What Tom Paine may teach us on Haitian politics


HSG from Tom Paine’s Cottage, New Rochelle, New York, 11-11-2011

Sadly, Tom Paine wrote very little about the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. Being the key political philosopher/theorist and a leading protagonist for the two other great revolutions of the time, the American and the French, was probably more than enough, even for someone of his revolutionary appetite. Being in jail in France for virtually the whole of 1794, the year in which the Haitian revolution began to diverge from the French, despite being an elected member of the French National Convention, was another.

He was of course an avid supporter of the Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite and for all men, adopted by Toussaint L’Ouverture, and a vociferous opponent of slavery, setting himself at odds with so many of America’s Founding Fathers that he served so well. His two greatest political tracts, Common Sense (1776), making the case for independence for the 13 colonies, and the Rights of Man, (1791), his best-selling justification of the French revolution, might have been the intellectual underpinnings of the Haitian Revolution as much as its counterparts in France and the United States.

Add to them a third treatise, Agrarian Justice (1795), in which Paine argued for a more equal distribution of wealth and property. One key proposal was a tax on land values – land being “the common property of the human race” — funding such social spending as pensions for the disabled and those over 50, issues as relevant to Haiti today as the United States or Europe then. It was here in New Rochelle, NY, on the 277 acres of land awarded to Paine in 1784 in recognition of his unique service to the American Revolution that he tried to put his agrarian theories into practice.

Today the farm is gone and what remains of his cottage is as modest and unassuming as the man himself. Inside, a cast iron stove presented to Paine by his mentor and its inventor, Benjamin Franklin confronts a wax effigy, with copies of Common Sense, and The American Crisis on display in a glass cabinet. But the highlight here is a copy of an 1807 Paine letter to the U.S. Vice President in which he complains of being denied a vote by the local postmistress, who insisted that he was not an American citizen.

Vote suppression, against one of America’s Founders and one of the world’s most famous proponents of individual, universal suffrage and genuinely representative government? Unreal perhaps, but certainly true.

More than two centuries on, Thomas Paine would have recognised the current tricks of the trade in both the US and Haiti, where vote suppression in all its forms – incomplete or “cleansed” electoral rolls, demands for identification that many voters cannot produce, restricted or limited access to the polls – has been increasingly obvious in recent years. “You can’t all vote!” as someone joked at the back of a four-hour queue at a polling place in Virginia last week. “We might get the wrong result!” Common Sense, as Paine might say.

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