Without a doubt, Thomas Paine’s many radical political beliefs came to define his life, and his moral opposition to monarchy, promotion of constitutional government, and contempt for tyranny are well known. Even so, some may not realize that he once developed an obsession with a radical military strategy. Indeed, as I point out in my new book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, he laid concrete plans for a French invasion of his native England during the French Revolutionary Wars.
At the time, Paine’s political loyalties remained firmly with the French, even after he had almost fallen prey to the violent excesses of the Reign of Terror. After the Thermidorians took over the country’s republican system and created Directory, a more conservative order for the country, many toyed with the idea of a naval invasion of England. Those in favor argued France’s recent territorial gains in Europe presented a critical opportunity to invade the island, deliver a fatal blow to the government of William Pitt the Younger, and replace the British monarchy with a republican system.
In 1798, there were few advocates of the idea more zealous than Paine. Using the newspaper of his friend Nicholas Bonneville as an outlet, he laid out elaborate plans to accomplish such a task, combining his knowledge of military affairs with his natural talents as an engineer. Strategically, Paine believed the French should use coastal territory on the North Sea, by way of the country’s new alliance with the Dutch, which could be used as the invasion’s staging point.
Rather than France’s standard naval fleet, the invasion force should consist of brand new, light-outfitted vessels that could maneuver quickly and quickly evade the Royal Navy. Rather than “a ship of the line,” or any other frigate “depending upon the wind for motion,” the invasion detachment would be specifically built to “elude and disembark.”
Paine’s invasion plans called for a grand fleet of a thousand gunboats, each carrying a single 24-pound, front-facing cannon, and eight men. The armada would pass through the North Sea and land on the eastern English coast, where the writer felt their defenses would be weakest.
Paine thought the contingent should target the River Thames, which ran directly through London, where he believed there would be little “to obstruct the expedition.” The chief goal of the mission was to “get possession of London as soon as possible, for when this is obtained all the power, means, and resources of the government are cut up.”
The bold proposal made waves within portions of France’s military establishment but was never adopted by the Directory. However, when Napoleon Bonaparte successfully overthrew the government in the 1799 Coup of 18 Brumaire, the idea was brought to the forefront of consideration yet again.
The young Corsican superstar, who successfully built a cult of personality around himself and his military exploits, heaped praises upon Paine. “A statue of gold should be erected to you in every city in the universe,” he told Paine. Bonaparte even went so far as to tell the man he slept at night with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow. The general proposed that Paine should serve as one of five leaders of a provisional English republic after the endeavor was successful. “Only let us land,” and the plan would commence, Bonaparte told Paine.
Napoleon’s commitment to Paine’s plans for a naval invasion of England was such that he invited the famous writer to present the idea to the Military Council of Paris, his government’s war ministry. With a burning desire to free England from the bonds of monarchical tyranny, he attended the meeting at the general’s request. However, the conference fell far short of Bonaparte’s expectations, as something Paine said there caused the military dictator to abandon his plans and sour to the penman forever.
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, reveals what disturbed Bonaparte. In addition, I also provide insight into which historical military operation Paine’s plans did influence – albeit a century later. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!