Revolution Debate: Burke,
Patricia Howell Michaelson
On January 19, 1793, after Louis XVI had been found guilty of treason by the National Convention, Thomas Paine spoke to that body, through a translator, urging that Louis be imprisoned and exiled, but not executed. He argued that Louis had been a friend to America, and that the French should not "bestow upon the English tyrant the satisfaction of learning that the man who helped America . . . has died on the scaffold." 1 Paine's speech hints at the curious triangulation of alliances and enmities between America, England, and France, and it foreshadows his own imminent imprisonment, rationalized partly by the ambiguity as to whether his citizenship was American or British. But even more ominous are the interruptions the speech suffered, by the powerful Jacobin Marat. At one point, Marat denounces the translator: "Such opinions are not Thomas Paine's. The translation is incorrect" (557). But twice, at the beginning and end, Marat rejects Paine's authority because of his supposed religion: "I deny the right of Thomas Paine to vote on such a subject; as he is a Quaker, of course his religious views run counter to the infliction of capital punishment" (556), and " Paine's reason for voting against the death penalty is that he is a Quaker" (558). On one level, Marat's "accusation" seems harmless enough; on another, it is frightening primarily because Marat was a person no one would want as an enemy. But what does it mean, really, to be "accused" of being a Quaker (or any other religion)? In what sense does it diminish the power of one's argument?
Religion and politics are, of all things, the most difficult to talk about dispassionately. Together banned from the dinner table, they all too often drive people to spout hot-headed, strongly felt nonsense. Here in America, we still cling to the myth that they can be separated: that government belongs in a secular space shared by all, while religion is a matter of only private or local interest. That myth, of course, does not hold up under scrutiny; given the