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Free Minds & Free Markets

Claiming Paine

The contested legacy of the most controversial founding father

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, by Harvey J. Kaye, New York: Hill and Wang, 326 pages, $15

“Every spot in the world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted around the globe,” lamented Thomas Paine in Common Sense, the tract that sparked the Declaration of Independence and gave purpose and direction to the American Revolution. “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.…We have it in our power to begin the world over again. The birth-day of a new world is at hand.”

Within just a few months in 1763, Paine’s pamphlet sold 150,000 copies. The equivalent sales today would be somewhere in the range of 15 million, making Paine, proportionally, America’s biggest bestselling author ever—bigger than Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, and Steven Levitt combined.

Perhaps in the hope of jumping on Paine’s best-selling bandwagon 250 years later, several new books about him have recently appeared in stores. Among them: The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, by Paul Collins; Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, by Craig Nelson; even a tiny book by Christopher Hitchens called Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”: A Biography. Like much of the writing about Paine during his life and since his death, each tries to enlist him for a cause, disown him, or otherwise sort out which political tradition can rightly claim this obscure Founder. Of the new books, the most thorough and opinionated is the historian Harvey J. Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, which claims Paine for the American left.

Like previous attempts to claim Paine, Kaye’s book elides over the true breadth of Paine’s appeal. The man’s fans stretch from progressives who love his penchant for income redistribution schemes to conservatives who appreciate his affection for entrepreneurs.

Paine (1737–1809) was a mercurial figure, cropping up with a well-timed pamphlet at most of the major events of the revolutionary era, on both sides of the Atlantic. He left his native England in 1774 after a string of romantic and economic failures. He arrived in America desperately ill with typhoid, and was saved only by a letter of recommendation from Ben Franklin, as a result of which Franklin’s doctor picked him up bodily from his ship cabin and carried him onto American soil. He rallied quickly and soon found himself at the center of a brewing American rebellion, at which point he made his debut as the pamphleteer of revolution with Common Sense.

Paine went on to pen several more world-shaping works, including The Crisis (1776), a rallying cry in the darkest days of the Revolutionary War (“these are the times that try men’s souls”); Rights of Man (1791), a pro-revolution reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France; and The Age of Reason (1794), a deist manifesto. After jump-starting America’s rebellion, his writings helped foment the French Revolution. He was granted honorary French citizenship for his efforts, though he later narrowly escaped beheading during the Terror. “A share in two revolutions,” he wrote at the time, “is living to some purpose.”

Paine even tried to bring the revolutionary impulse to his native England. After his success in France, he returned home to rally friends of republican democracy and religious dissenters to a common cause. The venture wasn’t a roaring success. When the British government targeted revolutionaries for extermination in 1792, Paine fled the country. (The poet William Blake tipped him off that his enemies were closing in.) He was convicted in absentia of “seditious libel” and for years avoided sea travel for fear of being captured and jailed by the British. After a decade of fleeing the law and being feted by revolutionaries across Europe, Paine came back to America in 1802. He returned in the same sorry state as when he first arrived in 1774: ill, impoverished, and friendless, having been already written out of the pantheon of Founders for his association with more radical, less successful European revolutions and for his renunciation of religion in The Age of Reason.

In Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, Kaye, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, tries to bring the revolutionary back to his rightful place as one of the Founding Fathers. Americans, says Kaye, have long turned to Paine for solace and inspiration in times of crisis. The first part of the book sketches Paine’s life and career, while the second maps his influence on Americans from the nation’s beginnings to the present; in both sections, Kaye demonstrates aggressive, painstaking archival work and a real affection for his subject. But he suffers from left-wing tunnel vision, painting Paine as the spiritual father of America’s labor movement and the New Deal, the patron saint of freethinkers and abolitionists, an enemy of capitalism, and nothing else. He thus misses several sides to his hero’s persona: Paine the inventor, Paine the entrepreneur, Paine the lover of commerce. As a result, he cannot adequately explain Paine’s appeal to figures who don’t fit his narrative, such as Andrew Carnegie and Ronald Reagan.

Early in his career, Paine was known as an American patriot and as a rabble-rouser for democracy. In Common Sense and The Crisis, he expertly vilified the British and loosely sketched what a free, republican America could be like in words that common people could understand. Later in life, Paine’s political ideas and policy schemes grew more specific and in some ways more radical. As he aged, Paine spoke and wrote about elaborate welfare schemes, including one-time payments to every citizen upon adulthood, publicly financed old age pensions, and widely available public education. He also became a stauncher opponent of organized religion, though not an atheist. “My own mind is my own church,” he wrote in The Age of Reason.

