Book Review: Thomas Paine: Britain, America, & France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution by J.C.D. Clark (Oxford University Press, 2018, 485 pages)
British historian J.C.D Clark sets out in his newly published book on Thomas Paine to reevaluate Paine and his contributions to the “age of revolution” by examining his connections to such eighteenth century issues as radicalism, republicanism, universal natural rights, and revolution. He finds that Paine is better understood when his writings are connected to particular experiences in his past and the intellectual atmosphere that existed in his early years, rather than by explanations that frame his political thought using universal principles and modern rights-based concepts (e.g., individualism, human rights). Paine was, according to Clark, a product of the “old” world more than a visionary of a new one. He “stumbled into the American Revolution,” says Clark, “an episode that he…understood primarily in English terms.” (page 122)
Challenging interpretations of Paine and his legacy that long after his death made him a prophet of a new age of revolution, champion of the working class, and advocate for modern democracy, Clark looks back at Paine’s formative years and to the context of early- and mid-eighteenth century England, and argues that although an important revolutionary figure in America, France, and Britain, Paine must be understood as a product of the intellectual landscape he inhabited while growing up in England.
Much of Clark’s book therefore focuses our attention on that context and just what Paine understood, or not, about it. In this light, he reconsiders the language of politics in the eighteenth century—especially that of the Anglophone world of Britain and America—by exploring Paine’s conceptual vocabulary and how it relates to English-speaking discourses. He wants to know just how transformative Paine’s political thought was. His conclusion is that Paine was less forward-looking than is generally thought, but because his attack on the existing hierarchical order resonated with the populace, he played a significant “though not dominant” role in a series of extraordinary and revolutionary events in America and Europe.
Clark shows that little is known about Paine’s intellectual development for the first thirty-seven years of his life. Clark carefully explores the history of that period, because as he notes, Paine seemed to arrive in America in 1774 with his “ideas fully formed.” (21) This has always been a bit of a puzzle to anyone studying Paine. How could an unknown person show up in America with no particular substantive educational background, experience, or prior intellectual contributions and within a year write a sensational pamphlet that helped lead to American independence and change history? It was a vexing question for John Adams in particular, who thought (simplistically) Paine merely went around Philadelphia picking up bits and pieces of hearsay about independence and governance and packaged it all in Common Sense.
Even more puzzling at times is determining exactly what Paine did write. This is still an ongoing debate that Clark acknowledges and participates in: he includes an appendix that offers his own ideas and evidence about what writings, written anonymously and previously attributed to Paine, must now be de-attributed. Some of these writings include pieces on antislavery and women’s rights; writings that if it is agreed are not Paine’s could change his legacy in important ways.
Clark spends the first part of his book, which is broken into three parts, looking for the sources of Paine’s “fully formed ideas.” If Paine’s particular development is unclear, the context of the times he grew up in is certainly worth reexamining.
For example, Paine’s dislike for hereditary monarchy and aristocracy, which he held throughout his life, was rooted more in his distaste for the Hanoverian succession and subsequent regime than by “an abstract critique of monarchy on natural rights grounds.” (45) If taxes were oppressive in England and contributed to poverty, it was not because taxes were always bad, but because they had been increased drastically as a result of the Hanoverian monarchs trying to pay for their civil wars of succession. Paine had been an excise officer in England, and he never argued against taxes per se either there or in America. Instead he framed his views on the subject, as he did many others, in terms that were less generalist and more particular to immediate concerns.
So, where did Paine get those fully formed ideas he brought with him to America? They can be found, according to Clark, in England. Though there are uncertainties about exactly what writings and ideas influenced the early Paine, he did attend lectures on natural philosophy, mathematics, and related topics in London that helped shape his world view.
Clark rejects, however, the generally accepted view that Paine was a well-versed student of the Enlightenment and based on that paradigm offered premonitions of the coming modern society. His writings simply do not support those ideas. For example, even though Paine lived in London, Philadelphia, and Paris, and at the end of his life, New York, he expressed little awareness that urbanization and population growth were transformative processes and already changing society. His works did not presage Malthus’s ideas of overpopulation. Instead, Paine was an agrarian at heart, much like Jefferson, and according to Clark, wished only for his little plot of land (which he finally acquired after New York granted him a confiscated ex-Tory farm in New Rochelle, New York, following the Revolution).
Concerning government, Clark argues that Paine’s proposals for a new American government were not fundamentally unique and were rooted in English examples more than in American experience. For example, his urging for unicameral legislatures in Common Sense and Four Letters on Interesting Subjects was more a response to the English experience rather than the American one, though Clark does acknowledge Paine’s insistence that a constitution must be a “blueprint antecedent to government” (201f), an idea that first appeared in Common Sense.
