By spring 1793, as France edged toward the Terror, even Tom Paine’s patience with free speech began wearing thin. In a letter to Georges Danton, deputy to the French National Convention and founding member of the Committee of Public Safety, Paine expressed his alarm about the relentless insults and slander plaguing revolutionary politics. A deputy himself, Paine urged Danton to take repressive measures. “Calumny,” this champion of civil liberties insisted, “is a species of treachery that ought to be punished as well as any other kind of treachery.”1 He explained why: “[It] is a private vice productive of public evil, because it is possible to irritate men into disaffection by continual calumny who never intended to be disaffected.” In other words, calumny weakened the bonds between citizens and their political system, fomenting agitation or, worse, civil war. “The danger increases every day of a rupture between Paris and the departments,” he presciently warned. “The departments did not send their deputies to Paris to be insulted, and every insult shown to them is an insult to the departments that elected and sent them.” A month later, sixty departments went into rebellion against Paris.
Paine’s letter is historically ironic. Just months earlier, the former American revolutionary and British radical had been tried in absentia by a special court set up by William Pitt in London. He was convicted for his Rights of Man, declared to be seditious libel and an insult to the English monarchy.2 Paine’s election to
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Publication information: Book title: Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech. Contributors: Charles Walton - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2009. Page number: 3.
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