Kaye, whose previous books include a biography of Paine for young adults and a volume titled “Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History?” and Other Questions, concedes that Paine had few if any original ideas. He even says that Paine’s rhetoric, while powerful, wasn’t particularly groundbreaking or unusual. Yet Kaye makes it his business to find “Paine’s ideas” at every American crossroads. He sees Paine in the speeches of presidents, declaring that Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points—calling for open treaties, freedom of navigation, free trade, arms reduction, the end of European empires, the self-determination of peoples, and an international association of nations to replace the traditional balance of power with a system of collective security—revived ideas Paine first advanced in Rights of Man.” He asserts that “the author of the Rights of Man would have heartily approved” of virtually every major New Deal program. He sees Paine in the heart of every suffragette, every utopian, every union organizer, every idealistic magazine editor. In all of these cases, ideas that Paine endorsed were indeed present, but there’s a reason he isn’t usually given credit for them: Other figures, more subtle and more complete thinkers, brought them into the American political lexicon.

Kaye also writes, with a tone of personal umbrage, of the perennial efforts to keep Paine out of the canon, from President Theodore Roosevelt’s special hatred of Paine (the Rough Rider famously called the pamphleteer a “dirty little atheist”) through William F. Buckley’s efforts to remove Paine from the heroes acceptable in the “fusionist” libertarian-conservative alliance of the 1950s. (Still, Kaye lets Paine’s punchiest critics get off some of the book’s best lines. In the 1920s William Woodward, the novelist who invented the word debunk, called Paine an “intellectual desperado of the first rank.”)

Kaye also quotes Paine’s admirers, whom he sometimes finds in unexpected places. In 1926, for instance, Better Homes and Gardens honored Paine in its issue marking the American sesquicentennial. As part of a series on “Homes of Famous Americans,” it published a lengthy story on him and his cottage in New Rochelle, New York, declaring, “We as a nation probably owe more to Thomas Paine than to any other human being.” Kaye has a talent for finding tidbits like these, but at some point they start to undermine his thesis. He wants to show crucial moments in our history when Paine has made a comeback, but Paine’s cameos in American political rhetoric turn out to be so numerous that it’s hard to believe he was ever really gone.

Kaye has to perform a particularly difficult balancing act when it comes to some of Paine’s most famous latter-day admirers. He wants to cite big names in American history who loved Paine and used his words, but they are often characters Kaye would rather not see basking in his subject’s glow. So Kaye distinguishes Paine the political revolutionary from Paine the deist. Particularly problematic is the affection of the robber baron Andrew Carnegie. “The Paine who excited Carnegie,” writes Kaye, by way of explanation, “was the author of The Age of Reason, not Rights of Man, and in any case his reading of Paine did not stop Carnegie in 1892 from having his henchmen crack heads to destroy the union at his Homestead, Pennsylvania, steelworks.”

That isn’t the only time Kaye seems disappointed at having to share his hero with someone from a different spot on the political spectrum. The inventor Thomas Edison, who called Paine “one of the greatest of all Americans” and said “never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic,” lets Kaye down by lacking “solid democratic commitments” and “populist political sympathies.” Kaye says only that Edison, who was instrumental in the revival of Paine’s reputation in the 20th century and wrote the introduction to one collection of his writings, “praised Paine as an inventor and a libertarian, not as a democrat.” What Kaye means by this distinction is unclear. He seems to be indicating that Edison may have loved Paine but did so for all the wrong reasons.

But to skip over what Carnegie and Edison loved in Paine—not his radicalism, but his resourcefulness, his rationalism, and his role in birthing America—is to miss an important aspect of the revolutionary’s thinking. Both Edison and Carnegie made their mark in the commercial realm, but Kaye has little appreciation for entrepreneurship. Paine did. He was an inventor who patented a single-span iron bridge and a smokeless candle, and he was involved in the early development of steam engines. He was a businessman who failed many times and always tried again. He was a bridge builder, a freelance schoolteacher, a magazine editor, and a printer. (He also spent a few years as a tax collector, a fact all sides prefer to overlook.) Paine was a charitable man—he handed over all the revenues from Common Sense to purchase mittens for the fledging Continental army—but he kept trying for his piece of the pie, too.

Kaye is even more flummoxed when he has to explain why Paine would be quoted not just by socialists, suffragists, and abolitionists but by prominent conservative politicians. Conservatives are, in fact, responsible for two of the most memorable recyclings of Paine in recent memory.

The first was Barry Goldwater’s declaration in the 1964 presidential campaign, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It is often overlooked in other studies, but Kaye picks up an echo of a comment of Paine’s: “Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle, is a species of vice.”

And then there is Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of Paine. Accepting the nomination at the 1980 Republican convention, he said of the American people: “They are concerned, yes; they’re not frightened. They are disturbed, but not dismayed. They are the kind of men and women Tom Paine had in mind when he wrote, during the darkest days of the American Revolution, ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’ ” Kaye is aghast: How did Reagan (Reagan!) manage to use Paine to “bolster conservatism and the Republican Party”? “Arguably,” Kaye writes, referring to Reagan’s days as president of Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild, “only a onetime man of the left could have done so. But arguably as well, he could only have done so because so much of the left had apparently lost contact with Paine.”

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