Pearls for Pigs: The Political Writings of Thomas Spence, Revolutionary Author and Publisher

In 1817, the prominent German romantic, Adam Müller, wrote an essay on the English radical Thomas Spence (1750-1814), detailing the major feature of Spence’s political “Plan” (his aversion to private land ownership) and criticizing his revolutionary conclusions (the overthrow of the status quo). Most interestingly, Mül­ler remarked that this doctrine had become “extremely popu­lar under the pressure of misery” across the British Isles and reluctantly acknowledged that Spence was no less sophisticated than other modern and more famous “political philoso­phers,” as those philosophers “are stronger on the practical side, while Master Spence is more consistent on the theoretical side; they are more fashionable, but he is ultimately superior.”[1] This review follows the path suggested by Müller, bringing to light the contributions of a “political philosopher,” who, though little-known today, was famous—and notorious—within and beyond Britain between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. The review sets out to demonstrate that Spence was an original and thoroughly modern thinker, whose Plan sought to abolish poverty and accomplish global emancipation from colonialism.

The writings of Thomas Spence epitomized and anticipated the anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist struggles against land privatization and dispossession in Britain and the broader empire between the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries onwards. Spence is renowned for his “Plan,” a proposal for the abolition of private land ownership and a return to the common enjoyment of land, which he coupled with the replacement of the state apparatus with a decentralized parish system. The parochial administration would redistribute plots of land to individuals and families, who would pay rent to their respective parishes to till the soil within a regime of commonality. Parishes would use this rent for many purposes, including the funding of local social services. Spence also anticipated that part of the total amount of rents would be left over; these funds would constitute “divi­dends,” namely, shares of money to be redistributed among all parishioners according to a quar­terly schedule. Inspired by French events, since the publication of The End of Oppression in 1795, Spence explicitly advocated for the implementation of his Plan via a revolution of the “swinish multitude.” This phrase was coined by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolu­tion in France to refer with contempt to the poor proletariat whose distress and insubordination jeopardized the security of the propertied establishment.[2] In contrast, Spence used the “swinish multitude” to refer with pride to his own privileged political actor.

Spence today: From underappreciation to rediscovery

Spence has long been considered an eccentric and anachronis­tic figure, as his calls for the common property of land in a Britain then undergoing industrialization allegedly confined his Plan to a bygone era. In his masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class, labor historian E.P. Thompson defined Spence as the inventor of “periph­eral panaceas” to address social evils.[3] In fact, Spence lived in an age when capital was detaching itself from land, becoming commercial and financial, and when the capi­talist command over workers was transitioning into moveable form by way of wages. It is therefore understandable that Spence’s ideology might seem “peripheral” to historians interested in the beginnings of the First Industrial Revolution.

In recent years, a small group of scholars have turned their attention to Spence, rediscovering him and his work within the fields of radical history, labor history, and Atlantic history.[4] This renewed interest has demonstrated that Spence’s Plan was a timely response to the social dislocation that accompanied the establishment of the market economy in Britain and to the imperial and transnational developments that characterized the Atlantic world between the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Further, this rediscovery has shed light on Spence’s stature as a political thinker worthy of the name. In fact, centering the penniless and often illiterate members of the “swinish multitude” as his preferred interlocutors, the theoretical sophistication of Spence’s thought has been obscured by the simplicity of the language he used to convey his Plan and the unconventional means he employed to disseminate it. Presenting himself as the intellectual “feeder” of “pigs,” Spence translated his themes into a popular style accessible to the poorest orders of society.[5] Indeed, he spent almost forty years of his life casting his political “pearls” before “swine.”

Back then: A persecuted author and publisher

The oblivion that has long surrounded Spence’s name is at odds with the renown and notoriety of his Plan in England during his lifetime. Spence was born in 1750 to poor Scottish parents in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he later worked as a schoolteacher. In 1775, he delivered the first presentation of his Plan in a lecture entitled Property in Land Every One’s Right before the Newcastle Philosophical Society, which immediately expelled him from its ranks. His increasing intellectual isolation and dismal economic condi­tions led him to move to London in the late 1780s or early 1790s. Here, he soon grew acquainted with the working-class and republican association London Corresponding Society, and he opened a bookstall in Chancery Lane, where he sold radical pamphlets and broadsides. Subsequently, he transferred his trade to a bookshop in Holborn, which he named “the Hive of Liberty.”[6] It was at this bookshop that Spence’s activities as a publicist turned particularly eclectic, as he made use of every available means to popularize his Plan: not just pamphlets, songs, ballads, and broadsides but also chalked graffiti, tokens, and medallions that spread, by means of pithy mottos and images, radical political principles. By throwing his coins out of the windows of his bookshop, Spence became extremely popular in the radical London underground of the 1790s. Another remarkable example of his popular propaganda was the publication of the periodical Pigs’ Meat; Or, Lessons for the Swinish Multitude (1793-1795), a collection of extracts from classic political texts reprinted in affordable “weekly penny numbers.”

