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The E-Sylum: Volume 19, Number 52, December 25, 2016, Article 25

THE PROPAGANDA COINS OF THOMAS SPENCE

This article from the site of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge presents a great overview of the token coinage of Thomas Spence. -Editor

Revolution and Reform on English Tokens
England avoided revolution after the image of the United States of America and France, but the shared language and shared sea-lanes between it and these new governments meant that the thought and arguments of the revolutionaries were abroad in England too. Particularly prominent as a text for, if not revolution, at least reform was Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, published in 1791, which defended the rights of the citizenry to rise against a power that would not rule them fairly, and argued for a written constitution and a progressive income tax designed to prevent the emergence of hereditary aristocracies. Paine's book led to him being tried for sedition, but in his absence, as he had already flown to France where he narrowly avoided execution. Trials for sedition in late-eighteenth-century England were not uncommon, and the country could in no way be considered a safe place to speak out against government. Those who continued to express dissent, however, did so not just in printed works and pamphlets, but in metal.

Whether for collectors or for commercial use, the possibilities of a freely-circulating medium, almost impossible to police, were obvious to those who wished to spread propaganda against the state, and although the manufacturers and engravers of tokens would happily take commissions from such parties, the issuers could if necessary acquire the necessary machinery to manufacture them alone. Associations of dissenters who felt themselves particular notable, therefore, or those who wished to celebrate one of the few triumphs against the status quo, often had recourse to this form of advertising in copper.

Copper halfpenny tokens

The danger and isolation of dissent led to a grimly humourous camaraderie that makes these tokens witty, but often hard to grasp. The piece below, for example, mimics the commercial issues that invited the buying public to redeem their tokens for silver at the issuer's business address ("Payable at the premises of..."), but the 'address' given by the reverse design is Newgate Jail, because the four men named had been imprisoned there for sedition the previous year.

Wyon halfpenny token Wyon halfpenny token reverse

The joke hangs on the assumption that the prisoners' names would have been known to anyone who happened to receive the token. This is evidence in itself that the doings of revolutionaries were the subject of common report in London. Two of the men named, Henry Symonds and James Ridgway, had been imprisoned for publishing Paine's book.

Thomas Spence
The chief user of tokens as propaganda for the revolution was Thomas Spence. His radicalism was of a different stamp to that of many other agitators. Born in Newcastle in 1750, by his mid-twenties he was already politically active, and had developed a plan for land reform that would have seen the communalisation of all landed property and the abolition of landlords and rents. He had published this already in 1775 as Property in Land: Every One's Right but, losing nothing to political fashion, republished it under the title The Real Rights of Man in 1793 (an online text can be found here). He was, despite the title, a keen advocate of Paine's work, which he sold at the London shop he ran by 1794 (when he was briefly imprisoned for its output), and lost no opportunity to associate himself with the 'other Thomas', but it is doubtful that Paine would have agreed with his more communist ideas.

The obverse of the farthing at left below lists Spence as the first of three Thomases, 'Advocates of the Rights of Man', the others being More and Paine; the reverse at right advertises Spence's penny weekly publication, Pig's Meat, the title of which played upon a reference of Edmund Burke's to 'the swinish multitude'.

Spence copper farthing Spence copper farthing reverse

From the first Spence was alert to the possibilities of tokens as propaganda, and his earliest issue commemorating the 1775 publication of his Plan appears to have predated the 'token mania' by some years and is consequently extremely rare. Once established in London, however, he found not only a ready market, better than for his bookseller's business, but also a fruitful collaboration with the engraver James, whose readiness to depict Spence's ideas in his animated and vivid style led to a riot of high-impact political imagery which much outpaces Spence's rather turgid prose in the communication of not just his politics but his sense of outrage and rebellion. The result has been a kind of immortality that Spence might not, perhaps have wished, compared to the relative obscurity of his actual writings, but which one of his own catalogues shows that he probably expected:

"... some of them on account of device, some for neatness of workmanship, and all on account of their great variety, may, nay will claim the attention of the curious in after-ages."

Spence halfpenny tokens

To read the complete article, see:
The Propaganda Coins of Thomas Spence and his Contemporaries (www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/dept/coins/exhibitions/spence/)

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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