Thomas Paine in Violence: Blog

  • The crux of Thomas Paine in Violence - Agrarian Justice (1797)

    Posted by
    Paul Pinto

    Like other artists who choose to develop a work over a significant amount of time, Thomas Paine in Violence began as one thing, but has been redefined as it has grown and deepened. In searching for what this odd piece was going to be "about", I just started reading and writing, and just this week finished the first draft of the full libretto.

    The majority of the story, if you can call it that, has become a reckoning Paine's egalitarian principles in Agrarian Justice with today's American society, through a lens of political radio pundits. In proper 21st century form, I did this by editing, shortening and sound-byting ideas in the text while trying to either preserve Paine's language, or infuse it with my own.

    Here's a first whack at an edit of Agrarian Justice, adapted from Paine's 1797 pamphlet. It's from the following text that everything else in Thomas Paine in Violence comes:


    To preserve the benefits of what we call civilized life, and, at the same time, to remedy the evil which it has produced, ought to be considered the first object of reformed legislation.

    Whether that state which is proudly, perhaps erroneously, called civilization, has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of the human race is a question that may be strongly contested. On one side, the spectator is dazzled by splendid appearances; on the other, shocked by extremes of wretchedness; both of which civilization has erected. The most affluent and the most miserable are to be found in countries that are called “civilized”.

    To understand what the state of society should be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state, in which there is not any of those spectacles of human misery and poverty. Poverty is a thing created by that which is called “civilized” life.

    Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.

    The thing, therefore, now to be done is to remedy the evils and preserve the benefits that have arisen to society by passing from the natural to that which is called the “civilized” state.

    The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if that person had been born before that period. But the fact is that the condition of millions, in every country, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began.

    It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every person would have been born to property, and thus a joint life-proprietor of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

    But the earth in its natural state is capable of supporting but a small number of inhabitants compared with what it is capable of doing in a cultivated state. And, as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth upon which that improvement has been made, the idea of landed property arose from that parable connection; but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.

    The value of the improvement has so far exceeded the value of the natural earth that the common right of all has become confounded into the cultivated right of the few.

    Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community ground-rent for the land which they hold, and all accumulation of personal property, beyond what a man's own hands produce, is derived to him by living in a society, and he owes on every principle of justice, principle of gratitude, and principle of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

    The human race did not make the earth, and though we have the natural right to occupy it, we have no natural right to locate as our property-in-perpetuity any part it.

    Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to the natural earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with cultivation has produced that greatest evil. It has dispossessed its inhabitants of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.

    In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for.

    Having thus in a few words, opened the merits of the case, I shall now propose:

    To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property; And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

    It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meets and offends the eye like dead bodies and living bodies chained together.

    It is justice, and not charity, that is the principle of the plan. In all great cases it is necessary to have a principle more universally active than charity; and, with respect to justice, it ought not to be left to the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not. Considering, then, the plan on the ground of justice, it ought to be the act of the whole growing spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution, and the reputation of it ought to be national and not individual.

    It is the practice of what has unjustly obtained the name of civilization (and the practice merits not to be called either charity or policy) to make some provision for persons becoming poor and wretched only at the time they become so. Would it not, even as a matter of economy, be far better to adopt means to prevent their becoming poor? This can best be done by making every person when arrived at the age of twenty-one years an inheritor of something to begin with.

    The rugged face of society, checkered with the extremes of affluence and want, proves that some extraordinary violence has been committed upon it, and calls on justice for redress. The great mass of the poor in all countries are become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible for them to get cut from that state by themselves. It ought also to be observed that this mass increases in all countries that are called “civilized”. More persons fall annually into it than get out of it. 


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