Spence’s activities as a radical theorist and propagandist were not pursuits that British authorities were willing to tolerate. Throughout the 1790s, his bookstall became one of the preferred targets of the anti-radical initiatives of the Associa­tion for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Level­lers. Spence was detained in prison for seditious libel multiple times; he was arrested for selling banned treatises such as the second part of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man; and in 1794, he was arrested under the charge of high treason together with other members of the London Corresponding Society and was jailed without trial for seven months. In 1801, Spence was once again arrested and convicted by the Court of King’s Bench for the publication of The Restorer of Society to Its Natural State, his lengthiest text, in which the violent and revolutionary methods of his Plan were emphasized. Unable to afford an attorney, Spence pled his own defense in court, seizing the opportunity to read out loud the complete version of the writing for which he had been arrested. The verdict, in which he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and received a fine, convicted him for devising a “plan of equalization” to be pro­moted by a “system of rapine and murder.” Indeed, it required audacity to read aloud a book calling for the complete overthrow of the proprietary establishment of the kingdom by means of a violent revolution at the Court of King’s Bench in times of strict censorship and savage repres­sion.

The Spencean revolution for “real” rights

While British authorities were committed to hindering the circulation of the French revolutionary ideology among the lower orders of society by criminalizing the writings of Thomas Paine and the militancy of the London Corresponding Society, Spence presented his Plan for a social revolution programmatically more radical than the claims of either the French or the English Jacobins.[7] The French Jacobins served as a major source of inspiration for Spence, who was thrilled at the news of the Revolution in France and its republican phase but grew disillusioned as he realized that the Jacobins were hostile to any abolition or redistribution of private land ownership. In The Meridian Sun of Liberty (1796), Spence polemically wondered, “After all that Paine, Thelwall […] and the French Republic have taught us, do we not yet know the Rights of Man?”[8] His answer was unambiguously negative. Three years earlier, in An Interesting Conversation (1793), he had similarly wondered, “Who, pray, among all the revolutionists in either America, France, or England, or any where else, ever disputed or attempted to invalidate the rights of the landed interest? Or, does Paine, whose publications seem to satisfy the wishes of the most sanguine reformers, glance in the least on their rights?”

Spence admired Paine, but he also thought that his radicalism was undermined by bourgeois limitations, being confined to an aversion to monarchical government without extending to a critique of the propertied establishment. Significantly, Spence entitled a 1795 re-edition of his Plan The Real Rights of Man, stressing that “there is another rights of man by Spence, which goes farther than Paine’s.” His disappointment with Paine’s thought transformed into open indignation in 1797 when Paine published Agrarian Justice, focusing on the issue of land reform without deigning to mention Spence’s Plan and simultaneously advancing a proposal for a national fund and the redistribution of quotas, which was aimed at relieving poverty without challenging the existence of private land ownership.[9] Spence commented on Paine’s Agrarian Justice in his 1797 The Rights of Infants, where he not only detailed the radicalism of his dividends redistribution compared to Paine’s national fund, but he also included women and children in his conception of bearers of rights who were entitled to “real rights.”

Fighting poverty and the coercion of work

The radicalism of Spence’s thought consisted in his Plan for the abolition of the private property of “land,” broadly understood as including—as stated in A Dream (1807)—not only the soil in its natural and agrarian sense but also “all its appurtenances, as structures, buildings, and fixtures, […] shipping, collieries, mines, and many other great concerns.” Spence’s notion of communally-owned land was, therefore, relevant in the light of the transition to the industrial age and was liable to be applied, according to Spence’s own words in A Further Account of Spensonia (1794), to the “means of industry.” However, Spence applied his concept of common property not just to nature and the material sites of subsistence and production but also to laboring society, which he understood as the site where wealth that should be commonly appropriated and enjoyed was created. The instrument for the common reappropriation of social wealth would be the quarterly redistribution of dividends “among all the living souls in the par­ish, whether male or female; married or single; legitimate or illegitimate; from a day old to the extremest age.”

