There is a passage, laid down by Thomas Paine in the first installment of his 1776 political tract The American Crisis, that—in its precision, its intensity, its moral clarity—is a piece of unmitigated, coruscating beauty:
Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
Sentences like those ought to be carved in stone.
There are, on that score, no significant monuments raised to Paine. This is not necessarily astonishing, and it is in a way appropriate. Paine does not fit neatly into the categories commonly occupied by other Revolutionary figures. For most of our history, he has not seemed a central player in the story of American independence—he is not like Washington or Jefferson or Franklin. The Founders themselves, already a disputatious and difficult set, believed him to be at cross-purposes.
Any investigation of Paine, then, is ultimately an effort to place him in his age and to make sense of his legacy. Craig Nelson, a generalist, has a go of it in Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. He has produced, unfortunately, a wan life-and-times whose purchase on our interest is limited to the richness of Paine’s lived experience. In the thick of this, Nelson commits what is, for any serious historian, the cardinal sin: His book tells us little about the reality of times past and is instead just another reflection of our own.
Paine’s blood ran black with printer’s ink. He was at bottom a journalist, with that vocation’s virtues and attendant vices— brilliant but conceited, contrarian and obstinate, passionate and given to excess, generally running to seed. He did not find his calling, however, until he was thirty-seven. Humbly born in 1737 in Hanoverian England, and never formally educated, he worked as a corset maker and excise tax collector, among other endeavors, all of which were utter failures. But he came to the new world, landing in Philadelphia in 1774, and something shifted. Paine, with a frightening genius for language, began writing for the newspapers, taking the American position in the imperial crisis. He suddenly exploded onto the scene, only fourteen months after he had arrived, with the pamphlet Common Sense.
Common Sense was bold, lucid, and radical. It is one of the most important documents of the American Revolution. Its defiant premise—that independence was not only politically inevitable but morally imperative—caught something ominous in the air, the floating discontent with the existing state of affairs. Paine, never much of an original thinker, did not cause Americans to consider severing their ties to the British crown. But he made the case better than anyone else.
What emerges most strongly from Common Sense is Paine’s immersion in the philosophy of the transatlantic Enlightenment. In rejecting the old regime, Paine was not only responding to the contemporary political conditions but also articulating the Enlightenment view that the moral sense of society was superior to that of any government, which was inherently corrupt, even tyrannical. Paine, more comfortable in the tavern than the salon, made a fetish of ordinary people. In that regard, Common Sense, like all of Paine’s vindications of democratic principles, argued for and anticipated what we now recognize to be the full implications of the American Revolution—the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, popular sovereignty, our egalitarian culture.
This cut against the ideology of the Founders. The Revolution they sparked in fact went well beyond anything they ever imagined. In that sense, Paine was a genuine radical. Paine had a bottomless faith in a de novo future. If only the existing arrangements could be tossed off, all the fetters at once undone, reason and human progress would take care of the rest.
Things did not work out as that theory would have them do. In 1791, Paine published Rights of Man, which became a foundational text for the French Revolution. A year later, he traveled to the Continent, in time to witness the fall of the Bastille. As Robespierre’s France drowned in oceans of blood, Paine was twice almost killed, once when a Parisian mob nearly strung him up in the street. Then he was imprisoned for a year, on trumped-up charges. He just barely escaped the guillotine. Caroming from one thing to the next, Paine published The Age of Reason in 1795, an abusive attack on Christianity. He was not quite a “filthy little atheist,” as Theodore Roosevelt had it, but he was certainly anti-clerical, an altar-stripper. It is hardly worth mentioning—his hostility to religion derived more from his hatred of tradition than any serious theological considerations—but for the fact that the book, indignant and impertinent, ate like acid into his reputation.
Thus Paine was laid in a pauper’s grave in 1809. A decade later, a prominent British political writer exhumed the cadaver, in a macabre gesture of his respect, and hauled it off to England for reburial (though the bones were somehow lost along the way).
Paine’s intellectual heritage, like his earthly remains, is hard to nail down. Craig Nelson, when he bothers to interpret, lapses into the People’s History genre. Paine, he writes, belonged to “a global avant-garde of … hardworking progressives,” as though a modern liberal were shoveled out of the twenty-first century and dumped into the eighteenth. Or he resorts to saccharinity: Paine “would be crestfallen that modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy—multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors.” Please.
Paine has long been an all-purpose idol for American radicals—sometimes of those whose ideas have won out, like William Lloyd Garrison and Susan B. Anthony, and more frequently by those whose ideas haven’t, like Eugene Debs and Tom Hayden. But Paine—with his distrust of consolidated government authority and his belief in free commercial markets—can be plausibly claimed by conservatives as well. Ronald Reagan, to take one example, was fond of quoting Paine to the effect, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Well, no: More often than not, we don’t. That statement is indicative of Paine’s utopian wishing; if we are going to indulge this business, Paine’s beliefs now appear naïve in the extreme. Knowing what we know—after Verdun, Dachau, the Gulag, after 9/11 and everything else, when history has resembled nothing so much as a sluice clogged with meaningless butchery—does anyone really place any faith in the possibilities of human progress and perfectibility?
All of which is to suggest that Paine’s thought cannot easily be translated into our lingua franca without grossly distorting its wellsprings. We tend retroactively to enlist the Founders in every cause, to have them join every club. The larger questions they raised remain challenging, even fresh. But when ideas are understood in their own right, as always soaked through by their political, social, and cultural contexts, they are truer and more complex, and therefore more interesting.
For instance, the academic Trish Loughran recently published a brilliant essay that dismantles some of the romance of Common Sense. This study (which Nelson does not cite) begins by scrutinizing the guesswork on the pamphlet’s sales figures, usually put between 150,000 and 250,000 (which Nelson does). Loughran shows that this is absurd on its face: It asks one to believe that more Americans owned copies of Common Sense than there were literate Americans—many of whom did not support the patriot cause. Furthermore, so wide a dissemination would have been nearly impossible, given the highly localized colonial economy and the nonexistence of mass production. Far from reaching “the whole” of the continental U.S., as Nelson suggests, Common Sense was reprinted only in fourteen towns in seven of the thirteen colonies, and only in one area south of Philadelphia. It was unlikely to have penetrated rural regions.
There is no gainsaying the significance of Common Sense for the revolutionary generation. Still—partisans systematically overstated its circulation to exaggerate the pervasiveness of pro-independence opinion. And then there was the myth-making of Thomas Paine himself. For all his power, he never spoke to “the common man” in quite the way he supposed. The past, it seems, is just as contingent, and just as precarious, as it ever was.
Joseph Rago is an editorial board member for The Wall Street Journal
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