Posted: April 7, 2011
cholars of early America now inhabit an Atlantic age. Atlantic history, as it is called, dominates contemporary studies of the American colonies before independence, and its influence is extending into the realm of imperial government and politics as well. Imperial studies are hot again, and some efforts are again being made to situate that uniquely American event, our Revolution and founding, in a comparative perspective, as the late Robert Palmer suggested in his two volumes on The Age of Democratic Revolution (1959, 1964). Just how far these political comparisons may be pushed remains a puzzle. The differences between the American and French revolutions remain more striking than the similarities, and efforts to compare our break with Britain with the revolt of Spain's American possessions have their limits, too. Still the desire to think in terms of hemispheres, oceans, and even the globe remains one of the strongest currents of contemporary scholarship.
The most Atlantic of our own revolutionaries is the one literary firebrand whose American identity is most open to question. That, of course, would be Thomas Paine, who erupted on the scene with the publication in January 1776 of Common Sense, the pamphlet title he shrewdly converted into his pen-name in years to come. Hazel Burgess opens her edition of unknown Paine writings with the curious statement that, "Until one day in 1778 when he stepped away from his pseudonym of ‘Common Sense'...and revealed his true identity as author of all writings under that signature, Thomas Paine was a literary nonentity." It is hard to take this claim too seriously when Benjamin Franklin and John Adams quickly reported that Paine was almost certainly the author of the great pamphlet for independence. Paine was his own cause, and keenly attentive to the ring of his voice, which remains as compelling today as it was to his original readers.
But was that voice American, or was it a unique expression of the multiple allegiances Paine owned over his lifetime? The Library of America treats Paine as an American writer, with a handsome volume of his writings edited by Eric Foner, and perhaps that is proof enough. But anyone who considers the complexity of his life should be open to argument on this point. Paine was a British subject, aged 37, when he came to Pennsylvania in 1774 with a sponsoring note from Franklin. He had recently lost his post as a collector of the excise, effectively fired (rendered redundant, the British would now say, in a word we would rarely apply to Paine's prose) after leading a protest against excise officers' inadequate salaries. His pamphlet on their plight was his first literary production, but a weak prelude to Common Sense.
Like Alexander Hamilton, Paine did not have to be naturalized to become an American citizen. He was firmly and powerfully attached to the American cause, and remained an active journalist, with some political involvements, over the next eleven years. In 1781 he made his first return to Europe, accompanying Jack Laurens on a quick if pointless mission seeking additional funds from France. The two soon sailed back to America, and Paine did not return to Europe until 1787, when he was intent on securing European support for his scheme for building wrought-iron bridges. Over the next four years, he went back and forth between England and France, seeking support as he proceeded with the production of a bridge, but also entering into his famous quarrel with Edmund Burke over the French Revolution. Like Common Sense, his Rights of Man was a smash hit from which Paine profited little, though it made him a hero in France. In 1792 no fewer than four of the new French départements which Burke denounced as artificial political entities elected Paine to the National Assembly. Rather than accept the risk of seditious prosecution in Britain, Paine went to France, took his seat, and soon fell into trouble for his defense of Louis XVI—whom Paine always viewed far more favorably (as America's wartime ally) than he did his native king, George III, pitilessly skewered in Common Sense. Paine soon found himself on the losing side of the Terror. Imprisoned, lucky to escape the guillotine but not lucky enough to escape the illnesses of confinement, he pled his American citizenship as a ground for release from prosecution, but received little support until James Monroe replaced Gouverneur Morris as the American minister. Not until 1802 did he finally return to America, lapsing toward poverty and drunkenness before his death in 1809.
In the quarter-century or so of his literary-political fame, then, Paine was an activist in three countries, and came to think of himself, as he sometimes claimed, as a citizen of the world. Jack Fruchtman, Jr., closes his study of Paine's political philosophy with an appendix devoted to "Paine's American National Consciousness," finally concluding that Paine's simultaneous claims to be both "a universal citizen" intent on preserving the rights of mankind and an American patriot were "not incompatible." In the end, Paine's American loyalties ran deepest, even after he denounced President Washington for failing to rally to his defense. But perhaps it was his disillusionment with France, rather than a conquering American sympathy, that best explains the course of his life.
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What a life! To turn away from it and focus instead on the man's philosophy, as Fruchtman now does, might seem at first glance a strange diversion. But Fruchtman, a professor of political science at Towson University, has already written a long and deeply engaged biography of Paine, subtitled Apostle of Freedom (1994), and the challenge he takes on here is to avoid the seductive dangers of Paine's mad-cap career and attempt instead to provide a concise summary of his dominant ideas. There is a modest biographical arc to his arrangement of chapters, beginning with an introductory chapter on Paine's political thought and ending with his late-life—or more to the point, post-imprisonment—movement away from revolutionary zealotry into a somewhat more tempered if still enthusiastic notion of how change might occur. But for the most part, Fruchtman favors a topical rather than chronological approach to his assessment of Paine's ideas. As the title itself and the series of which this book is a part suggest, great political activists must have a "philosophy," some coherent body of ideas that may change and evolve over time, but which can still be given enough integrity to deserve broad analytical treatment. Within most of Fruchtman's chapters, then, there is a veering back and forth across time and events that historians find a tad unsettling. Chronologically, we are never wholly sure where we are anchored.
