Burning Tom Paine: Loyalism and Counter-Revolution in Britain, 1792-1793


  • Nicholas Rogers


Between November 1792 and March 1793, the author of The Rights of Man, Tom Paine, was burnt in effigy in a number of places throughout England. Occurring at the time of Louis Capet’s trial and execution and at the onset of the Terror in France, the effigy burnings of Paine are often seen as evidence of the basically conservative and traditionally libertarian sentiments of the British populace and, in some instances, as testimony to a populist, counter-revolutionary nationalism. However, an examination of some 200 incidents noted in the London and provincial press and of the “pulp literature” of loyalism indicates that the effigy burnings were an attempt by sectors of the British ruling class and its middling allies to fashion a “popular” loyalism without encouraging democratic sentiments and to warn radicals against disseminating their views. The effigy burnings were successful in capturing public space for the loyalist cause, but their ability to win over a large audience was more problematic. The opposition to naval recruitment in early 1793 suggests that the loyalist encouragement of the war effort met with a mixed response; the high incidence of food rioting in 1794 and 1795 suggests that the loyalist investment in economic growth and social paternalism met with considerable scepticism, if not contempt. Loyalists might trumpet the social reciprocities between rich and poor, but their ability to command popular allegiance depended ultimately upon performing those responsibilities, not simply parading them.