Thursday, 10 April 2008

Tom Paine: The Power of the Printing Press

Paine and the Power of the Printing Press; Printing in Lewes

The printing press had spread the words of the vernacular bible (Gutenburg’s first printed bible appeared about 1455), and had encouraged a more literal translation and interpretation. Wycliffe and the Lollards had spread their message through the south of England. In 1538 Tyndale’s new translation of the Bible appeared in every church in the country.

William Lee (1713-86), a native of Chichester, published and printed The Lewes Journal from 1745, and was joined for a few years by Verrall. [see Colin Brent's Georgian Lewes, p124. Verrall had been paid by the Borough to print notices during the smallpox outbreak of 1731]. Lee was the founder and printer of Lewes’s weekly newspaper, The Sussex Weekly Advertiser; or, The Lewes Journal, was, with Paine, a member of the political discussion club, now popularly known as the Headstrong Club. Coloured by Whiggery and republicanism, the Journal reprinted the letters of ‘Junius,’ attacking the government. Other articles criticised the British state and its colonial system, ‘Tory tormenters,’ English despotism, the nobility, the gulf between rich and poor, superstition (in the name of ‘liberty of the mind,’ ‘plain truth’ and ‘common sense,’ and praised public virtue.

Lee was a great supporter of Wilkes, whom he viewed as a ‘great patriot.’ In August 1770, Wilkes passed through Lewes, where he was given a hero’s welcome with pealing bells and applauding crowds, and it is possible that Paine met him on this occasion. All raised the cry of ‘Wilkes and Liberty,’ evidence that Wilkes’s appeal to the people and the ‘rights of electors’ met with popular support. By his raising the question of rights, Wilkes had brought into the area of public debate the crucial issues of the basic rights of the people (i.e. the King’s subjects), the relationship between the electorate (at that time only a tiny proportion of the population) and its representatives, and public influence on the structures of government and the constitution.

In 1772 (when Paine was still in Lewes), Lee moved his press to 64 High Street, where his sons William (1747-1830) and Arthur (1759-1824) succeeded him.

Lee remembered Paine as ‘a shrewd and sensible fellow’ who displayed an abnormal ‘depth of political knowledge,’ and eulogised him thus:

Immortal PAINE! While mighty reasoners jar,
We crown thee General of the Headstrong War;
Thy logic vanquish’d error, and thy mind
No bounds, but those of right and truth, confined.
Thy soul of fire must sure ascend the sky,
Immortal PAINE, thy fame can never die;
For men like thee their names must ever save
From the black edicts of the tyrant grave.

Paine was reputed to have ‘perseverance in a good cause and obstinacy in a bad one,’ and perhaps some of his conceit arose from the acclaim he received for his performances at the Headstrong Club. During his time in Lewes he also developed his writing skills, and it is possible that he was the author of several pieces in The Lewes Journal. [Letters about his invention of a fire escape, and about the evil practice of parishes transporting sick paupers from parish to parish until they were deposited in their parish of birth]. Lee carried out a certain amount of printing for Paine, notably the The Case of the Officers of Excise.

Paine was dismissed from the excise office after he published a strong argument in 1772, while living and working in Lewes, for an increase in pay as the only way to end corruption in the service. Excisemen were underpaid and disgruntled, and he had been asked to state their case in a petition to Parliament. They wanted not only more pay and better conditions of work, but the right to organise among themselves and to criticise their employer – the Crown. In the summer of 1772 he wrote several documents in this vein, and in late November or December he went on leave to London. Here he spent three months lobbying MPs and others to further the Excisemen’s cause, using as his headquarters the Excise Coffee House in Broad Street.

With sympathetic colleagues he circulated copies of the single sheet tract, A Letter concerning the Nottingham Officers, and a 21-page pamphlet entitled The Case of the Officers of Excise, 4,000 copies of which were printed at William Lee’s Lewes Journal office. Lee also printed the Letter, a leaflet and a petition. Paine sent a copy of The Case of the Officers of Excise to the playright Oliver Goldsmith, a man of radical leanings, and the two became good friends. Goldsmith had already written a biography of Voltaire, and The Deserted Village, a critique of a society ‘where wealth accumulates and men decay.’ Most of the 3,000 English Excisemen signed the petition, but Parliament rejected it outright. When he returned to Lewes in April [?] 1773, he found that he had lost his job.


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