Common Sense

By Caleb Laster, Collections Management Intern


THEHM : 2009.2.1

The above image of James Gillray’s Caricature of Thomas Paine, entitled ‘The Rights of Man; or Tommy Paine the Little American Taylor, Taking the Measure of the Crown for a New Pair of Revolution-breeches,’ presents an interesting aspect of history.  As a political cartoon, the image is meant to mock Thomas Paine and his beliefs. At the time of its creation, Paine was participating in the French Revolution and while the image would not be published until 1851, it reflects a time when the British government was concerned with the French Revolution spreading to England.

Both the cartoon and Paine himself serve as an interesting example of a historical debate. First the cartoon brings into question how people should view Thomas Paine. From this depiction of him it could be inferred that his contemporaries viewed him as a trouble maker intent to spread revolution to England. On the other hand, modern histories often frame Pain as a scholar and influential enlightenment writer.


THEHM : DS.144, Portrait of Thomas Paine in oils, copy of George Romney’s portrait of Thomas Paine

To be honest, my original interest in this object and Paine’s role in history was sparked from a line of text from A History of Norfolk in 100 Objects, which described Paine as a founding father of the United States. Having grown up in the states this came as a surprise to me. While I was taught about Thomas Paine in connection to the American Revolution, it was always about his writings. Specifically, his pamphlet Common Sense, which greatly influenced the American elites and leaders of the revolution. This led me to further research who is considered to be a founding father of the U.S., a term that is used loosely throughout the U.S. when talking about influential figures of the revolution. While I never found an end-all be-all list of who is and who isn’t a founding father, the search itself made me reconsider how I looked at Paine and thought of him in relationship to a wider history.


THEHM : 1976.454, Photograph of a painting of Thomas Paine, portrait

In this way, this cartoon published more than 150 years ago re-energised my interest in American history and led me to consider multiple ways of viewing Thomas Paine. It can sometimes be frustrating that history does not have clear cut answers that we wish it had and it is often easy to be overwhelmed by debates between historians. However, such debates can be insightful and help present different perspectives on history that you may have never considered before.

To find out more about Thomas Paine, why not visit Ancient House Museum in Thetford which features objects on display relating to Thomas Paine.

This cartoon of Thomas Paine features in the excellent ‘History of Norfolk in 100 Objects’ by John A. Davies and Tim Pestell which is available for sale in Norwich Castle gift shop or can be ordered online.

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