Tag Archives: Thomas Paine

What Is The Origin Of (288)?…

A nail in the coffin

There are several variants of this phrase in use, another, an additional and the final being particularly common. They all mean pretty much the same thing, something that contributes to or hastens the demise of the person or thing being referred to. Coffins were made of wood and the sides and lid were fixed into place by driving nails in. There was a sense of finality to the proceedings as the physical remains of the occupant were not intended to get out, leaving the odd grave robber or premature burial to one side.

John Wolcot, an English satirist, who used the splendid nom de plume of Peter Pindar when he published his Expostulatory Odes to a Great Duke in 1789, is credited with the first usage of the image of a nail being added to a coffin. In his Ode XV he wrote, “care to our coffin adds a nail, no doubt;/ and ev’ry grin, so merry, draws one out”. It is a striking image and clearly struck home in the popular imagination, particularly in, but not exclusively, the United States.

Thomas Paine, he of the Rights of Man fame and a failed bridge builder to boot, was passionately against the maintenance of strong trading relationships with Britain and railed against the Federalists who espoused this policy. In an open letter to the American public, his eighth such, he wrote of John Hulbert, according to the Aurora General Advertiser of June 7, 1805, “in his late unprincipled speech…he has driven another nail in the coffin of the federal faction”. The Americans watched the early triumphs of Napoleon with interest from a distance, the Wilmington Gazette moved to note, in its edition of January 27, 1807, “every battle which is fought and won by the French is an additional nail in the coffin of the liberties of the world”.    

It would be wrong to get the impression that Wolcot’s Pindaric image was adopted exclusively by the Americans. Contemporaneously it was in use in England, as this passage attacking William Cobbett, the political reformer and founder of Cobbett’s Political Register, in The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of September 3, 1812 shows; “no wonder that Mr Cobbett is angry with Mr Elton, who, by exposing the obliquity of his personal feelings and the dereliction of his public duty, has clenched the nail in the coffin of the Political Register”. Accusations that politicians and political commentators were less than mindful of the truth are nothing new. The newspaper’s prediction of the Political Register’s demise was a tad premature. It lasted another 24 years, only folding in 1836, a year after Cobbett’s death.

Surprisingly but somewhat amusingly, Isaac Coffin, a former officer of the Royal Navy and MP for Ilchester, was associated with the phrase by The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of April 1, 1822 – I hope the date is not significant – in a report of a parliamentary debate on the Salt Tax; “Sir I. Coffin was anxious to drive a spike nail into the coffin of the oppressive tax”..  

The temperance movement or, at least, those who wished to moderate the consumption of strong liquors were keen to adopt the image, it nicely playing on the idea that you were hastening your demise by drinking the stuff. Some hardened topers in the belief that they were diluting the effects took a glass of porter to accompany their dram, transforming the spirit into what we now call a chaser. According to the journalist, Pierce Egan, in his Life in London, published in 1821, this was only a false precaution; “too many individuals, hard drinkers, flatter themselves that, from such sort of care, they are keeping the nails out of their coffins, till the trembling hand, the diseased appetite, and the debilitated constitution, lamentably point out the fatal error, too late to be corrected”.           

Over in the States, dram drinking was also associated with putting another nail in the coffin, as this helpful definition from the Lansingburgh Gazette from January 24, 1809 reveals; “it is usually said of dram-drinker, that every dram they take, is another nail driven into their coffins”.  

Little notice of such sage advice do we take!

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Six

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

From the age of around ten, until I went to university, I lived in the beautiful rural county of Shropshire. One of its principal claims to fame is that it is home to the world’s first major bridge to be constructed entirely of cast iron, spanning the Severn Gorge at Coalbrookdale.

Abraham Darby’s iconic design was a testament to the burgeoning age of industrialisation and word of the bridge, opened in 1779, spread around the world. Its fame gave its rather prosaic name to the small town that grew up around it, Ironbridge.

Revolutionary as the material used to build the bridge was, Darby’s iron construction was traditional in design, consisting of five ribs, forming a semicircle, a technique dating back to at least the Roman times. The drawback with a semicircle was that the width dictated the height of the bridge, fine for a steep gorge like the one at Coalbrookdale but creating an irritating hump on wider spans.

The Romans, ingenious to the last, solved this problem by using a sequence of small arches. But this approach caused other problems, not least that there was more work required to secure the footings which, in turn, could alter the flow of the river, as the nineteen arches on London Bridge had done to the Thames.

Now that there was a revolutionary new material with which to construct a bridge, wouldn’t it be great if the design was freed from the restrictions imposed by the traditional semicircle methodology?

This is where Thomas Paine sought to make his mark.

One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas is best known these days as the author of The Rights of Man, published in 1791 and a forthright defence of the French Revolution against the attacks of British politicians such as Edward Burke. But he had other strings to his bow, not least being an ardent pontist, fascinated by the mix of architectural splendour and sheer practicality that makes up a bridge.

Aren’t we all?

Intrigued by iron bridges, Paine sought to raise enough money to build a bridge that would span the river Harlem in New York in 1785 and another to cross the Seine in Paris in 1786. His lack of experience in bridge building counted against him, as did his revolutionary design for the span.

Thwarted by practicalities, he turned his attention to perfecting his design.

Claiming to draw his inspiration from a spider’s web, Paine sought to liberate bridge design from the restrictions imposed by a semicircle. He concentrated his attention on what geometricians call the “chord of a circle”, which, simply put, is a straight line between two points on a circle. Using a chord meant that the height of the arch could be adjusted to the demands of the topology of the area to be spanned.

Goodbye, hump-backed bridges.

Convinced that he had cracked the problem, Paine applied for a patent on his idea, the application being granted on August 26, 1788 (patent No. 1667), specifically for a bridge, using his design, to span the river Don in Sheffield.

Despite having the patent to hand, the project was still born.

Desperate to raise some public interest in his design, Paine turned his attention to creating a 110 foot-long iron bridge, effectively a bridge to nowhere, on the bowling green of a public house, the London Stingo, in Lisson Green, on the edge of London’s Paddington.

Quite what the bowling fraternity thought of his erection is unrecorded.

Paine had interested Thomas Jefferson in the project. The Sage of Monticello was enthusiastic, convinced that Paine would build an arch of up to five hundred feet and that any bridge so constructed would soon cover its building costs in toll fees generated.

Work was started in May 1790 and completed in the September, eliciting a congratulatory note from Jefferson, “I congratulate you sincerely on the success of your bridge. I was sure of it before from theory: yet one likes to be assured from practice also.”

But fine words butter no parsnips.

No money was forthcoming to enable Paine to build a bridge to his new design across a river and, by October 1791, the structure was rusting. Disheartened, Paine suffered the ignominy of seeing his bridge dismantled and packed off to Yorkshire, some of the iron then being used to build a bridge spanning the River Wear in Sunderland in 1796, at 240 feet then the longest iron bridge in the world.

At least, the bowlers of the London Stingo got their green back.

By then, Paine had weightier matters on his mind. The Pitt administration, fearing a revolution at home, started to crackdown on agitators and dangerous sorts. With a warrant out for his arrest, Paine skipped across the Channel to France in September 1792.

It is a pity that there was no bridge to facilitate his escape.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone