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Discussions of Recent Books, Winter 1975

ISSUE:  Winter 1975
Rebel! A Biography of Tom Paine. By Samuel Edwards. Praeger Publishers. $9.95. Paine. By David Freeman Hawke. Harper & Row. $15.00

THOMAS Paine arrived in this country for the first time on November 30, 1774. Little more than a year later, January 9, 1776, he published “Common Sense,” a pamphlet that made him famous, linked his name forever with the cause of American independence, and initiated his career as a would-be revolutionary agitator for England, France, Holland, and perhaps the whole of Europe. His death in New York City on June 8, 1809, went almost unnoticed, and no eminent American pronounced a eulogy over his grave or recorded his contributions to his adopted country. Most of his old friends of the Revolutionary era had rejected him; the new generation knew him only by reputation, and that reputation among many Americans was of a dissolute, debauched, dirty atheist who had defamed the late George Washington.

As we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of our birth as an independent nation, it is appropriate to re-examine the Revolution, its ideas, its purposes and their realization or the lack of it, its significance, and the men who both shaped it and were shaped by it.

Of the two new biographies of Thomas Paine considered here, one can be disposed of briefly. Samuel Edwards’ “Rebel!” is apparently intended to be a “popular” biography aimed at the “general” reader assumed to be annoyed by footnotes and the other accoutrements of serious scholarship. A substantial portion of the book follows Moncure Daniel Conway’s 1892 biography very closely, and although Edwards rejects some of Conway’s arguments and has consulted other sources, both primary and secondary, he lacks the depth of knowledge of eighteenth-century America required to give his work authority. For the scholar, and for the general reader who wants an authoritative as well as an absorbingly interesting biography, David Freeman Hawke’s “Paine” is undoubtedly the better choice.

Hawke’s “Paine” is a product of meticulous scholarship; it is a thorough and comprehensive study, balanced and thoughtful, its author too honest and sophisticated to draw a caricature portrait of Paine. Indeed, the only important criticism I have of Mr. Hawke’s biography is rather a wistful one; he has so disciplined himself to present this very difficult and sometimes exasperating man fairly and judiciously that he has, I fear, inhibited a talent for perceptive interpretation and insight.

Paine was thirty-seven when he arrived in America for the first time; his life in England previously had been one of insecurity and repeated petty failures and frustrations. His later achievements proved beyond doubt that he possessed native abilities for which he had found no outlet in England. In “Common Sense,” he used a quotation from Milton, which, Hawke suggests with exquisite perceptivity, may have reflected his own deep personal feelings about his native country: “Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”

Paine was completely unknown when he arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774, but he carried letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, and these assured help during convalescence from a fever contracted on board ship and then assisted him in beginning the new life for which he had made the Atlantic crossing.

Although “Common Sense” was not his first essay written in America, it was the one which made his reputation as a national hero and won him membership among the leaders of the Revolutionary movement. The pamphlet combined a vehement argument for American independence from Great Britain with a savage attack on monarchy, not merely on absolute, despotic monarchy, but on the constitutional and limited form of the mother country, then reputed to be the best government in the world. There was then and is now no doubt that as political polemic “Common Sense” was a brilliant, dazzling performance. Its actual weight in influencing the decision for independence is impossible to determine, because it appeared just at the time when public opinion was already beginning to shift. As Hawke suggests, its impact was probably greater in the middle colonies than in New England or Virginia, because the latter two areas were in advance of the former in reaching the decision that reconciliation on terms other than complete surrender of the rights previously asserted was impossible.

The success of “Common Sense” brought Paine fame, and as Hawke suggests, “in a sense, it made him a new man.” But perhaps not quite new. Paine proceeded to do two things which may have reflected, in a strange and convoluted way, his background as an unsuccessful member of the English lower middle class. He refused to accept any profit from the sales of his best seller, and instead of joining the swarms of men who plagued John Adams with their competition for rank as commissioned officers in the Continental Army, he joined the ranks of a short-term Pennsylvania militia unit. When this unit’s enlistment term expired, he joined General Nathanael Greene, witnessed Washington’s retreat to Trenton in December of 1776, and then left the military to use his pen as an instrument to restore and sustain the morale of the people as well as the army throughout the long war. Thus began the “American Crisis” series of thirteen articles, the last appearing in December of 1783. As with “Common Sense,” so with the “Crisis Papers,” Paine was unwilling to make a profit out of their sale. His image of himself seemed to require that as a patriot, and to maintain the purity of his motivation, he had to eschew all profit and write for the cause alone.

