Thomas Paine, famous for his publication the ‘The Rights of Man’, was also one of the founding fathers of the United States. The theme of the song could either be human rights as they exist in America, or else the political outlook of the new country itself. I’ll consider each possibility in turn.
Since Paine himself figures in the song, the setting would appear to be eighteenth century. However the archaic vocabulary and word order used throughout give it a medieval air. This in turn suggests the narrator’s behaviour towards the ‘damsel’ will be chivalric. This is heavily ironic for, as will be seen, it is far from that.
That the narrator’s behaviour is untoward can be seen from close examination. He sees a fair damsel in chains, but does nothing to release her from them. Instead he offers her his hand – a somewhat tame gesture in the circumstances. When she responds by taking him by the arm, perhaps putting her faith in him, he immediately turns on her. It’s clear that any relationship between them is to be on his terms only. If she acts on her own initiative, he sees her as a threat – ‘She meant to do me harm’.
The narrator’s chauvinistic attitude towards the woman also comes across in his language. ‘Depart from me this moment’ is the language of someone who doesn’t doubt either his authority or his superiority. Nevertheless the fault appears to be not just with the narrator but the society he would seem to represent. He tells the woman she has no choice, which suggests that women generally are subservient to men. That she recognises this is apparent from her response; she recognises that her response needs to be demeaning – that she needs to ‘beg’ him to accept her proposal.
Her proposal is that they elope but in secret – presumably so that he does not have to admit to a relationship he finds demeaning. He tells us, though, that she ‘pleaded/From the corners of her mouth’. That she pleaded seems plausible given her position relative to his, but the claim it came from the corners of her mouth seems to be the narrator’s attempt to show her behaviour in the worst light possible. It must be untrue. If one pleads, one does not do it from the corners of one’s mouth!
The narrator’s disingenuousness is also apparent in that he admits to telling her to depart from him ‘with my voice’. Since ‘with my voice’ seems redundant, one wonders why he’s saying it. The implication seems to be that his body language was telling her something different – that he doesn’t want her to depart, so long as her staying is on his terms. This would explain why her response is so much more mild than one would expect given his terse ‘Depart from me this moment’. She simply says ‘But I don’t wish to’. She seems to be playing the game, hoping there’s still a chance to escape her ‘chains’. She may feel that secretly eloping would be better than nothing.
Tom Paine’s reaction to the scene is the opposite to what one would expect. He shouts at the woman. He commands her. He wants her to ‘yield’ to the narrator. He seems to accept the downtrodden position of women in society as right. He then goes as far as apologising to the narrator on behalf of the woman – even though the woman has done nothing wrong. In fact she’s behaved entirely in accordance with society’s expectations of women.
The song appears, then, to be a critique of attitudes to women as they exist in the United States. It suggests not only that women are downtrodden, but that even the forces of liberalism as represented by Paine conspire to keep them subjugated.
The second interpretation is that the damsel represents the nascent United States. Paine apologises because what was in part his brainchild has failed to reach his expectations. The narrator is equally critical. Given his untoward character, her attempt to have him join her in flying south suggests that the criticism might be justified. It’s unclear what flying south amounts to, but one possibility would be it represents an aggressive foreign policy which might well be seen as America’s betraying the ideals of the Revolution.