“Fashion before Ease – or – A good Constitution sacrificed for a Fantastick Form”, 1793, by James Gillray: Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man is shown as a tape measure hanging from his pocket
By DAVID HORSPOOL
We don’t often do scoops at the TLS, and a History Editor is used to being teased that his idea of a scoop is a story about something that happened more than 200 years ago. But this week we are running an article in our Commentary pages by the distinguished historian and long-cherished contributor Jonathan Clark, "Monuments to Liberty", in which he argues that Thomas Paine didn’t write part of Rights of Man. And not just any part, but the bit that describes the run-up to and early weeks of the French Revolution.
Those 6,000 words, Clark contends, have skewed the way we have interpreted the French Revolution ever since. We have taken them as the authority of an eyewitness, a man who was present not just at the French but also the American revolution, and knew whereof he wrote. But many of the events Paine describes in fact happened before he arrived in France, and he couldn’t have understood many of the ones he did bear witness to, as he couldn’t speak French. The implications, Professor Clark argues, are profound for our understanding of an epoch-changing event. So, if he’s right (and he has an intriguing suggestion for who did write the passage in question), I think we have a story.