The Rise of Thomas Paine and the Case of the Officers of Excise by Paul Myles (Lewes: The Thomas Paine Society UK, 2018)
When John Adams noticed in the American Crisis II, which first appeared in January 1777, Thomas Paine’s comment that he had never published “a syllable in England in my life,” the declaration might have raised an eyebrow. Many years later in his autobiography, Adams said the remark caused him to distrust Paine and his word. That’s because Adams learned at some point that Paine had written The Case of the Officers of Excise, a pamphlet printed in England in 1772 exposing rampant corruption in the British Excise Service. The history of that pamphlet, how Paine came to write it and the circumstances surrounding the choice of Paine to write the tract, are the subject of a small but important study recently published by Paul Myles, a British author and head of the Thomas Paine Society UK.
John Adams apparently didn’t have much concern about Paine’s veracity in the spring of 1777, because soon after the appearance of Crisis II Adams nominated Paine to serve as America’s first secretary of the foreign affairs committee in the Congress, a position he held for several years until being forced to resign after leaking sensitive diplomatic information in the press about the Silas Deane affair. But Adams surely had the same questions as everyone else: where had Paine, a recent arrival to America, gotten his ideas and “manly” writing style, as Adams put it? Myles’s book helps fill in the blanks.
While doing research on Paine, Myles stumbled onto a treasure trove of boxes in the National Archives in Kew southwest of London. The Treasury department materials, containing some original signatures of the excisemen who were petitioning to improve their awful working conditions at the time Paine wrote his pamphlet, change some previous understandings of Paine’s early life. As Myles’s reminds us in his book, the pamphlet The Rise of Thomas Paine and the Case of the Officers of Excise was not actually published and sold to the public until many years later in England, in 1793. This has been known for some time now. So, Paine was not misleading his readers as Adams assumed. Paine had, however, written letters to the local newspaper prior to coming to America while he was an exciseman in Lewes. And those got him noticed.
In his book, Myles points out it was Paine’s experience as an outrider in the service, his “coming of age” in Lewes (an “independently-minded, dissenting county town”), Paine’s own unfair treatment as an exciseman, and his exposure to movers and shakers of progressive local and national politics, that helped Paine form his political views and find his voice as a promising writer. That, plus Paine’s upbringing in Thetford—another rural town but a rotten borough at the time, unlike Lewes—shaped Paine’s concern for the working poor and his increasing rejection of a rigid class-based society.
Although the excise officers’ petition to the Treasury ministry in London and Paine’s pamphlet came to nothing at the time, the effort can now be seen, Myles argues, as the world’s first attempt at organizing ordinary government workers on a national scale to improve their pay and working conditions. The Treasury spotted this untoward behavior immediately because the petition was quickly and summarily rejected, after years of work to organize it and obtain signatures. The word “nil” was dismissively written on the petition a few days after it was received by the Treasury. A photograph reproduced in Myles’s book shows this word as it appears at the end of the petition.
Myles recognizes Paine’s influence on nascent working-class movements and unionization of workers years after his death, a view shared by American historian Eric Foner in his book Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. But Paine’s influence is not acknowledged, it should be noted, by another British author, J.C.D. Clark. In his book Thomas Paine: Britain, America & France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution, which I recently reviewed in this publication, Clark suggests that Paine was not all that empathic to the plight of the working poor and that he exhibited little in the way of a working-class consciousness. Myles also points out that at the time he wrote The Case, Paine was still a loyal British subject.
In his research, Myles made a very important discovery based on the new records of the Excise Service. It has always been assumed that Paine wrote The Case on behalf of 3,000 excise officers who somehow collectively chose him from among their ranks to collect signatures of the excisemen for the petition and write the pamphlet. The records show, however, that the effort took place over at least four years, that signatures were collected at various times involving numerous individuals (it would be impossible for one person to accomplish this, Myles demonstrates), and that, most importantly, the directive for Paine to write his pamphlet came not from below, from the many officers themselves, but instead from on high, from a commissioner of the Excise Service. That information rewrites the story of how Paine was chosen to write The Case.
Paine wrote in a letter to playwright Oliver Goldsmith (whom, Myles reveals, Paine never met) in the year the pamphlet was published that the petition was “circulated through every part of the kingdom, and signed by all the officers therein.” But those signatures, until recently, were missing. Now, a review of the petition and what signatures were found reveals that the long process to petition Parliament eventually culminated in the work of two individuals, Paine, an exciseman in the service, and George Lewis Scott, a commissioner at the highest level of the service who picked Paine for the task. (It was also Scott who introduced Paine to Benjamin Franklin, who helped Paine immigrate to America in 1774 by providing him with letters of introduction.)
How Scott learned of Paine and chose him to write The Case is a very interesting part of Myles’s book. And the connections, as described by Myles, among Scott, Paine and Franklin are equally intriguing. In addition, Myles debunks several myths about this formative period in Paine’s life. For example, that Paine had to declare bankruptcy after the collapse of his marriage and business partnership with his second wife, Elizabeth Ollive, in Lewes. Wrong. Or that Paine cheated on his responsibilities as an exciseman. In fact, the charges against him which led to his dismissal from the service, twice, were bogus.
Myles’s book is a good read. It makes an important contribution to the literature on Paine and his early life and development. And it’s another good book about Paine from the perspective of a British author.
I have only one minor quibble with the book. I think readers would have benefited from a brief picture of Paine’s background, upbringing, education, etc., provided somewhere at the beginning. As it is, one has to piece together these things as the book progresses. But that, as I say, is a minor concern. Because the book is based on primary materials previously unknown to Paine researchers and scholars, it is a very worthwhile addition for historians and others interested in Paine’s formative years and how they shaped his contributions to the American Revolution in particular and progressive political thought in general.
Available as a paperback or e-book, the book’s 103 pages include significant appendix research materials and a reprint of The Case of the Officers of Excise.
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