The great advantage of this approach is that it illustrates the remarkable ways in which Paine combined ideas in configurations that modern readers might find not only surprising but downright exotic. This in turn may help to explain why Paine's appeal is not limited to one segment of the political spectrum. Paine was a great advocate of equality, and is often portrayed (like Benjamin Franklin) as a voice and symbol of artisanal radicalism, that is, of that class of self-improving workers who wanted to achieve lives of republican independence, in which free urban labor would enjoy the same stature as the independent yeomanry of Jefferson's imagination. That is a dominant theme in Eric Foner's sympathetic biography, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976). A sharper version of this appears in an essay by Bernard Bailyn, "The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution" (1973), which suggests that Paine's brilliant inflammatory prose represented a raw Old World resentment of the extravagant power of monarchy and aristocracy. There was in Paine's language, Bailyn noted, a "violent, slashing, angry, indignant" quality that has no direct counterpart in American writing. This was "the indignation and rage of the semi-dispossessed," hovering on the brink of debtors' prison, resentful of all the marks of privilege before which they were expected to grovel.
Fruchtman's account of Paine's egalitarian ideas shows how this attitude affected his numerous proposals for egalitarian reform. But Fruchtman also shows that there was a markedly Hamiltonian side to Paine's thinking, a willingness to accept much if not quite all of the apparatus of Hamilton's policy, including its reliance on a public debt as an essential element of national state-building. Paine became a journalistic ally of Philadelphia's merchant prince, Robert Morris, who was Hamilton's mentor in the early 1780s and the proto-architect of Hamilton's later policies as secretary of the treasury. Paine's alliance with Philadelphia wealth, however, did not nullify his deeper sympathies. It is with some respect that a modern reader can relish Paine's conviction in The Rights of Man "that the government [should] eliminate all taxes on poor people and increase them on the wealthy," and then double the amount collected and distribute it among families with children and the elderly.
Fruchtman is a Paine enthusiast, and if this succinct account does not provide the same biographical stir one gets from other works (his earlier book included), it is nonetheless a great way for the newcomer to appreciate the range, diversity, and raw power and brilliance of Paine's ideas. A few minor errors did distract me (calling Spinoza "Dutch" seems a strange way to characterize the great excommunicated philosophical radical of the 17th century, who descended from the Portugese-Jewish "nation" in diaspora; and Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651, not 1751), but these do not touch the book's substance.
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Hazel Burgess shares Fruchtman's enthusiasm for Paine, but I am less certain how to assess the nature and course of her project. An Australian scholar, she seems to have a special interest in the fate of Paine's physical remains, and it appears that she may have a biography in the works. She opens her introduction with a number of challenges to what have been taken to be staple facts of Paine's early life, down to his parentage and schooling, so perhaps she has in mind a different kind of revisionist account. On balance, her new collection is something of a Paine miscellany for his truest fans. There are short letters relating to particular biographical facts, including his role in the much misunderstood contretemps involving the American diplomats Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. Most of the materials Burgess reprints date after Paine's departure for Europe in April 1787, the month before the Federal Convention assembled at Philadelphia—which means that Paine effectively sat out the great American constitutional debate. The most important of these documents may be the tract entitled Thoughts on the Present State of the British Nation (1791), which Burgess presents as a transition between the two parts of The Rights of Man. American readers will also take interest in a short piece Paine published back in America a decade later, when he criticized the Americans' new ritual of annually rereading the Declaration of Independence as an unwise measure which may "dishonour their character, or injure their interest" by prolonging animosities against Great Britain, a nation that now merited more confidence from its former subjects than did the post-revolutionary descendants of its wartime ally, France.
A few of Burgess's points caught me short, however. Her account of how she transcribed and edited the new documents suggests a wandering subjectivity on her part about how to modernize an 18th-century text. I was also unsettled when she observed that "war between Britain and the colonies followed within months" of the publication of Common Sense in January 1776, when most of us assume it had already begun in April 1775. Finally, if these documents are "a collection of unknown writings" of Paine, why do we encounter a personal letter to Jefferson that was printed in volume 27 of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson? I wish Dr. Burgess well in her continuing work on Paine, but some greater clarity would be in order. But then again, Paine was a brilliant wild man of the 18th-century Atlantic, so continuing disorder might be helpful, too. There is much in Paine that still inspires Americans across the political spectrum; his was an original voice without any direct equal in our own provincial firmaments, and Hazel Burgess is clearly devoted to its message.