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University talks celebrate Englishman behind America’s revolution

Radical image: Dr Richard Whatmore and the mural of Tom Paine in his former home town of Lewes

A day of public lectures organised by the University of Sussex will launch this year’s Tom Paine Festival in Lewes, East Sussex.

The Tom Paine Forum: Politics and Revolution – marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the radical thinker who became one of America’s Founding Fathers after leaving his home in Lewes in East Sussex.

The lectures, organised by the University’s Sussex Centre for Intellectual History and funded by the University’s School of Humanities and the Teaching and Learning Development Unit (TLDU), are part of ten days of events in the historic town of Lewes, four miles from the University campus. Book-ended by Independence Day (July 4) and Bastille Day (July 14), the festival celebrates one of the historic town’s most famous former residents.

The lectures, which are free and open to all, take place in the Corn Exchange, Lewes Town Hall. Speakers will include leading 18th-century scholars from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Warwick, York and Exeter. They will discuss various aspects of Tom Paine’s life, work and historical importance, as well as contemporary opinion expressed in the colourful satirical caricatures of the period.

The University is involved in further projects to ensure Tom Paine scholarship of the future:

  • The lectures will be filmed, thanks to funding from the TLDU and will be available to view on the Sussex Centre for Intellectual History’s university web page during the summer;
  • The films will form part of the teaching materials for an ongoing ‘global-interactive’ new course on Tom Paine, which runs via a live online link-up between the University of Sussex and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, USA;
  • The University of Sussex has established a research studentship, with additional funding from local brewers Harveys of Lewes (who also makes the celebration ale Tom Paine). The current holder is studying for a doctorate and will be investigating the reaction of contemporaries to Tom Paine’s ideas.

Organiser and University of Sussex Reader in Intellectual History Dr Richard Whatmore will convene the event along with Lewes deputy Mayor Dr Mike Turner. The event is hosted by the Mayor of Lewes, Amanda Dean.

Dr Whatmore, an expert on French, British and Swiss intellectual history during the 18th and early 19th centuries, says: “Tom Paine’s political ideas were among the most radical ever expressed by an Englishman, entailing the abolition of monarchy, aristocracy and national church. Paine believed that a republican revolution would make the world more peaceful and commercial in a way that would be compatible with public morals.

Paine was also one of the most gifted pamphleteers of the age, and one of the very few whose ideas penetrated the masses. His words and ideas continue to interest, and on occasion inspire, students and the general public. As a rare democrat in an aristocratic age, Paine still has much to say to us about politics, religion and international relations. For these reasons we are delighted to be able to contribute to the Paine Festival, to make an educational link between the University and the local community and to create a permanent teaching resource.”

Tom Paine, an excise man and tobacconist, lived in Bull House in Lewes in East Sussex from 1768 to 1774. There he developed his ideas about society, government and politics before he abandoned England in disgust at its imperial ways for the American colonies. Just two years later, he became one of the Founding Fathers of American independence and went on to co-author the republican French constitution in 1793.

As the writer of world-changing books and pamphlets such as The Rights of Man and Common Sense (which inspired the American War of Independence), Paine is celebrated as an inspirational thinker whose influence extends to today. Visitors from all over the world come to Lewes because of Tom Paine, and Barack Obama quoted Paine in his inaugural speech when he was sworn in as President earlier this year.

Yet Paine remains relatively uncelebrated in his home country, perhaps as a result of his rejection of all things British, which fuelled a crisis of Britishness in the 1790s. The patriotic reaction was embodied in the character John Bull, who came to represent ‘traditional British values’.

Tom Paine died a drunken pauper in Philadelphia USA in 1809, his revolutionary ideals at the last rejected by the Americans, who denounced him as anti-Christian.

The Lewes festival celebrates Paine’s links with the town, the progressive politics of which, it is argued, led Paine to develop his extraordinary career.

Notes for Editors

The Tom Paine Forum: Politics and Revolution

10am to 11.30am

  • Professor Gareth Stedman-Jones (Cambridge): ‘Tom Paine and the French Revolution’
  • Professor Jon Mee (Warwick): ‘The Trial of Tom Paine’
  • Dr Mark Philp (Oxford): ‘Tom Paine the great democrat?’

11.30am-11.45amBreak for coffee/tea


  • Professor John Barrell (York): ‘Portraits and caricatures of Paine’
  • Professor Iain Hampsher-Monk (Exeter): ‘Tom Paine and the escape from history’

For full details of this event and others in the Tom Paine Festival in Lewes, see the Tom Paine and Lewes web site.


  • John Bull baited by the dogs of excise, James Gillray, print etching and aquatint, 1790, nla.pic-an5955565-v courtesy of the Pictures Collection, National Library of Australia.<
  • John Bull taking a luncheon, James Gillray, National Maritime Museum, London.
  • A little-known caricature of Tom Paine, hanged, by the caricaturist Overton, courtesy of Professor John Barrell.

For further information, contact the University of Sussex Press office

Last updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2012