Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye
Harvey Kaye, a professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, explores the life and especially the long-term political significance of the author of Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Kaye's point is that Thomas Paine, though often relegated to the founding generation's lower ranks, was in fact highly consequential, serving as an inspiration for "progressives" ranging from abolitionists to suffragettes to socialists to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Kaye believes Paine could be the Left's hero once again, even though nefarious conservatives like Ronald Reagan have more recently tried to appropriate him.
Conservatives long shied away from Paine. In the dispute between Paine and Edmund Burke over the French Revolution, they took Burke's side. Paine had difficulty coming to grips with the fundamentally totalitarian character of egalitarian, secular utopianism (at least until he was imprisoned by Robespierre).
But Kaye undercuts his own argument by noting Paine's eclecticism and the difficulties in categorizing him. Just as Jefferson was revered by both Lincoln and the Confederates, and by both FDR and Reagan, Paine offers something for everyone. His attachment to natural rights, his affection for commerce and free markets, his disdain for centralized power, and his eagerness to take up arms against tyrants hardly puts him in the company of today's Left.
—Andrew E. Busch
Claremont McKenna College
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This article appeared in the Winter 2005-2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books