Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye
A short review of a masterpiece of a book you should have in your library
Back in 2006, Professor Harvey J. Kaye wrote one of the best history books I’ve read in decades: Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. I wrote a review of it back then that I recently stumbled across on the internet and thought you’d want to read. Hope you don’t mind a second “book” email in your inbox today…
It would not be an exaggeration to say that without Thomas Paine there may not have been an American Revolution. At the very least, it may well have been of a substantially different nature and character, and our government may be far more plutocratic than it was designed to be.
Yet Paine is often absent from broad-brush overviews of the American Revolution, or simply relegated to the title of “pamphleteer.”
Part of the reason for this is that he wrote The Age Of Reason, which was a finely-tuned attack on organized religion. After Common Sense and The Rights of Man, two books that were massive best-sellers, Reason caused many Americans — then in the midst of a religious revival — to turn against Paine.
Thus he died in relative obscurity in New York City, and today even the whereabouts of his body is unknown (an interesting story that Harvey J. Kaye tells well).
His critics notwithstanding, Thomas Paine was in many ways the father of modern liberalism, and thus one of the most important of the founders of what both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson referred to as that “liberal” experiment, the United States of America.
Liberals, after all, founded our nation.
They were skeptical of the power of any institution, be it corporate (the Boston Tea Party was an anti-globalization protest against the world's largest transnational corporation, the East India Company), religious (Ben Franklin left Massachusetts for Philadelphia during his childhood in part because they were still hanging witches in the outlying regions), or non-democratic governmental (the “kingly oppressions” such as the power of a king to make war, referred to by Madison and later quoted by Lincoln).
It wasn't FDR who first seriously promoted the progressive income tax in the USA: it was Thomas Paine.
It wasn't LBJ who invented anti-poverty programs by introducing Medicare, housing assistance, and food-stamp programs: Thomas Paine proposed versions of all of these.
It wasn't Jack Kennedy who first talked seriously about international disarmament: it was Thomas Paine.
And Teddy Roosevelt wasn't the first American to talk about the “living wage,” or ways that corporate “maximum wage” wink-and-nod agreements could be broken up: it was Thomas Paine.
Even Woodrow Wilson’s inheritance tax, designed to prevent family empires from taking over our nation, was the idea of Thomas Paine, as was the suggestion for old-age pensions as part of a social safety net known today as Social Security.
Paine thought that the best way to build a strong democracy was to tax the wealthy to give the poor bootstraps by which they could pull themselves up.
helping out young families with the expense of raising children (a forerunner to our income tax exemptions for children),
a fund to provide housing and food for the poor (a forerunner to housing vouchers and food stamps),
and a reliable and predictable pension for all workers in their old age (a forerunner to Social Security).
He also suggested that all nations should reduce their armaments by 90 percent, to ensure world peace.
Summarizing, Paine noted:
“When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.”
In his marvelous biography of Thomas Paine, Harvey J. Kaye explores all these issues and much, much more.
In truth, it's difficult to review this book as if it were merely a biography: it's really one of the very best histories of the Revolutionary Era in print, using Thomas Paine as the pivot point for telling stories that range from well before the Revolutionary War all the way up to the present day.
Kaye shows how Paine was a powerful influence not only at a national level, but also on the states.
He writes about how Thomas Paine helped promote an early draft of the Pennsylvania constitution, wherein “they provided for a one-house legislature, annual elections, voting an office-holding rights for all taxpaying men, and term limits. (The drafters even entertained setting limits to the accumulation of property!)”
Later in the book, Kaye notes:
“Observing that Monarchy and aristocracy entail ‘excess and inequality of taxation’ and threw the ‘great mass of the community ... into poverty and discontent,’ Paine added the question of class to the brief. ‘When, in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the work-house and youth the gallows, something,’ Paine declared, ‘must be wrong in the system of government.’ And he bluntly asked, ‘Why is that scarcely any are executed but the poor?’"
It is positively refreshing to read history from somebody who understands the time and the era.
But Kaye lays it all bare. Noting that Jefferson well understood the importance of Paine's contribution to Jefferson's anti-Federalist “Republican” movement (now known as The Democratic Party), Kaye notes:
“In the spring of 1791 Jefferson had hailed the first part of Rights of Man. Then serving as secretary of state, he saw in it an antidote to the rise of anti-republican sentiments expressed in writings like Discourses on Davila, a series of newspaper essays penned anonymously by Vice President John Adams warning against the dangers of democratic politics and praising aristocratic governments.”
In the next chapter, Kaye adds:
“Outfitted with Paine’s arguments, Republican newspaperman attacked the Fderalists for their "monarchical and aristocratic" ambitions and pretensions.