As several scholars have remarked, due to their perpetuity and unconditionality (as they were independent not only of gender, age, and civil status but also of criminal convictions and national origins), Spence’s dividends can be interpreted as one of the earliest versions of universal basic income that social movements, as well as several economists, are calling for today.[10] This system would accomplish the eradication of poverty, which Spence understood as a condition not due to the mere shortage of goods or money but of dependency and vulnerability within a coercive social order. For Spence, the poor were, in fact, those who did “all the work,” who “enjoy[ed] nothing,” and who could not “do what they like.”[11] Thanks to the perpetual and unconditional sharing of dividends, “there would be no poor; none but would be well clothed, lodged, and fed,” so that “the poor […] would also as paupers become extinct.” For Spence, rather than merely providing poor relief, the parishes would be responsible for fur­nishing everyone with a respectable and decent standard of living and would thus, in the end, extinguish poverty in its broadest social sense. In fact, by supplying everyone with money on a regular basis, the parochial shares would not only “deliver […] the indigent from their […] miseries by abolishing the causes” but would also ensure a starting point for the young and ease the declining years of the elderly; they would allow every parishioner to “change their residence” and emigrate if they wished to do so; they would enable workers to “turn to what calling they liked without compulsion;”[12] and they would relieve parents from “the most gloomy of prospects, that of bringing up children to be whores and soldiers.”

Moreover, the divi­dends were meant to accomplish something greater, as granting everyone enough to live on would also remove the necessity of working in order to live, thereby eradicating the compulsion to labor altogether. Thanks to parochial shares, no one, Spence said, would have to “drudge […] continually for permission to live on the earth.” The Plan, though not explicitly intended to make work unnecessary, would nonetheless allow for the possibility of freely deciding how long to work. While subsistence would be ensured to everyone by the sharing of dividends, each parishioner would be responsible for their extra earnings: “Where would be the great harm if some men should but perform half their ordinary work if they be content with half wages or half gains? It would only make employment for more hands.” Spence also insisted on the importance of rest by stressing the necessary limits of labor, as he thought that in the existing system the poor were dispossessed not only of the wealth they produced but also of their time: “When the people began to talk of keeping holiday […] our taskmasters […] t[ook] care to manage matters so that we should be closely employed and instead of working only six days a week we are obliged to work at the rate of eight or nine, and yet can hardly subsist.” Spence was here probably referring to the French Republican Calendar of 1793, in which the Jacobins had extended the traditional weeks into “décades,” with eight and a half days of labor and only one and a half days of rest. In one of the constitutions he drafted for his planned Commonwealth, The Constitution of Spensonia (1803), Spence proclaimed that, “to promote cleanliness and refresh the spirit of men and labouring animals, the weeks in Spensonia are but five days each; every fifth day being a day or Sabbath of rest.”

Fighting imperialism and enslavement

The radical threat that Spence’s thought posed to imperial Britain depended on the fact that the Plan entailed not only an overturning of the propertied establishment of the kingdom but also an anti-colonialist project of emancipation from enslavement and the colonial yoke. In fact, Spence considered Native Americans and enslaved people of African origins as part of his revolutionary “swinish multitude.” In the Preface to one of his writings, he stated, “I beg to be understood as laying down a system of government for the free-born, unshackled minds of the North American and African savages who have not yet learned to look upon blood-sucking land­lords and state leeches with that timorous, superstitious and cringing reverence, paid to such miscreants, in a country so well bred as this.” Despite his entanglement in Eurocentric hierarchies in his assumptions of “savagery,” Spence was here nonetheless sarcastically hinting at the British self-arrogated “well bred” “civilization” and referring with admiration to the recurring slave revolts which were unsettling the Caribbean at the time. Moreover, aware that the newborn United States was being consolidated as a white regime of slave and property owners and that Native Americans were suffering repeated attacks on their lands, he wrote The Reign of Felicity, Being a Plan for Civilizing the Indians of North America (1796), in which he responded critically to George Washington’s eighth State of the Union Address. In his speech, delivered in December 1796, Washington had rebuked the Creek Nation for refusing to sell their lands to the government of the United States, even though by virtue of such a sale they would be “draw[n] nearer to the civilized state.”[13] Spence caustically remarked that “[this was] the good old way practised by […] all civilizers of mankind. […] Uni­versal submission was the inevitable consequence. […] A very uncivil way of civilizing the world indeed.”