This may appear to have been a splendid gesture, but had Paine been a more analytical thinker, he might have explored the implications of the gesture and found them somewhat disturbing with respect to the ordinary operation of republican government. Ordinary citizens have to make a living in some way. If, in order to serve their country as pure patriots, they must forego all income from the exercise of their ordinary occupations, then how will they support themselves and their families? Paine’s gesture had to be compensated for, and his compensatory methods were not of unalloyed nobility. He sponged on his friends, and he demanded remuneration from government sources, both the Continental Congress and the states. If his friends had followed his example, they would not have been in a position to be sponged upon; or, alternatively, all citizens would have had to become government employees, with all that that implies. Paine deceived himself. His self-image was that of a noble and unselfish patriot, but he was in actuality demanding special recognition and special treatment. Nor can one read the eloquent “Crisis Papers” with unqualified appreciation of Paine’s willingness to sacrifice for the patriot cause when one learns that while Washington and the faithful remnants of his army were enduring the bitter winter at Valley Forge, Paine was warmly and comfortably ensconced with friends in Lancaster. And, as Hawke adds, “At a time when he had a real crisis to write about Paine ignored it, preferring to let Washington stand alone against his enemies [in Congress as well as the British].”

When it became clear to Paine that there was no significant rôle for him in post-Revolutionary politics, he turned his energies in another direction, the design of an iron suspension bridge which he hoped would revolutionize the science of bridge-building. He tried to get his bridge financed in America, but his cost estimate of more than $300,000 was too much for any state, and in the spring of 1787 he left to peddle his new project in England and Europe.

He was in England when the French Revolution broke out, and his bridge problems kept him there until the late fall of 1789, when he crossed over to France, obviously with great eagerness. “A share in two revolutions,” as Hawke quotes him, “is living to some purpose.” For the next year he shuttled back and forth between France and England, partly on his bridge business and partly waiting for Edmund Burke’s anticipated attack on the French Revolution, to which Paine was determined to respond. Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” was published November 1, 1790, and Paine began his reply at once. Part One of “The Rights of Man” came out in March of 1791, Part Two in February of 1792. Both were best sellers.

The modern reader of “The Rights of Man” is probably incapable of responding to it with the zeal of its contemporary audiences—for two reasons, one minor and one major. The minor one is the sheer tediousness of Paine’s prolific style. It is true that there are passages of passionate eloquence, true too that Paine scored telling points against Burke, some of them ethical, some of them analytical. Paine was right to see the moral obtuseness in Burke’s ridiculous outrage over the “insults” shown to Marie Antoinette, coupled with utter lack of concern for the condition of the mass of the French people or for the most wretched victims of the French political system: Paine was probably also right when he argued that whatever outrages had occurred up to that time (1791) were not the result of “the principles of the Revolution, but of the degraded mind that existed before the Revolution. . . .” It is nevertheless difficult for the modern reader not to wince with both exasperation and grief at Paine’s terrible naïveté: “There is a morning of reason rising upon man, on the subject of government, that has not appeared before.” And very near the end of Part Two: “What pace the political summer may keep with the natural, no human foresight can determine. It is, however, not difficult to perceive that the spring is begun.”

One turns with bleak appreciation to Burke’s prescient prediction, made when the Revolution was little more than a year old, that it would end in military dictatorship. Burke argued in his “Reflections” that the National Assembly would lack authority to maintain civilian control over the military:

In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic.

Paine eventually met Napoleon, and the two men discussed Paine’s plan for invading England with gunboats. By that time, Paine had himself fallen victim to the Terror because of the moderate positions he had taken as a member of the National Assembly. Among other things, he had opposed the execution of Louis XVI. Perhaps for this reason, perhaps because he was English by birth, he was arrested in late December of 1793 and remained in the Luxembourg prison until November of 1794. Why he remained there so long is a mystery which has never been solved, but it had one disastrous result for Paine’s reputation in America. Paine blamed George Washington for not claiming him as an American citizen and demanding his immediate release. When he was eventually freed he wrote a private inquiry to Washington. Washington’s reply was unsatisfactory to Paine, who then published a scathing attack on the President. That attack, plus the “Age of Reason”—a defense of deism rather than of the atheism for which Paine was blamed —and the various accounts of his drunkenness, debauchery, and indifference to personal cleanliness, destroyed his reputation in America.

