Spence was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, and was the son of a Scottish net and shoe maker.
Spence was one of the leading English revolutionaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Spence was born in poverty and died the same way, after long periods of imprisonment in 1814.
The threatened enclosure of the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1771 appears to have been key to Spence’s interest in the land question and journey towards ultra-radicalism. His scheme was not for land nationalization but for the establishment of self-contained parochial communities, in which rent paid to the parish (wherein the absolute ownership of the land was vested) should be the only tax of any kind. His ideas and thinking on the subject were shaped by a variety of economic thinkers, including his friend Charles Hall.
At the centre of Spence’s work was his Plan, known as ‘Spence’s Plan.’ The Plan has a number of features, including:
The end of aristocracy and landlords;
All land should be publicly owned by ‘democratic parishes’, which should be largely self-governing;
Rents of land in parishes to be shared equally amongst parishioners;
Universal suffrage (including female suffrage) at both parish level and through a system of deputies elected by parishes to a national senate;
A ‘social guarantee’ extended to provide income for those unable to work;
The ‘rights of infants’ to be free from abuse and poverty.
Spence’s Plan was first published in his penny pamphlet Property in Land Every One’s Right in 1775. It was re-issued as The Real Rights of Man in later editions. It was also reissued by, amongst others, Henry Hyndman under the title of The Nationalization of the Land in 1795 and 1882.
Spence may have been the first Englishman to speak of ‘the rights of man.’ The following recollection, composed in the third person, was written by Spence while he was in prison in London in 1794 on a charge of High Treason. Spence was, he wrote,
the first, who as far as he knows, made use of the phrase “RIGHTS OF MAN,” which was on the following remarkable occasion: A man who had been a farmer, and also a miner, and who had been ill-used by his landlords, dug a cave for himself by the seaside, at Marsdon Rocks, between Shields and Sunderland, about the year 1780, and the singularity of such a habitation, exciting the curiosity of many to pay him a visit; our author was one of that number. Exulting in the idea of a human being, who had bravely emancipated himself from the iron fangs of aristocracy, to live free from impost, he wrote extempore with chaulk above the fire place of this free man, the following lines:
Ye landlords vile, whose man’s peace mar,
Come levy rents here if you can;
Your stewards and lawyers I defy,
And live with all the RIGHTS OF MAN
Spence left Newcastle for London in 1787. He kept a book-stall in High Holborn. In 1794 he spent seven months in Newgate Gaol on a charge of High Treason, and in 1801 he was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment for seditious libel. He died in London on 8 September 1814.
His admirers formed a “Society of Spencean Philanthropists,” of which some account is given in Harriet Martineau’s England During the Thirty Years’ Peace. The African Caribbean activists William Davidson and Robert Wedderburn were drawn to this political group.
Spence explored his political and social concepts in a series of books about the fictional Utopian state of Spensonia.
Spence’s Phonetic System
Spence was a self-taught radical with a deep regard for education as a means to liberation. He pioneered a phonetic script and pronunciation system designed to allow people to learn reading and pronunciation at the same time. He believed that if the correct pronunciation was visible in the spelling, everyone would pronounce English correctly, and the class distinctions carried by language would cease. This would bring a time of equality, peace and plenty: the millennium. He published the first English dictionary with pronunciations (1775) and made phonetic versions of many of his pamphlets.
You can see examples of Spence’s spelling system on the pages on English from the Spence Society.
The Rights of Children
Spence’s angry defense of the rights of children has lost little of its potency. When his The Rights of Infants was published in 1796 it was ahead of its time. Spence’s essay also expresses a clear commitment to the rights of women (although he appears unaware of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women’).
The Real Rights of Man (1793)
End of Oppression (1795)
Rights of Infants (1796)
Constitution of Spensonia (1801)
The Important Trial of Thomas Spence (1807)