The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine
Jack Fruchtman Jr.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 212 p.
Reviewed by Bernard Vincent
Jack Fruchtman’s book had its origins in a conference organized at the University of California (Los Angeles) in the spring of 2002—a conference entitled “History, Theory, and the Subject of Rights, Opposition, Dissent, and Revolutionary Sympathies: Origins of the British Left, 1770-1800.” This is Fruchtman’s third book on Paine. The first two were: Thomas Paine and the Religion of Nature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994).
The title of this new volume (The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine) is somewhat misleading in the sense that Paine was not essentially interested in “philosophy” and can by no means be compared to any traditional philosophe. The reverse of a solitary thinker cut off from actual history and imagining the future of mankind from some distant ivory tower, Paine was first and foremost an intellectual activist obsessed, wherever he was, by the necessity of transforming social reality. Although Jefferson considered him as the only man of letters of his own generation that wrote better than he did, Paine would not practice art for art’s sake—nor philosophy for philosophy’s sake, nor religion for the sake of any existing Church or official creed (his own and only creed being a vague form of deism).
Everything in him was focused on action, on the possibility of changing the established order of things. Far from being just a “political philosopher” (to use Fruchtman’s phrase), Paine was an intellectual pioneer, who defined himself as a “farmer of thoughts” (1) and often appeared as a kind of political prophet who actively contributed to the implementation of his own prophecies. He believed in the subversive virtue and historical function of writing. His only purpose as a writer and thinker was to help public opinion evolve, convinced as he was that a change in people’s minds would sooner or later result in a transformation of society. Such was, to a large extent, the destiny of Common Sense, and when the French Revolution occurred, Paine viewed it, rightly or wrongly, as the result of what pre-revolutionary authors had prophetically put down on paper. As he put it in Rights of Man, “the progress of time and circumstances” to which people generally attribute “the accomplishment of great changes is too mechanical to measure the force of the mind, and rapidity of reflection, by which revolutions are generated.”
It is now pretty well known to many that English-born Paine arrived in America when he was 38; that he became famous due to the publication of Common Sense (in January 1776) of which about 120,000 copies were sold in the Colonies; that he was the first American to denounce the sacredness of the King of England and to mention in print the idea of a “declaration of Independence”; that he coined the phrase “United States of America”; that he served in the Continental army under General Greene; that he negotiated, on behalf of Congress, a peace treaty with Indian tribes at Easton (Pa.); that he was the first official in charge of American diplomacy (as secretary of the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs); that as secretary of the Pennsylvania Assembly he then wrote (in March 1778) the preamble of a bill for the abolition of slavery; that he defended the universal dimension of the American Revolution against the belittling interpretations of the Abbé Raynal; that he was also the first—or one of the first—in his 1782 Letter to the Abbé to advocate national and international copyright; that he defended the supremacy of the Union over the States in Public Good and was (probably) the first American to suggest (as early as 1780) the establishment of “a Continental convention for the purpose of forming a Continental constitution”; that he went to France in early 1781, together with John Laurens, and brought back to America enough money and weapons to defeat the British army at Yorktown; that he was the first to contemplate the creation of a European Confederacy (including England, France and the Netherlands, and based on a “general dismantling of all the navies in Europe”); the first to plead for international arbitration and to conceive the idea of an “Unarmed Association of Nations” (with Paul I, emperor of Russia, as its first possible president); the first also (in 1790) to carry the American flag in a foreign procession (in Paris); the first in revolutionary France to create a republican club, to launch a republican journal, and to publish a republican manifesto; and finally the first to write a scathing criticism of Christianity and the Bible (The Age of Reason), not with a view to promoting atheism but, paradoxically, in order to prevent its expansion.
Fruchtman is good, even excellent, at detecting the various contradictions that sometimes characterize Paine’s way (or ways) of thinking. But Paine could have answered him what Whitman wrote, in Songs of Myself, about his own contradictions: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”
It also seems to me that Fruchtman’s book, although very well documented and teeming with details about Paine’s life and beliefs, lays too much emphasis on the religious dimension of Paine’s “philosophy.” It is true that in 1797 Paine wrote the following, in defense of Thomas Williams, a London publisher accused of printing a copy of The Age of Reason: “Of all the tyrannies that afflict mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst. Every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in, but this attempts a stride beyond the grave and seeks to pursue us into eternity.” (2) It is also true that The Age of Reason—a denunciation of all official creeds and sects—was entirely focused on the problem of religion, but it is questionable to assert, as Fruchtman does, that it was on his “religious faith” that Paine “based the central tenets of his political and social thought” , that his “writings were always God-centered” and, last but not least, that “his motivations were based on his faith that his role in the world was God-given” . Paine certainly did not regard himself as a special envoy of God sent on earth to save mankind. When Fruchtman mentions Paine’s “abiding faith in God’s watchfulness over the Americans and God’s unwavering support of the American cause” [ibid.], one has the feeling that he tends to confuse his own vision of American history with that of Paine.
This being said, the sometimes controversial aspect of Fruchtman’s book is precisely something that speaks in its favor, if only because it shows to what unusual extent the life and work of Thomas Paine are still, two centuries after his death, a fascinating source of intellectual and historical debate.
(1) “Letter to Henry Laurens” (Spring 1778), in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. (New York: The Citadel Press, 1945), II : 1143.
(2) The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, II : 728.
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