By: Jared Marcel Pollen
TO MY FELLOW-CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:
I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.
This is Thomas Paine’s dedication to The Age of Reason, the first part of which he completed in France on the evening of December 28th 1793, hours before he was detained and imprisoned by a radical faction that had hijacked the very revolution he helped bolster with his treatise The Rights of Man. By the time Part II of The Rights of Man was published a year earlier, Paine was already an enemy of the state in Britain. He was tried in absentia for sedition and forced to seek refuge in France, whose people had watched their nation descend into bankruptcy and warfare, and their efforts to dismantle the ancien régime mutate into terror. The Jacobins, the leaders of the terror, considering Paine as a British citizen to be too dangerous to the revolution, locked him in Luxemburg prison in Paris for seven months. As the story goes, Paine was spared the guillotine only because a chalk mark (signifying the prisoner was to be collected for execution) was mistakenly left on the inside of his cell door, rather than outside. Fortuitously, this went unnoticed long enough for the National Convention to revolt against the Montagnards and execute Robespierre. Paine was set free later that year.
Terror is once again an emergent force in our political discourse––if we can take frightening people into a state of paralysis or submission to be one of the usable definitions for this already overused term. I employ it therefore, with reluctance, but with meaning. I’m mindful of the temptations of hyperbole, but I’m also unable to find a more fitting word to describe the scenes that took place at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College earlier this year.