“When Paine was attacked by British conservatives not as a liberal or a democrat, but as a staymaker (it was actually his father who helped make women's undergarments and dresses), Kaye points out that the Aurora — one of the more prominent of the pro-Jefferson anti-Federalist newspapers of the day — published a commentary in December 1792 that said:
“‘It is well enough in England to run down the rights of man [speaking of Paine's book], because the author of those inimitable pamphlets was a staymaker; but in the United States all such proscriptions of certain classes of citizens, or occupations, should be avoided; for liberty will never be safe or durable in a republic till every citizen thinks it as much his duty to take care of the state, as to take care of his family, and until an indifference to any public question shall be considered a public offence.’”
After treating the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary eras with extraordinary insight and detail, Kaye shows how Paine's influence continued in America.
He chronicles the rise of the “workingmen’s movement” through the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s, leading to the creation in the mid-1830s of the National Trades' Union.
“However, the Panic of 1837 devastated the economy and, with it, workers’ capacities to organize,” Kaye writes. “Still, the worker’s ideals and aspirations did not die but persisted in the initiatives of a generation of democratic intellectuals who would continue to draw upon Paine’s arguments.”
By the 1840s, the battles between progressive Democrats citing Paine and conservative Whigs were heating up all over again.
A group inspired in part by Paine, the Young Americans, were split in 1845 by debates over Manifest Destiny, but, Kaye notes:
“The group's original Painite vision lived on, however, in the labors of the nation's greatest democratic writers, Melville and Whiteman. ...to both, Paine was democracy's first champion.”
From here, Kaye carries us through the whole arc of the 1800s, up to and through the Wilson administration, Eugene Debs, through the Great Depression, the presidency of FDR, through WWII, and into the Vietnam conflict.
At each step along the way, he finds the inspiration of Thomas Paine in the forward progress of Americans who believe in the deepest and most profound principles of democracy and liberty.
For example, from the Vietnam era:
“SDS members of the early 1960s proudly conceived of themselves as renewing America's revolutionary heritage, with Paine standing at the heart of it. [Todd] Gitlin [SDS President] would recount of a November 1965 antiwar rally:
“‘Carl Oglesby [then president of SDS] stole the show ... by treating the war as the product of an imperial history ... But Oglesby, the son of an Akron Rubber worker, also self-consciously invoked 'our dead revolutionaries' Jefferson and Paine against Lyndon Johnson and [national security adviser] McGeorge Bundy. He romantically sumoned up a once-democratic America against the ‘colossus of ... our American corporate system.’”
Even many years later, SDS veterans would have recourse to Paine when recollecting their early activist days and what they were about. In his own memoir, my friend and inspiration Tom Hayden would write, “The goal of the sixties was, in a sense, the completion of the vision of the early revolutionaries and the abolitionists, for Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass wanted even more than the Bill of Rights or Emancipation Proclamation. True Democrats, they wanted the fulfillment of the American promise.”
Bringing us to the present moment, Kaye points out that modern conservatives are undertaking a massive and well-funded effort to re-write history, characterizing anti-democratic men from the Revolutionary Era as Adams and Hamilton as true champions of democracy, and trying to recast the firebrand revolutionary and liberal Thomas Paine as a conservative.
As noted early in the book, they even are stealing lines from Paine, such as Reagan's quoting a Paine line from Common Sense that: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
But Kaye won't let them get away with it:
“For all their citations of Paine and his lines, conservatives do not - and truly cannot - embrace him and his arguments. Bolstered by capital, firmly in command of the Republican Party, and politically ascendant for a generation, they have initiated and instituted policies and programs that fundamentally contradict Paine's own vision and commitments.
“They have subordinated the Republic - the res publica, the commonwealth, the public good - to the marketplace and private advantage. They have furthered the interests of corporations and the rich over those of working people, their families, unions, and communities and overseen a concentration of wealth and power that, recalling the Gilded Age, has corrupted and enervated American democratic life and politics. And they have carried on culture wars that have divided the nation and undermined the wall separating church and state.
“Moreover, they have pursued domestic and foreign policies that have made the nation both less free and less secure politically, economically, environmentally, and militarily. Even as they have spoken of advancing freedom and empowering citizens, they have sought to discharge or at least constrain America's democratic impulse and aspiration.
“In fact, while poaching lines from Paine, they and their favorite intellectuals have disclosed their real ambitions and affections by once again declaring the ‘end of history’ and promoting the lives of Founders like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who n decided contrast to Paine scorned democracy and feared "the people."
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America is not only one of the finest biographies of this great Founder ever written, it is also one of the best histories of the United States of America in print.