To Spence, the dispossession of indigenous peoples and plantation slavery were the foreign versions of the enclosures and the imposition of wage labor on evicted commoners that afflicted England; therefore, he saw landlordism at home and colonialism abroad as complementary phenomena, both aimed at the privatization of land. Indeed, the 1807 edition of Spence’s Constitution of Spensonia featured a section headed “Of Colonization,” which stated that the Commonwealth of Spensonia should “establish colonies” for the sole purpose of “disclaim[ing] all financial benefits from foreign provinces, dominions, or colonies” and “declar[ing] […] all the colonies […] independent states.” By depicting a peaceful process of colonization followed by the “declaration of independent states,” these passages adumbrated that what Spence had in mind was, in reality, a decolonizing process—a war of independence against European empires. In 1803, he wrote that “though my book’s in queer lingo, I will it send [sic] to St. Domingo: to the Republic of the Incas, for an example how to frame laws. […] And who knows but it [sic] God may please it should come by the West Indies?” Spence’s mention of Saint-Domingue, the theatre of the first successful anti-slavery revolution in history where the formerly enslaved were by that time succeeding in defeat­ing the French, is particularly remarkable. Spence might have also known that, for a short period in 1803, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had adopted the name “Army of the Incas” for his troops in solidarity with other anti-colonial uprisings.[14] After the short-lived Constitution of Saint-Domingue of 1801, the island still lacked a constitution in 1803, and Spence proposed to send his Plan as “an example how to frame laws.” This passage contains the only explicit mention of Saint-Domingue, shortly to be renamed Haiti, to be found in Spence’s writings. Nevertheless, this quotation suggests that the success of the Haitians must have impacted his thought. Moreover, it demonstrates that Spence also considered the West Indies a favorable location for the establishment of his Plan.

Indeed, Spence would seem to have been better known in the British West Indies than has been previously thought. For example, an Address of the Spencean Philanthropists was reprinted in an 1817 supplement to the Jamaican Royal Gazette.[15] Even more remarkably, Spence’s Plan was implicated in Bussa’s Rebellion of April 1816, the largest slave revolt in the history of Barbados. The Report from the Select Committee of the House of Assembly (1818) of the island, appointed in 1816 to inquire into the causes of the rebellion, stated that “[the colonists] deprecate […] the propagation of those doctrines, whose object, alike in Great Britain and in the colonies, is to erect a baseless and visionary fabrick of liberty upon the ruins of the ‘privileged class,’ whether promulgated under the authority of the Spencean or the African Philanthropists.” The Report mirrored a widely-held opinion among plantation owners across the island, namely, that the revolt had been inflamed by the spies and informers sent to Barbados by the British abolitionist William Wilberforce. However, the document also suggests that, alongside the liberal and middle-class abolitionism of Wilberforce and his fellow “African philanthropists” (the abolitionists), a popular and much more radical anti-slavery discourse had fueled the rebellion—Spence’s Plan, which after his death in 1814 was propagated in Britain by his followers, the Spencean Philanthropists. The Barbadian Assembly’s Report not only provides reliable evidence of African Caribbean propagation of the Plan but also shows how alarming it sounded to the landowning class in plantation societies.

It might have been precisely Spence’s concern with the land, which seemed to many the anachronistic feature of his thought in Britain, that rendered him and his Plan relevant from a transatlantic perspective. This aspect was paramount in the West Indies, where the relationship between land and freedom—corresponding to the negative correlation between plantations and slavery—was to the enslaved an everyday truth.

Conclusion: A thinker for our times

During the parliamentary debates held on Friday, 5 June 1801, the member of the House of Commons Joseph Jekyll took the floor to comment on the trial of Thomas Spence at the Court of King’s Bench. According to Jekyll, Spence, a “fanatic,” was a “fitter object of confinement” in Bedlam, the London mental asylum, rather than at Shrewsbury Jail. Jekyll was not the only one who thought that Spence was affected by mental disorder, as some journals in 1801 deplored the conviction and incarceration of that “poor insane” for seditious libel, deeming the sentence to have been excessively strict. It is not surprising that several contemporary observers mistook the boldness of Spence’s political views for madness. Indeed, it is possible to interpret Spence’s ascribed insanity, on the one hand, as a strategic facade he himself put up to facilitate the circulation and diffusion of his Plan and, on the other, as a tool for casting light on the ultra-radicalism of his political views, whose revolutionary features were not easily understood by most of his contemporaries.

