The Paine Burnings

Today in Britain, there are some practices which we view with a kind of gentle paternalism; they’re customs which we think beneath us, or too antiquated to be of use. One of them is the practice of burning people in effigy, something which is now only practiced by oddballs, people whose ideas of vengeance and often humour are remarkably primitive.

Modern spectacle has more or less made the scene of a burning shine less brightly. We have better things to do; why stand around in the cold to insult and demonise someone when it’s far easier to write something nasty and simply send it out to millions of potential readers over the Internet?

But this sort of activity retains a kind of primal potency. And at one stage in Britain there was a veritable hysteria, when one man was burnt in effigy hundreds of times in the course of less than a year. This was not some druidic ritual, something to examine through the fog of time and investigate with a light-hearted flippancy; this spate of burnings took place barely 200 years ago, and they were used to demonise and physically destroy the image of one of the heroes of the European Enlightenment, Thomas Paine.

Much of the information which follows is contained in Frank O’Gorman’s excellent article, “The Paine Burnings of 1792-1793”, which was first published in Past and Present. The story is a fascinating and possibly worrying one.


Effigies of Thomas Paine were burnt across the country, and on a vast scale. His body was repeatedly – though metaphorically – cast into the flames, a remarkably potent symbol, something resembling the medieval punishment for heresy. Paine’s crime was not necessarily religious, however; instead the heresy he had committed was political: it was a heresy against the nature of British government, a crime against property and the memory of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. His crime, more than anything else, was writing a book, his Rights of Man.

O’Gorman’s argument is that the ‘burnings were a complex and multifaceted reaction to a perceived crisis both national and local’. But this did not diminish the remarkable scenes which ensued, in which a ceremonial ‘Tom’, sometimes paraded around and whipped, sometimes forced to confess to his crimes, was thrown into the fire for the good of the British people.

It is essential to remember the following: ‘there is no doubt’, O’Gorman writes, ‘that the ritual of the burnings provoked mass participation in a public ritual which bristled with implications about the nature and location of social and political power’.

Paine’s book had caused outrage and hysteria. It was banned and he was eventually forced to flee to France, and ended up an exile. The climate in which his writings were received was particularly ferocious. The French Revolution had erupted less than half a decade ago. In the words of Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, this was, extraordinary: ‘All circumstances taken together, the French revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world.’

In the febrile atmosphere which followed, Paine, with his seemingly outrageous views, was a prime target. He was targeted by those who wanted to protect English and British society as it was; they were reactionaries in the clearest distillation of the term. O’Gorman takes up the story and summarises the remarkable atmosphere:

Even though he was no longer in the country, Paine had by now become a symbolic focus of fear and hatred. In the closing weeks of 1792 people were obsessed with Tom Paine. It was commonly assumed that he was plotting a revolution in England from his base in Paris as the French Revolutionary armies swept across Europe.

A sober investigation of such a charged event is difficult to undertake, not least because newspaper reports of the burnings were so lively and partisan. But a sober analysis is necessary, and for the winter of 1792-3, O’Gorman ‘counted no fewer than 286 burnings’. ‘This figure, however’, he writes, ‘must be a considerable underestimate.’ Such a thing was, as O’Gorman writes, ‘absolutely unprecedented’. The scale of the thing is still astonishing today.

The thing played out like a perverse morality tale – part sermon and part circus.

Although the burnings were subject to infinite local variation, we have here many of their principal features: the tumultuous and crowded streets; the symbolic presentation of the effigy as a common criminal; the parading of the effigy through the village or town, usually on a cart or wagon; the ordered finery of the processions; the participation of the crowd in the community singing of “God Save the King”; the compelling combination of entertainment and moralizing; the formal dispatching of the effigy into the flames.

This was ritualistic; it was explicitly, in some cases, religious. It must have been a sight. It is no wonder, then, that so many took part.

Returning to the theme of ritual, ‘[e]ffective ritual must appeal to all the senses if an audience is to be drawn into the drama of the occasion, if the event is to be experienced and not merely watched’. And it was quite an experience.

This experience was one shared by many thousands of people; doing the calculations as best he can, O’Gorman arrives at the statement that ‘we may conclude that a total of at least half a million people attended the burnings of Paine, that is about one-sixth of the adult population of England and Wales’. Ritualistic work of this sort seems so far away from our contemporary political culture, where politicians are scorned and mocked, as they were in the Hanoverian period, but perhaps to a greater degree; the real distinction, however, is to be found in the difference between received opinion and state-sanctioned emotional experience.

Stirring up hatred on this scale must have been quite an undertaking.

Paine burnings required a formidable degree of planning. The manufacture of the effigy in all his elaborate finery, the deployment of the parades and processions, the organization of the music, the supply of food and drink, the construction of the bonfire and the manufacture of the gibbets and gallows demanded considerable preparation. And, as we have seen, loyalists were keenly aware of the power of words, music and colour to arouse popular sentiment.

This suggests such protests were organised, but the question now asks by whom. There were financial inducements for those who played their parts, and also free food for the common folk who watched and participated, by their presence, in the ritual.

Suspicion must fall on the Pitt government, which undoubtedly possessed the resources to put on a show of this sort. And, as many historians and latter day polemicists will mention, the Pitt ministry had its own reasons for stirring up counter-revolutionary sentiment: it wanted to prevent a similar thing, a similar confrontation of property and what were considered the foundations of a strong, just society. It wanted to preserve the revolution of 1688 against the revolution of 1789. Some will even tell you, despite there being a lag between the burnings and these acts coming into force, that Pitt and George III wanted to prepare the ground for the repeal of Habeas Corpus, and the institution of the Treason and Seditious Meetings acts.

Certainly, this is what Charles James Fox, leader of the opposition Whigs, thought was going on; he said as much, that monarchy and tyranny were preparing to crush democracy. Such hyperbole can, I think, be justified in retrospect.

But things are more complex than this easy explanation, as they so often are. ‘Although elite sponsorship undoubtedly triggered them, this fact alone does not preclude genuine popular enthusiasm for the burnings.’

There was little difficulty convincing people to take to the streets; they only knew about Paine what they had been told about him – that he was dangerous, suspicious, heretical; and this was only exacerbated by the ordinary demands of spectacle: ‘People were normally ready to relish the experience of a popular festival.’

There were some dissenting voices, some of them actual Dissenters in religious terms; some people wore mourning garb for ‘Tom’ and also attempted to rescue the effigy from the flames; this suggests that things were less one-sided, and communities were more fractured and less uniform, than first glance would suggest.


Only a year before, in 1791, the laboratory of Joseph Priestley was burnt to the ground by a ‘Church and King’ mob. They wanted to punish him for his dissenting religious views. In the short term they succeeded. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem, “Religious Musings”, in the same decade as both the Priestley Riots and the Paine burnings. It is worth remembering for more reasons than that.

Lo ! Priestley there, patriot, and saint, and sage,
Him, full of years, from his loved native land
Statesmen blood-stained and priests idolatrous
By dark lies maddening the blind multitude
Drove with vain hate.

That’s how to write, and it’s true confrontation of an atavistic an unpleasant impulse which is not entirely absent from the world today.