Reasons for radicalism
TOM PAINE: A POLITICAL LIFE, By John Keane Bloomsbury Pounds 25 - 0 7475 2007 0.
Jeremy Black assesses two biographies of Thomas Paine. The appearance of two substantial biographies of one of the most interesting of Anglo-American political theorists is much to be welcomed.
Paine's life itself is far from obscure. Born in Thetford in 1737 and a corset-maker by profession, Paine became involved in politics in London. Sailing to America in 1774, he made his name with the pamphlet Common Sense (1776), in which he argued for republicanism as the sole reasonable means of government and for complete independence for America. Returning to England in 1787, Paine replied to Burke's critical Reflections on the Revolution in France with his widely read The Rights of Man (two parts, 1791-2). This comfortably outsold the Reflections, and, in Part Two, went well beyond responding to Burke by offering a radical social programme. Paine offered an alternative social as well as an alternative political order, one in which there was little room for nobility, established Church and monarchy.
As a prominent radical, Paine fled to France to avoid arrest for treason in 1792 and was elected to the French Convention. When, on February 1 1793, the Convention declared war on Britain, it made use of the convention that war was declared on sovereigns, and, thus, that aggression was not being committed against other peoples, and asked Paine, among others, to compose an address to urge the British people to rebel. Disillusioned by the Terror, Paine was imprisoned (1793-4). His Age of Reason (two parts, 1794-5), an attack on organised religion from a deistic point of view, helped to make him unpopular when he returned to the safety of America in 1802, but he died peacefully in New York in 1809.
This bald summary of a man that the hostile New York Evening Post claimed "had lived long, done some good, and much harm", does not capture the variety of Paine's life and the excitement of Paine's personality and ideas. Fruchtman, professor of political science at Towson State University and the author already of two books on Richard Price, Joseph Priestly and Paine, and Keane, professor of politics at the University of Westminster, ably convey these elements of Paine's career.
Both clearly sympathetic to the left, they are well-equipped to follow their subject through the multiple milieux of England, France and America. They also write with commitment. To Fruchtman, Paine was an "outspoken and articulate advocate for social and political changes" who offers a powerful inspiration for the modern world. Such arguments are difficult to assess. In part they tell us more about author than subject. What is idealism to one commentator may appear dangerous naivety to another. When, for example, in The Rights of Man, Paine blamed war on the ancien regime and claimed that "man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of government", he was repeating a standard theme of radical writers that was soon to be revealed as nonsense.
Fruchtman makes an interesting case for Paine not as a deist, but as a pantheist who saw the world as infused with divine spirit. That may today be an attractive concept, but it underlines the marginality of Paine in what was a conventionally Christian world. To Keane, Paine was "the greatest political figure of his generation", a foolish and anglocentric viewpoint that strongly reflects a partisan present-mindedness.
Fruchtman's reading of the modern world back into Paine's lifetime leads to certain assumptions and preferences. His views on the American and French Revolutions can be described as teleological, and this, understandably, is not a book to turn to for a sympathetic account of those whom Paine clashed with, such as Burke.
Yet Fruchtman's partisanship brings a freshness to his writing and he is particularly interesting on the American dimension. Paine's ideas and career exemplified Burke's insistence that the cause of revolution was indeed universal in its intentions and threat. If Burke generally failed to draw attention to the differences between indigenous and French radicalism, that was justified in the case of Paine. Indeed, the extent to which some radicals such as Paine looked to France helped to compromise the cause of radicalism in Britain; so that when opinion turned against France the cause of radicalism was badly hit.
As late as September 1792 the ever-hyperbolic Burke could complain that "the English assassins of the Jacobin faction are working hard to corrupt the public mind in favour of their brother murderers in France - and not one person, either on the part of government, or opposition makes the slightest effort, of any kind, to prevent the ill effects of these poisons". Yet, by the following February, the Duke of Portland, the leader of the Whigs in the House of Lords, could declare his support for "a war, the object of which was, to resist doctrines that . . . went to the overthrow, not merely of all legitimate government, of the security of nations . . . but even of religion itself, and of everything for which society was instituted".
The benefit of a liberal hindsight might lead to praise for Paine, as in these biographies, but in his own lifetime the yoking of domestic radicalism and support for the French Revolution was to help discredit both. The clarity that lent such vigour to Paine's pen was ill-suited to the complexities of politics. His alternative model of political, social and religious order posed a challenge to the ideological smugness of much contemporary thought, but he was partly to blame for the Loyalist riposte of tarring radicalism with the cause of France. Paine's flight to France played into Burke's hands, but, at the same time, it reflected a perception that they shared, namely that events in France were of direct relevance to Britain and that Britain was necessarily involved in a wider European struggle between the supporters and opponents of revolution.
The dynamics of the Loyalist upsurge of the 1790s do not emerge clearly from either book, not least because the conservatives of the period found it difficult to formulate and sustain an international ideology that might strike an attractive resonance today. The variegated nature of the ancien regime, its latent ideology of specific privileges, did not lend itself to this task, no more than did the xenophobic, provincial, proto-nationalist and nationalist responses to French power in 1792-1815. Yet these were of great importance for the 19th century. Britain played a major role in the rallying to Church and Crown that proved such a distinct feature of the 1790s and 1800s across much of Europe. This played a potent role in the definition of nationhood in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. A revolution that was indeed universal in its meaning, and, to some, scope, instead inspired a nationalism that undermined the cosmopolitan and radical traditions of the 18th century.
Fruchtman's book is bulky, but the generous typeface ensures that it is not an example of the all-too-common American historical or literary biography, the somewhat oppressive blockbuster. It is vigorous and interesting, but the reading of Paine is overly partisan and insufficiently problematic.
Keane's account draws on more sources and is especially good on the English roots of Paine's political identity. Hostility to a strong executive is traced back to the Commonwealthsmen, but Paine is praised for modernising republican politics and moving it toward the notion of representative democratic government. Rather than seeing republicanism as derived from the literature of the classical world, Paine is presented by Keane as deriving his vision of politics from his wide ranging first hand experiences.
Thus in England he personally suffered from "the crude injustice of the punishment system". Keane ably integrates Paine's life and ideas and tells his story well. Paine's importance to the British government in 1792-3 is exaggerated, but in other respects, despite his partisanship, Keane provides a reasonable account of his subject's meteoric trajectory.
Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Durham. His books include Convergence or Divergence? Britain and the Continent (Macmillan 1994), The Politics of Britain 1688-1800 (Manchester University Press 1993) and European Warfare 1660-1815 (University College of London Press 1994).