ruling class could not preserve power, whether economic, political or religious, uniquely within the nobility.
Indeed, Paine stated that the ability to govern is not hereditary. This would mean that any idea of inheritance or royal succession would be abolished.
Paine was tried in his absence for seditious libel against the King and the Royal Family but could not be hanged because he never returned to England.
At this time, George III was as mad as a fish although there are plenty of people who say that it was mostly down to the medicines given to him by his doctors.
When the doctors stopped treating him as, presumably, a hopeless case, King George got better almost straightaway.
It says a great deal for the repressive machinery of the government that those buffoons in Spalding who gave “three loyal huzzas” for the king didn’t even realise that their king was completely mad. They might just as well have gone down to the local fishmongers and pledged their undying loyalty to the largest cod on the counter.
27 responses to “Freedom and the English (1)”
I lived in Spalding 2001-2011 but I never heard that story.
Thomas Paine, what a thinker, up there with Voltaire and Rousseau.
I like the story about the film ‘The Madness of King George’. Apparently it was going to be called ‘The Madness of King George III’ but the film studio worried that in America people might think it was trilogy and they had missed I and II so wouldn’t bother with III.
Yes, there are lots of these stories tucked away in books which are now available again on the Internet. The really spooky thing is to find out that something really dramatic happened in a place you know, but 250 years before. In the centre of Nottingham, for example, way back in 1750 or whenever, two men were standing in Exchange Walk talking when a chimney stack collapsed. One was killed outright and the other lived a few days but then succumbed to his injuries. The man who sells mobile phone covers from his market stall down there doesn’t know the risk he runs!
Hereditary entitlement has often caused me great puzzlement. Luckily after our civil war, this country was subject to sweeping constitutional changes, however, it would be another 400 years until a more ‘balanced’ society would be realised. But, alas, even now, we live in a world of the have’s and the have not’s. Having said that, the alternatives often do not work. There was an ideology that socioeconomic order was structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state. Communism, morphed from a concept for the people to a state run by idealogues who became the very social elite that they eliminated in the revolution of 1917. But it is men like Thomas Paine who really change societies. you can kill the man, but you can’t kill an idea. Thanks for a great post John.
Thanks very much. You are very kind. I really worry about the way we are going. Zero hours contracts. Pay so low young people can’t afford to leave their parents. People can’t afford to buy a house. People can’t afford to rent a house. People can’t afford to go to university. Doctors start with £90,000 debts. Social mobility is virtually zero. I fear that we are returning to a slave society like it was in the Middle Ages or in the early days of the 19th century. And then you run a huge risk of people just saying that they have had enough and taking things into their own hands. We need to return to a country of small businesses with no huge corporations exploiting us just for their own ends.
He has relevance in 2017. The process of governance in America these days is polluted and perverted by the oligarchs and special interest money that buys the government. What would Thomas Paine think about America today?!
I think he would be sad that the country which held the possibility of a near perfect society with an excellent system of government and everybody more or less content, dropped the ball and it was picked up by Mr Greedy and his friends and they still have it.
Unfortunately, when it costs millions of dollars to run an election campaign, only the very very rich will be elected, even if they are mad as a fish. And the world is still awash with enough buffoons to say God save the king or hail to the chief or whatever.
That is absolutely right. I just don’t know how you get on in Australia. At one time, it used to be said over here that Australia was England without the aristocrats and that is nice to imagine. We are paralysed by excessive respect for people who do not warrant it in the least. This reached its peak when Prince Charles apparently asked the RAF not to bomb the Taliban in Afghanistan because it was Ramadan and it would upset them.
Your posts are always interesting and it good to learn something always. I read it to my son, and he has sent his regards. Lakshmi Bhat
Thank you so much for your kind words. Please pass my regards on to your son, and tell him to work hard at school and always to listen to what his mother says, and to make sure he does it.
Thank you, actually my son is an assistant professor in our university college. He has completed his PhD in English literature. He has a vision problem called Retinitis pigmentosa from birth. He has a talking software in his computer. I used to read out to him till he completed his undergraduation here. He mainly listens to his talking software for all his work. But I read out to him sometimes. Regards, Lakshmi
Thomas Paine had some valid and interesting ideas. Whilst I wouldn’t agree with them all, our current ‘mad men’ could perhaps learn a thing or two from him.
Yes, it’s rather sad that, even 150 years later, in WW1, for example, the British Army were still supporters of the idea that “the ability to govern is hereditary”. All of the top generals were serious aristocrats, as a search in Wikipedia soon shows…and they provide a stark contrast with the Canadian, Arthur Currie, from a poor farming background who proved to be better than any of them. And the modern equivalent of General Haig’s staff is Prince Charles with the letters he writes by the score to elected politicians trying to get them to do what he wants them to. It’s a pity that Paine is a prophet without very much honour in his own country.