In another example, Paine’s notions of economics never acknowledged a special awareness of an emerging working class or any vision of the coming industrial age that some have suggested are in fact expressed in nascent form in his works. Though Paine spent much time after his return to Europe in 1787 trying to get his design for an iron bridge built in England or France, he did not frame his economic thought in modernist terms that would soon define the tenets of the early nineteenth century political economy emerging in an industrial age. Clark once again suggests instead that the roots of Paine’s thought were in his past. Many scholars and readers overreach, Clark thinks, in trying to identify among his principles fundamental elements of modernity.
Paine was not the radical some have made him out to be either: he was no “cultural class warrior.” (87) He was always friendly to production and exchange. There was no tension between virtue and commerce in Common Sense, Clark say,and Paine’s critique of inequality was not connected in his mind to a rising working class consciousness. The ideas of E.P. Thompson find few roots in Paine’s works, though Paine eventually began to be celebrated by socialists well after the end of his life as a champion of the working class. And though his Agrarian Justicedid propose a form of social security system for the elderly and disabled and investment in the young so they could become productive citizens through a scheme of taxing landed estates, he did not advocate a redistribution of landed property and only criticized the gap between the wealthy and poor if the former oppressed the latter. For Paine, as for Madison, the inequality of property was an a priori assumption, though Paine did offer some novel ideas to alleviate the effects of perpetual poverty—some that caught attention later on.
It’s one thing to explain Paine’s political thought within a particular intellectual context, but it’s much harder to tie him to a given context by using his own direct expression and acknowledgement of the sources for his thought. To the extent Clark is able to accomplish the latter, his argument is more convincing; but when unable to rely on Paine’s own words and needing to rely instead on those of others, or written works which Paine may or may not have read, or simply informed conjecture, his argument is not as tight. For example, Clark seems to struggle to explain Paine’s style of writing. He is not alone.
John Adams early on admired and was forever jealous of Paine’s writing style and popular appeal, though later in life he dismissed much of Paine’s contributions to the American Revolution. Jefferson too was a great admirer of Paine’s style (“No writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style.”), but even he was circumspect in his praise, Clark points out. Neither of Paine’s contemporaries quite explained, however, how Paine’s words could capture tens of thousands of readers so quickly. Clark does not accept the view that his words can be explained simply as “appropriate to a new world of democratic populism,” (70) but he doesn’t offer any further argument to explain what Paine’s co-founders could not. His discussion of Paine’s style as somehow tied to the populist pulpit preaching of the times is not compelling, though that’s certainly an avenue worth exploring.
Which brings me to a final thought on one of Clark’s principal theses: the power of religion in Paine’s political thought. To the extent that Americans know anything about Paine’s religious views, they know his were unorthodox, regarded as heretical, and assumed to be atheistic. His unconventional religious views and attacks on organized religion, especially Christianity as expressed in the Age of Reason, ruined Paine’s reputation in America, and it hasn’t been restored since. But Paine’s religious beliefs were deeply held and connected to his political views, as Clark persuasively argues. So it’s a bit ironic that Paine was victimized as an infidel in America late in his life by a rising tide of evangelicalism during the Second Great Awakening.
Clark argues that Paine’s political thought cannot be understood without his Deism. His religious views provide a foundation to explain Paine’s deep antipathy toward monarchy and aristocracy: “His originality in Rights of Man derived not from an affirmation of the principle of universal manhood suffrage but from his Deist negation of what his Deism identified as the heredity principle, so that his generalized advocacy of a wider franchise was now set in a context of the abolition of monarchy and aristocracy.” (76) This, says Clark, was “sensational” because it went beyond religious Protestant nonconformists and Dissenters, who likely would have been satisfied with any reforms in Parliament that were responsive to their claims.
Although not rooted in a general theory of natural rights, Paine’s advocacy of abolishing monarchy and aristocracy was his response to particular circumstances; his individualism sprang not from a natural rights context but from his rejection of revealed religion and hierarchy—and his perception that the latter undergirded aristocracy and monarchy, archenemies of popular government.
Clark’s analysis of the contextual Thomas Paine offers fresh insights to his political thought and to his role in the age of revolution. Though his insights contribute to the idea that Paine is not the revolutionary player he often is thought to have been, they nevertheless have the effect of evaluating Paine and his political thought against the most important intellectual currents of his time. This alone curiously elevates Paine’s stature within the context of eighteenth century intellectual history, and it makes Clark’s book a must read for any who are seriously interested in political theory, the American Revolution, and Thomas Paine and his legacy.