Spence’s writings, by detailing a political scheme which was anti-individualistic, anti-proprietary, anti-state, and anti-imperialist, conveyed a radical critique of possessive and colonial modernity in the middle of the mod­ern age. More particularly, his Plan provided a lens through which a critical rethinking of capitalism and colonialism could be outlined by offering alternatives to both in the years of their very making, rise, and development. Once interpreted from this perspective, Spence emerges as an accomplished and sophisticated political thinker and his thought as characterized by such a variety of themes and internal consistency that it comprised a complete and original theory of politics. Although his Plan was often considered outdated and studied within a narrow local context, once redeemed from its alleged anachronism and deprovincialized, it shows itself to be timely, relevant, and truly global in scope.

Spence can rightly be described, in the words of Alastair Bonnett, as “the poorest and most determined militant in English his­tory, an unassailable icon of revolutionary integrity.”[16] But he was also much more than that: he was a translator of modern political theory into an intelligible discourse for the swinish multitude; a critic of colonialism and a prophet of global emancipation; and an early theorist of common property and universal basic income, ideas that are still relevant in today’s world.

Matilde Cazzola is postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her book on Thomas Spence, The Political Thought of Thomas Spence: Beyond Poverty and Empire, was published by Routledge in November 2021.

The author wishes to express her appreciation for the scholars of the “Marxists Internet Archive” for their precious work of digitization of Spence’s writings.

[1] Adam Müller, “Spences philanthropischer Plan, Bibelgesellschaften und Gemeinschaft der Güter,” in Deutsche Staatsanzeigen (Leipzig: 1817), 347-366: 355, 359.

[2] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 79.

[3] Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class [1963] (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 161.

[4] Malcolm Chase, The People’s Farm: Eng­lish Radical Agrarianism, 1775-1840 [1988] (London: Breviary Stuff Publica­tions, 2010); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000); Joan Beal, English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Cen­tury: Thomas Spence’s ‘Grand Repository of the English Language’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Keith Armstrong and Alastair Bonnett (eds.), Thomas Spence: The Poor Man’s Revolutionary (London: Breviary Stuff Publications, 2014); Peter Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons & Closure, of Love & Ter­ror, of Race & Class, and of Kate & Ned Despard (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019); Niklas Frykman, The Bloody Flag: Mutiny in the Age of Atlantic Revolution (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).

[5] Thomas Spence (ed.), Pigs’ Meat; Or, Lessons for the People, Alias (According to Burke) The Swinish Multitude, 3 vols. (London: Thomas Spence, 1795), vol. 3: 1.

[6] For a comprehensive account of Spence’s life, see Mary Kemp-Ashraf, The Life and Times of Thomas Spence (Newcastle upon Tyne: Frank Graham, 1983).

[7] On the “English Jacobins,” see Carl B. Cone, The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th-Century England (New York: Scribner, 1968).

[8] John Thelwall was a prominent exponent of the London Corresponding Society.

[9] Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice [1797], in Philip S. Foner (ed.), The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine (New York: Citadel Press, 1945), 605-623.

[10] John Marangos and John E. King, “Two Arguments for Basic Income: Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Thomas Spence (1750-1814),” History of Economic Ideas 14 (2006), 55-71; Philippe Van Parijs, Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Peter Sloman, Transfer State: The Idea of a Guaranteed Income and the Politics of Redistribution in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Malcolm Torry, Basic Income: A History (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2021).

[11] Thomas Spence, “The Contrast” [1795] [London: The British Library, © British Library Board (Cup.21.g.32.5)].

[12] Thomas Spence to Charles Hall [28 June 1807], in Gregory Claeys (ed.), “Four Letters Between Thomas Spence and Charles Hall,” Notes and Queries 28/4 (1981), 317-321.

[13] George Washington, “State of the Union Address, December 7, 1796” [1796], in Complete State of the Union Addresses from 1790 to the Present (Project Gutenberg: 2007), 35-40.

[14] Ajmal Waqif, “Cato Street and the Spencean Politics of Transnational Insurrection,” in Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy (eds.), The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plot­ting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ire­land (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), 101-117: 112.

[15] Society of Spencean Philanthropists, “Address of the Society of Spencean Phi­lanthropists to All Mankind” [1817], in Royal Gazette (Kingston: Saturday, 15 March – Saturday, 22 March 1817), vol. 39/12: 9.

[16] Bonnett, “Spence and the Politics of Nostalgia,” in Armstrong and Bon­nett (eds.), Thomas Spence: The Poor Man’s Revolutionary, 75-88: 78.