A fascinating story. While much is made of our democratic heritage it is worth noting that from the signing of Magna Carta to the achievement of universal adult suffrage took over 700 years. My own grandmothers did not get the vote until they were in their thirties. The English were dispossessed of their land in the most egregious act of theft in our history perpetrated by William Duke of Normandy, called in his own land ‘The Bastard’, though probably not to his face. The heirs and assigns of the Normans and Plantagenets still own 90 percent of the land their ancestors expropriated some 950 years ago, amounting to almost two-thirds of the United kingdom. I recommend Kevin Cahill’s ‘Who Owns Britain’ to see just how the hereditary principle still pervades and poisons democracy in Britain.
I couldn’t have put it better myself! Apparently of the top ten richest men ever in our history, at least two of them were Norman lords who were given land by William the Conqueror. I just read “1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry” by Andrew Bridgeford and that makes similar points. This is not the last post of this kind. I got a bit carried away so I have a number of “angry old man” posts scheduled for the future.
Hi Lakshmi. I don’t know how to get my reply next to your comment so it’s down here. I do apologise. I had the completely wrong picture of your son in my mind. You must be so proud of him and of what he has done. A PhD is a wonderful thing to have achieved and I hope he enjoyed all that hard work!
Thank you dear Sir. I had written that I had read out your post to my son. So you must have imagined that he was going to school.
Yes, he enjoyed his work. He studied the works of Jorge Luis Borges, John Hull and Stephen Kuusisto. All the three writers have vision problems.
I’ve seen “The Madness of King George” too. Amazing how sympathetic you become for the King and Queen and see those pesky republicans as the enemy. Sadly I kind of dig having the monarchy but I’ve never quite gotten how people can have so much and the poor continue to struggle in poverty and ill health.
Well, it’s the old story. The rich don’t actually care and, nowadays, they engineer the media so that the poor don’t realise just how poor they are. They get into debt but still manage to buy luxury goods on credit, They think sport is important, and they watch television. Television continually tells them with talent shows that they could be rich and famous, that they all have a chance of being like the rich folk, whereas the truth is completely the opposite. It’s all done very skilfully!
Britain is an increasingly impoverished country both economically and socially. Whereas my generation could reasonably expect to buy a home, for young people now that prospect recedes further and further into an uncertain future of casual employment, part-time working and zero-hours contracts. Like the frog in gradually warming water they do not notice the gradual change until it is too late and they are boiled. When I moved to my present home town it comprised mainly owner-occupiers, or at least aspiring owners. Now, more and more, houses are being bought by letting companies and rented out. My neighbour’s children, now almost in their thirties, are compelled to live with their parents, much as was the case in the late nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties. As for the hereditary monarchy, it is to say the least an imperfect notion, but when one looks at what an ostensibly democratic vote has delivered in the USA one has to question the putative benefits of an elected head of state.
I fully agree with you about the demise of the middle classes and the almost total absence of social mobility. I’m afraid though, that I think our society is held back by having hereditary privilege. I take your point about the politicians in the USA, but nobody really seems to argue about the Presidents in either France or Germany, two roughly comparable countries. And while I’ve got the soap box out, I would like to see the total abolition of the House of Lords in its present form. Why should the Liberal Party (9 MPs roughly) have hundreds of peers who can interfere with the decisions of the democratically elected members of the Commons?
There’s a picture of Paine’s statue in Thetford https://quercuscommunity.com/2016/02/20/a-day-in-the-sun/here.
I left the politics alone in that post as I’m resigned to being a downtrodden peasant. I sometimes regret having kids when I see the world they have been born into (student debt etc). Other times I just regret having children. 🙂
Don’t be so pessimistic. Countries which make the middle classes unhappy are, literally, playing with fire. Lenin wasn’t working class. Or Trotsky. Or Robespierre. Or Guevara. Or Castro. Actually, I’ve struggled to find a revolutionary of any importance who did not come from the middle classes. And anyway, if you want free university education, free prescriptions and indefinite free care when you are completely ga-ga, you could always emigrate to a strong, free Scotland.
The son of a friend of my father has just sent his wife and kids home from Dubai to live in Scotland so they can get free University education in a few years time.
It’s a pity that Paine is a prophet without very much honour in his own country. The rich don’t actually care and, nowadays, they engineer the media so that the poor don’t realise just how poor they are.
Absolutely 100%. We are back to the days of the Roman Emperors, Louis XIV and the Romanovs.