Had many Americans known that while still in France, in 1798, he published a plan for a French naval conquest of the United States, his last years in America might have been even more difficult than they were, if, indeed, he had been permitted to return at all. That plan, which, as Hawke points out, carried Paine over the line of criticism into sedition, symbolizes the “other” side of Paine’s cosmopolitanism, of his proud claim to be a citizen of the world. The “other” side may appear bright or dark, according to the individual reader’s perception. The immediate provocation of Paine’s plan for the French invasion was his anger at the Federalist Party and its policies between 1798 and 1800, but the roots of his position had been stated nineteen years earlier. In 1779 he had told his friend Henry Laurens that “perhaps America would feel the less obligation to me did she know, that it was neither the place nor the people but the cause itself that irresistibly engaged me in its support; for I should have acted the same part in any other country could the same circumstances have arisen there which have happened here.”

Perhaps this remark to Laurens and Paine’s 1798 scheme for French invasion of America can permit us to place him in a broader context and come closer to defining him, his relationship to our Revolution, and his universal significance. Was he not quintessentially a particular type of Western European Post-Reformation man? A cosmopolitan, frequently an exile from the country of his birth, sometimes a martyr, sometimes a real or alleged traitor, whose deepest roots were never in that country or any other, and but rarely in his family, but in his cause, his ideals, his religion. Paine was for a while a “fellow-traveler” with men like Thomas Jefferson and with America, because they shared many of the same ideals, but his true spiritual cousins were Cardinal Allen, who dispatched his brave Jesuits to England to restore the true religion there, even at the cost of civil war and the assassination of Elizabeth I, and Che Guevara, Argentinian by birth, revolutionary by choice in Cuba and then courageously but stupidly in Bolivia. Like them, Paine pursued a cause he perceived to be higher in ethical value than nationalism, and for this one can and perhaps must admire him. But one may also suspect that in him, and his type, there may lie a latent destructiveness potentially inimical not only to nationalism but also to the religious and humane values for which home, family, and nation have been sacrificed or perhaps betrayed.

That Paine as late as 1798 could have thought France rather than America represented the better hope for realizing the rights of man seems a monstrous error. I think that it can be explained. First, Paine was essentially a man with little learning. In this respect, he differed from American founding fathers like Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, and many of their colleagues. He seems never to have had their knowledge or their sense of history, their certainty of the past fragility of republican governments, their consequent concern to design political institutions that would guard the American experiments from the fate of all past republics. Second, Paine had had little experience in actual politics before he came to America, and he was shocked by the factional conflicts he observed in the state of Pennsylvania as well as among the delegates to the Continental Congress. He therefore lacked the perspective to see, as Jefferson did, that the war frenzy of the people in 1798 and the policies of the Federalist Party might be only temporary. His conception of how republican politics ought to operate was comparable to a sedate minuet, and when he observed the reality, first in America and then in France, he lacked the temperamental and intellectual resources to adjust dream to reality. I think that it must be concluded that Paine was a perfect exemplar of Burke’s scornful term, “theological politicians.” His ideology was that of eighteenth-century English radicalism. His republican idealism had a brittle quality about it, and when compared with that of tough old John Adams, sharply analytical James Madison, and the finely tempered faith of Thomas Jefferson, it seems shallow, and in the American context of the Revolution, even alien.

It would not be fair to Paine or faithful to Hawke’s excellent and judicious biography to end with an evaluation so severely negative. Part Two of “The Rights of Man” reflects Paine’s concern for the economic plight of the mass of men, and although parts of his specific financial analysis may be faulted, much of it spans the centuries from Thomas More’s “Utopia” to the modern welfare state. And how frequently now, or at least until a recent Supreme Court decision, have we heard the echo of Paine’s question, “Why is it that scarcely any are executed but the poor?”

Finally, though there was much pettiness and some squalor in Paine’s life, especially in his later years, there was also generosity, courage, and integrity. He was notorious for his help to Americans in Paris, and the accounts of his behavior in the Luxembourg prison emphasize his cheerful demeanor as a source of comfort to his fellow inmates. During his final illness in New York City, he was frequently plagued by both friends and complete strangers who invaded his privacy in order to “save” his soul by getting a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God before it was too late. One friend made a last attempt by asking Paine, not whether he did so believe, but whether he had a wish so to believe. Hawke reports: “Several minutes of silence passed, then, “with much emphasis” Paine said, “I have no wish to believe on that subject. “”

Thus in the end, Paine’s fidelity to his most profound convictions remained intact. If those convictions did not include unswerving loyalty to this country as a nation state, they did embrace America’s initial commitment to the equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


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