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New Directions in Thomas Paine Studies


Edited by Scott Cleary and Ivy Linton Stabell


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016

Hardcover. xi+253 p. ISBN 978-1137578181. £70


Reviewed by Kirsten Fischer

University of Minnesota





Thomas Paine famously considered himself a global citizen—“my country is the world,” he proclaimed. He planned, prodded, or chased revolutions in countries on both sides of the Atlantic, and his suggestions for a better future usually had all of humanity in mind, seldom just one nation-state. Academic research, however, often remains within the bounds of national geography, with the result that parallel conversations about Paine have arisen among scholars of British, French, and American history. Work on Paine is further divided by discipline. Literary scholars, historians, political scientists, and philosophers analyze Paine’s writings differently, and most academics present papers at only their own professional conferences. Scholars with new things to say about Paine often do not know of one another.

New Directions in Thomas Paine Studies is a collection of essays that invites conversations across lines of geography and methodology. The volume comes out of a 2012 conference convened at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. Iona College had acquired the manuscript collection held by the underfunded Thomas Paine National Historical Association. To celebrate that acquisition, as well as the founding of the new Institute for Thomas Paine Studies, the First International Conference of Thomas Paine Studies featured over thirty presentations of research on Paine. Eleven of the papers appear in revised form in the book, with a twelfth essay (by Paul Cahen) added later. As with many conference anthologies, the chapters are uneven in their quality, because the pieces appear in print at various points of maturation. But the book as a whole succeeds in bringing together scholarship that would never otherwise come together before the public eye.

New Directions is the first anthology on Paine since the appearance of Paine and Jefferson in the Age of Revolutions, edited by Simon P. Newman and Peter S. Onuf (University of Virginia Press, 2013). That volume, which also came out of a conference, has no overlap with New Directions in terms of authors or specific topics. The essays in Paine and Jefferson situate Paine in his British, American, and French contexts, and they compare and contrast Paine and Jefferson to shed new light on both men. New Directions is similarly broad in scope, but it stands out in the diversity of analytical methods it showcases.

Notably, some authors rely on computer technology to ferret out new information on Paine. Raymond Irwin uses web search engines and digital catalogues to note trends and gaps in the scholarship on Paine. His database mining shows, for example, that scholars in the nineteenth century cared most about Paine’s critique of Christianity, while twentieth-century scholars focused more on Paine’s revolutionary politics. Co-authors Gary Berton, Smiljana Petrovic, Lubomir Ivanov, and Robert Schiaffino used a software program they call an “automatic authorship attribution methodology” [32] to analyze and confirm which anonymous works Paine likely did and did not write.

Other essays look for information Paine in underexposed places. Peter Chapin and his undergraduate student, Kara Nowakowski, examine Paine’s use of metaphors, tropes, and other rhetorical elements in the Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775. The authors assert that Paine was developing his literary style in ways that shaped Common Sense and other political writings. Marc Belissa focuses on Paine’s writings on republicanism after his return to the United States in 1802. Paine’s ideas about how to revise the 1790 Pennsylvania Constitution, and his efforts to keep alive a radical version of the spirit of 1776, show how he thought republican institutions could be protected from Federalist enemies within. 

Translations of Paine are revealing as well. David Hoffman and Claudia Carlos describe a recent find: copies in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, both misbound, of what may be a French translation of an early draft of the Age of Reason. The authors make the case for this manuscript identification and argue that the last chapters, added later, show the cosmology Paine had in mind just days before his arrest in Paris. Paul Cahen examines three translations of Common Sense into Spanish, intended for audiences in Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico. These translations “were meant to incite political action—to encourage others to stand up for their rights, dignity, and independence” [215], Cahen writes, making Paine part of “the Enlightenment as a broad international movement” [208].

Religion remains a compelling subject for Paine scholars, but here, too, the anthology features new approaches. Patrick W. Hughes examines published refutations of Age of Reason and shows that Paine’s critics most feared the general appeal of his “vulgar” expressions of religious irreverence. Interestingly, these writers sometimes adopted a colloquial tone themselves in their attempts to counter Paine’s influential tract. Matthew Rainbow Hale argues persuasively that Paine’s ferocious anti-Christian activism sprang from a fervent faith of his own, namely his conviction that society was “a sacred manifestation worthy of obeisance” [81], and that a moral revolution as well as a political one was underway. “It was through and because of Paine’s religion that he launched an attack” [82] on religious beliefs and institutions, Hale contends.

Paine’s political theories receive consideration in a number of essays. Gregory Claeys explains that Paine helped develop secular arguments for human rights. While Rights of Man still referenced a divine Maker, Agrarian Justice added two entirely secular rationales for property rights: the principle of progress and a theory of social debt. These made Paine “an important transitional figure in the long process of the secularization of natural law discussions” [95]. Carine Lounissi asks whether Paine’s scattered and inconsistent references to a social contract can be forged into a coherent social contract theory. Lounissi finds continuity in Paine’s expressions of support for democratic forms, even as he “worked out his own theoretical tools to analyze specific situations” [189]. Maurizio Griffo agrees that Paine was an “original political writer, herald of our modern representative democracies” [195]. Paine believed a well-regulated constitutional democracy could secure the rights of individuals from tyranny of all kinds, whether from a despotic king or from a revolutionary people’s assembly gone berserk.

Richard Robyn’s essay on public memory—or rather, public amnesia—about Paine reports that “not one memorial, statue, or even an historical marker” [230] exists in Washington D.C. to commemorate the American Revolution’s most famous propagandist. In the 1990s, Congress approved a memorial to Paine on a site in or near the National Mall, but the permission came without funds and no memorial was created before the authorization expired in 2003.    

New Directions in Thomas Paine Studies demonstrates that scholars continue to produce new and valuable information about this cosmopolitan revolutionary and his legacy in many countries. As Scott Cleary notes in his introduction, New Directions is “a starting point; a gesture toward the much larger field of Thomas Paine studies that awaits scholars of multiple disciplines working within and beyond those disciplines.” The book is a milestone, not an endpoint. The Second International Conference of Thomas Paine Studies took place in Paris in 2014. Let us hope a third one is in the making. (One possible conference venue comes out of the painstaking research of Steven Scerbovski, one of Richard Robyn’s students. Scerbovski researched land deeds in Washington D.C. and found that the hotel Paine stayed in for a few months in 1802-1803 was on the site of the present-day Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, specifically the location of the Occidental Grill.) Interdisciplinary and international conversations about Paine and his hopes for humanity are enormously productive. For those who cannot attend the conference, an anthology marks the state of the field and helps to continue the conversation about the complex ideas and wide-ranging impact of Thomas Paine.



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