Revolutionary's Road

Thomas Paine's Path to American Activism Began in a Free-Spirited British Town

By Matthew Hampton
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 28, 2009

England might seem an unlikely place to celebrate the Fourth of July. But that's precisely why I have come to Lewes, a picture-pretty market town in East Sussex. And soon I won't be alone: Scholars, visitors and locals will gather here this weekend to discuss whether the American Revolution would have happened had it not been for the town's most famous resident, Thomas Paine. And would Paine, author of "Common Sense" and "The Rights of Man," have become the same man had it not been for the spirit of independence that marked Lewes then and continues to do so today.

At first glance, Lewes (pronounced LOO-iss) seems far from revolutionary. A handsome High Street, Brit-speak for Main Street, winds its way downhill and across the meandering River Ouse, the pronunciation of which could hardly be more apt, its murky water slowly oozing its way south toward the English Channel.

Harveys Brewery sits on the riverbank, looking much the same as when it produced its first pint in 1790, and the South Downs, 70 miles of rolling chalk hills, loom above like a soft green blanket. This is what George Orwell described as the "sleekest landscape in the world . . . from where it is difficult to believe anything is really happening anywhere." It's hard not to agree. But appearances can be deceptive.

Local historian and Paine authority Paul Myles explains:

"We're a small town with an unusual demographic of activists and pressure groups. Lewes was radical in Paine's time and still is."

In recent years, Myles says, residents have fought successfully against insensitive modern development, prevented a major road from bisecting the town and supported local traders above major supermarkets and retail chains. Last year they established their own currency, the Lewes pound. Like similar projects in California and farther afield, it seeks to keep people shopping locally. No prizes for guessing whose face adorns the Lewes pound note.

What remains is that rarest of things: a town full of fine old buildings, independent shops, plenty of pubs and a smattering of good restaurants. And of course the upcoming Revolution & Reason festival, marking the bicentennial of Paine's death.

What Paine would make of it, one has to wonder. He arrived quite by chance in 1768, assigned here to work as an excise man, collecting taxes for the government. At that time Lewes was prosperous and already showing signs of radical thought. Unlike in many British towns, all male property-tax-paying householders could vote -- and vote they did, generally for reformers.

Paine was something of a drifter until he got here, having been a privateer, a corsetmaker and a teacher, but in Lewes he found new purpose and direction. No doubt he would have seen the rapturous reception the town gave to John Wilkes during a visit in 1770. The liberal member of Parliament was one of the leading reformers of the day and was welcomed with pealing church bells and crowds of well-wishers.

Meanwhile, Paine married his landlord's daughter, added shopkeeping to his growing list of trades and joined a debating society at the White Hart Hotel. It was with this intellectual crowd that he honed the theories that would form the basis of his best-known works.

The White Hart still stands on the high street and makes a good place to stop off for a pint. Forget about taking a room, though: The 16th-century bar is about the only part to survive unscathed from years of makeovers.

The White Hart is hardly alone in town. A dozen or so pubs line the high street. In keeping with the town's independent spirit, many of those hostelries are freehouses, meaning they are not tied to any particular brewer and can serve any brand of beer the landlord chooses. One notable exception is the Lewes Arms. And nothing quite sums up local attitudes better than the furor over this pub in 2006.

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