Thomas Spence and the Rights of Man

Archibald C. Matteson, Jr.

[Reprinted from the Henry George News, February, 1952]

You deserve to know Thomas Spence much better.

He occupies a high place in our fellowship. He thoroughly understood the land problem and propounded its solution in terms which closely paralleled those of Henry George. He did this, furthermore, with dogged courage for forty years in the face of repeated and painful rebuffs at the hands of hostile authorities. And through all his difficulties, this lovable little guy never compromised, but faced his punishment with a charming blend of gayety, uncommon sense and boyish ebullience.

You should know something, first of his background.

In the first half of the 1700's, Scotch lairds and a captive church were dispossessing crofters in considerable numbers; among them, the "Scotch-Irish" who settled western Pennsylvania and Virginia. Led by a renegade preacher named James Murray, a small colony moved to Newcastle-on-Tyne, attracted by a variety of opportunities available in this small but growing port. Spence's father, a net-maker, arrived from Aberdeen in 1739. He was always poor but married twice, and Thomas, born in 1750, arrived toward the end of a string of 19 children.

As a matter of course, the sons worked with their father and while they worked one would read a passage from the Old Testament. In the ensuing discussion, the origins of land titles, aristocracy and poverty became clear to young Tom.

As soon as he was old enough, he became clerk to a smith, but under James Murray's further tutelage he qualified as a teacher and opened a school. Conscious of the "burr" in his Northern dialect, Spence invented a phonetic alphabet to improve pronunciation. For the rest of his life he promoted his system of spelling, and published numerous works using it. However interesting, the Spencean orthography must be treated briefly, for we are much more interested in his efforts on behalf of justice.

In 1775 a Philosophical Society was organized in Newcastle, and Murray and Spence were members On the evening of November 8, Spence delivered a talk with the revealing title "On the Mode of Administering the Landed Estate of the Nation as a Joint Stock Property in Parochial Partnership by Dividing the Rent." The parish, according to this plan, would take title to the land, collect rent from the occupiers, and after setting aside funds for national, county and local expenses, return the remainder in equal shares to every inhabitant. There would be no taxes or tolls, and anyone could live anywhere he chose.

Spence had the speech printed and sold in the streets; the society, despite the objections of Murray, forthwith expelled the young schoolmaster from its ranks. From then on, his standing in the community deteriorated, and there ensued a period in his life about which little is known, save that he was unhappy and difficult to get along with. Thomas Bewick, the celebrated engraver and a life-long friend, wrote that Spence "got a number of young men gathered together and formed into a debating society {with] the purpose chiefly of making converts to his opinion that property in land is everyone's right." One night Bewick failed to defend him; the vote was against him; and after losing a cudgeling match to Bewick, Spence "became quite outrageous and acted very unfairly, which obliged me to give him a severe beating." Another acquaintance, Francis Place, wrote that he was "often heard to say that there was no scope for ability in a provincial town, and that London was the only place where a man of talent could display his powers.

Spence nevertheless continued to teach school and to publish booklets for instruction, but his fortunes declined. He married, not very happily, and the last record of his personal life in Newcastle was about 1783, when he was running an employment exchange for servants. Some time afterward, Spence turned up in London with his young son William, and rented a booth in Chancery-Lane, where he sold saloup (a drink made out of sugar, milk and sassafras) and pamphlets. He had rewritten the 1775 speech as a long song of 31 four-line verses, to be sung to the tune "Chevy Chase," and changed the title to "The Rights of Man, in Verse." In December 1792 he was arrested by two government agents who bought a copy of the song under the mistaken impression that they were getting something by Thomas Paine. A few days later they returned, Spence sold them Paine's Rights of Man, Part II, and was forthwith thrown into jail, an experience that was to be repeated many times.

The authorities, of course, were quite panicky at the time, for not only were there many persons who openly admired the success of the colonists in America in achieving independence, but there were lively doings across the channel also. In consequence, recurrent states of emergency were cited to justify suspensions of habeas corpus, whereupon arrests in large numbers would follow.

Edmund Burke's reference to "the swinish multitude" provided Spence with a title for his greatest publishing venture. Between 1793 and 1796, he issued a weekly paper called "Pigs' Meat; or, Lessons for the Swinish Multitude," consisting of excerpts from many writings on liberty, attacks on despotism, and frequent verse. These papers were later issued as complete volumes; there were three in all, each with an engraved frontispiece by Spence's son.

The frontispiece for Volume I depicts a well-fed missionary and three graceful Indians. The missionary says: "God has enjoined you to be Christians, to pay rent and tythes, and become a Civilized People." One Indian replies: "If Rent we once consent to pay, Taxes next you'll on us lay, And then our Freedom's poured away;" at which the Indians chorus: "With the Beasts of the Wood We'll ramble for Food, And live in wild deserts and Caves; And live poor as Job, On the Skirts of the Globe, Before we'll consent to be Slaves, My Brave Boys, Before We'll consent to be Slaves!"

The frontispiece for Volume II has two Indians gazing at an unhappy donkey. One Indian says: "Behold the civilized Ass, Two pairs of Panyers on his Back; the First with Rents a heavy mass; With Taxes next his bones do crack." To which the donkey brays in response: "I'm doomed to endless Toil and Care-I was an Ass to bear the first Pair."

While he was in jail in 1792, Spence's landlord evicted him from Chancery Lane, and he later had a shop in a narrow passage called Little Turnstile. He called it "The Hive of Liberty" and he lived for a time mainly by making and selling tokens. In those days the petty coinage of the realm was in bad condition, and although the tokens were sold merely as pocket-pieces or mementoes, many of them actually became media of exchange. Spence, however, was a demoralizing influence in the token trade, because instead of selling them, he persisted in showering them on passersby from an upstairs window. He finally went broke, but must have enjoyed himself in the process.

One of his favorite tokens carried a hand-some pig, based on a Bewick drawing, as an advertisement for "Pigs' Meat." On the other side was the simple declaration: "Tho. Spence, Sir Tho. More, Tho. Paine~Noted Advocates for the Rights of Man."

Before very long, however, Spence came to realize that his conception of natural rights went very much further than did Paine's, and in 1796 he prefaced yet another edition of his speech (this time under the title "The Meridian Sun of Liberty, for the Whole Rights of Man Displayed") with a dialogue between Citizen Reader and Author in which the following passages occur:

Reader: . . . After all that Paine and others have taught us, do we not yet know the Rights of Man? … [Do they not] consist in a fair, equal, and impartial representation of the people in Parliament?

Author. No. Nobody ought to have right of suffrage or representation in a society wherein they have no property . . . especially such men as being afraid to look their rights in the face, have disfranchised and alienated themselves by ... renouncing all claim to the soil of their birth, and profess to be content with the "Right of property in the fruits of their industry, ingenuity, and good fortune" …

You own that the landed interest are the legal proprietors of their estates and . . . the legal possessors of the fountains of life; and yet … you would abolish the right of primogeniture . prevent the monopoly of farms . . . and thus -- and thus -- at your whim . . . contrary to your own fundamental maxim of right and wrong. … If the Rights of Man be definable, as I believe they are, let them be accurately defined, and then let them be sacred . . . Is it necessary that our rights, like the rainbow, should always recede from us as they advance . . . subject to this decree and tomorrow to that, as it pleaseth a few of our leading demagogues . ..?

Reader. Are we then, because we have no land, to do nothing in nor own defense against oppression?

Author. If you don't like the country ... pray leave it, You have no more right to this country than to any other. While you allow the justice of private property in land, you justify everything the landed interest do . . . for the country is theirs. They act infinitely more consistently in debarring such unprincipled legislators from interfering among them, than you do in demanding rights which are inexplicable. Noble architects, truly: who would pull down before you know what to build. …This is not establishing the immoveable Temple of Justice, but erecting the wavering standard of Robbery.

At the end of the pamphlet, Spence repeats his bitter opinion of the Friends of Liberty in these couplets:

Of kings and courtiers how the fools complain!
Nor blame their own inord'nate love of gain.
None think that while dire landlords they allow,
To kings and knaves they'll still be doomed to bow.
None think that each, by favoring the deceit,
Himself''s a foolish party to the cheat.
Few can be landlords; and these very few
Must, to succeed, their brothers all undo,
Yet each low wretch for Lordship fierce does burn,
And longs to act the tyrant in his turn!
Nor longs alone, but hopes, be/ore he dies,
To have his rents, and live on tears and sighs!

In February 1801, Spence published a pamphlet entitled "The Restorer of Society to Its Natural State" in which he put forward his plan in a series of letters to a citizen. He was arrested, and convicted of uttering a seditious libel, fined and sentenced to a year in prison. An account of the trial, containing the entire pamphlet and Spence's defense which he conducted himself, was printed in his phonetic orthography as "a Present of Respect to the worthy People, who contributed to the Relief of Mr. Spence."

I found this little book extraordinarily appealing, and purloined a rare original from the Boston Public Library long enough to have it photographed and, with the assistance of Winnifred Farnum, reprinted in a facsimile edition. (Single copies are available at $1.50)

Following his release from prison, Spence seems to have been a much less stormy individual. His son had died about 1798, and a second marriage had not proved successful, yet he is described as having "an open and expressive countenance, great liveliness of temper, and manners peculiarly affable and pleasing. In conversation he displayed much mildness and humor, and was remarkably exempt from the sourness of political dogmatism."

Indeed, Spence was no politician. "His up-right intentions have never been disputed, and he was always more anxious for the extension of what he considered useful truths, than for the establishment of his influence at the head of a party." Instead, he undertook to spread them simply by meeting with friends and having such a good time that others would wish to join in. Convivial evenings with ale and songs were their propaganda ("At the Sign of the Fleece, Little Windmill St., the Free and Easy meets, every Tuesday evening, at 8 o'clock") and adherents were not lacking. Notable among these was Thomas Evans. Even Southey, though he disapproved of Spence's stand, complimented him upon his reasoning and his demeanor.

In all, there were well over a dozen songs, all set to popular tunes of the day. The titles were often suggestive of the content, such as "An Address to Posterity, warning them against the Landlord Judas," The Touchstone of Honesty" (tune: Lillibullero), "The Rights of Man for Me" (tune: Maid of the Mill), "The In-efficacy of the French Revolution" (tune: Malbrouck), and especially, "Hark How the Trumpets Sound" (tune: God Save the King), which is noteworthy for its three footnotes: one to Leviticus, ch. 25, one to Isaiah, ch. 14, and the third consisting of a 167-word subordinate clause containing the gist of the plan.

As the years rolled on, Spence continued to put forward his doctrine, and to win friends for it. He had just started a new weekly, "The Giant Killer," when he died suddenly in September 1814. He was buried in a style which he would have liked. "His remains were followed by a numerous throng of political admirers. Appropriate medalions were distributed, and a pair of scales preceded the body, indicative of the justice of his views."

He was survived by The Society of Spencean Philanthropists, devotedly led by Thomas Evans. Indeed, when habeas corpus was next suspended, in 1817, this organization was cited as a sufficient reason. People were transported to Australia for this sort of thing, and it is interesting to speculate on the share of credit which is due Spence for the development of the Australian land policy.

However that may be, my acquaintance with Thomas Spence, although limited, has been extremely pleasant. I hope that many of you may also enjoy getting to know this wonderful man.