book cover imageSelected Writings of Thomas Paine
Edited by Ian Shapiro and Jane E. Calvert.
Yale University Press, 2014.
Paperback, 676 pages, $18.

In his lively introduction to this new edition of Paine’s legendary writings, Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro calls Thomas Paine “America’s first public intellectual.” That shoe seems to fit—and then some. Surely Paine was the most widely read agitator for American independence, and the most effective. Even his less-convincing arguments on religion or the redistribution of wealth attracted plenty of attention: almost everything he published caused some sort of stir. In fact, since his prominence (and possibly his influence) as a “radical” thinker did not end with his death in 1809 but continues to this day, an even more fitting label for Paine might be “America’s once and future gadfly.”

Paine was an irritable optimist. On a personal level, he rubbed even friends, political allies, and business associates the wrong way; as an intellectual activist, he was perennially irked by the status quo and eternally resentful of tradition. Yet he always believed that society could be fixed and therefore the human condition could be improved. Another optimist with a gift for shaping public opinion—Ronald Reagan—caught this melioristic spirit (in his 1980 acceptance speech) when he quoted Paine’s Common Sense declaration: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Thomas Paine was also one of those intriguing quirks of history. As Shapiro notes, when the thirty-seven-year-old Paine arrived in Philadelphia from his native England in 1774: “no one could have guessed then that this underachieving middle-aged misfit would soon become a household name” and quickly galvanize support for the Revolution. More than a dozen years later Paine’s favorable observations on the French Revolution would serve—especially when contrasted with those of his conservative counterpart Edmund Burke—to ignite the left-right ideological dynamic in American politics that is still going strong. Certainly Paine’s eventual induction into the canon of American political thought could not have been predicted by his humble origins, his rudimentary education, or his repeated failures at establishing a career prior to immigrating to America. Posthumously, the endless debate about whether Paine deserves credit as an original thinker—as opposed to merely recognition as a brilliant advocate—underscores the peculiarity of his example.

Selected Writings of Thomas Paine is a welcome entry in Yale’s series on “Rethinking the Western Tradition.” The volume has much to recommend it, not least of which is its inviting format: the print is large enough, bold enough, and not as crammed or cramped as in some other editions; the arrangement of offerings is chronological, and (with a single exception) texts are reproduced in their complete original versions. All of Paine’s major tracts are included: Common Sense, The Crisis, The Rights of Man, The Age of Reason, along with nine less-monumental pieces; of these, Agrarian Justice and his (two separate) Dissertations on Government are probably the most important, while his ill-conceived Letter to George Washington is likely the most famous. An interesting inclusion is Paine’s short essay comparing Deism with Christianity, which he brashly subtitled: “The Superiority of the Former Over the Latter.”

Aside from the documents themselves, the lure of any new edition of historical writings rests with the scholarly commentary that accompanies the collection. In this case the introduction and all three interpretive essays sparkle with insights. Yet while the introduction clearly celebrates Paine as a voice for democracy, the other contributions raise some cautionary points about the ways in which Paine has been simplified, misinterpreted, or ideologically extrapolated by later admirers. One essay in particular raises profound questions about how and why Paine should be read.

Shapiro introduces Paine as “first and always an intellectual” who “wielded one of the most inspiring pens of the century.” Yet Paine was no scholar, was an inept politician, and was oblivious to the necessity of managing his public image and personal reputation. Paine’s signal achievementwas that he “democratized political language.” His writing was “anti-elitist to the core,” so it helped dethrone aristocracy and monarchy; after Paine and in substantial part because of Paine, political “legitimacy would flow from the people.” Paine’s successful use of ideas to mobilize popular sentiment (which is what being a public intellectual is all about) demonstrated that henceforth the cultivation of public opinion would be an indispensible component of governance. Still, Shapiro notes that “Paine’s beliefs defy easy classification,” and he submits several examples of Paine’s later admirers—from the Marxist labor historian Philip Foner on the left to the Mormon libertarian Glenn Beck (who actually called Paine “the me of his generation”) on the right—to confirm Shapiro’s judgment that “part of the enduring fascination with Paine is that he is enigmatic and difficult to peg.” Nevertheless, Shapiro concludes by again hammering home his overarching theme that “Paine was one of modern democracy’s first and most articulate champions.” Above all else, that distinction should be “the chief reason he commands enduring respect.”

More specialized essays by Notre Dame political scientist Eileen Hunt Botting and University of Kentucky historian Jane E. Calvert target particular aspects of Paine’s philosophy with an eye toward debunking simplistically hagiographic views of Paine’s legacy. Botting asserts that Paine is not completely deserving of memorialization as an early feminist because only his very late writingsapproached an acceptance of gender equality. Before that when Paine spoke of the “rights of man” he meant men alone.

Calvert provides a disturbing case study in which Paine violated his own strictures on religious liberty in order to further the more immediate business of American independence. Hers is not a pretty portrait of Paine, who viciously attacked Pennsylvania Quakers for their pacifism and political neutrality during the mid-1770s in hopes of stirring their Presbyterian adversaries to join the rebellion. Worse, Paine knew that he was mischaracterizing Quaker beliefs, but he chose to vilify Quakers as Tories for the sake of political expediency—even when his propaganda resulted in violence and intimidation against them. It turns out that Paine was a better idealist than he was a tactician; the backlash from his anti-Quaker efforts may have hurt rather than helped the independence movement.

The essay that packs the hardest punch is historian J. C. D. Clark’s discussion of Paine’s “English dimension.” Almost a sermon in tone, Clark’s piece admonishes contemporary Americans for their “presentist interpretations” of Paine’s philosophy. Clark cautions against incorporating Paine’s legacy into the nation’s “civic religion,” and decries “the normative celebration of past actors as champions of modern values.” In contrast to Shapiro’s progressive thesis, Clarke explicitly denies that Paine “foresaw a democratic, modernizing future,” but rather was “a man whose mind was formed in England in the 1740s and 1750s.” Moreover, Clark asserts that the role of the academic historian “is not to praise or blame but to understand.”

Technically Clark’s points are valid, but they may be too restrictive to apply outside the seminar room or the academic journal. Even within those venues, history cannot avoid interpretations that are often pregnant with contemporary relevance. So it is entirely proper to ask at this juncture: who will read this collection of Paine’s writings? Who will read Tom Paine at all? Toward what purpose (besides fulfilling a classroom assignment) might general readers in America revisit Paine’s political philosophy—if not because they believe him to be useful in sharpening their understanding of America’s founding era and, in turn, how the nation’s original ideals have stood the test of time?

There would not be so many editions of Paine’s writings by so many publishers if American readers (and even teachers) cared primarily about mid-eighteenth-century England. Biographies of the founders would likewise not be so prevalent or popular today unless Americans believed they were reconnecting with a useable past: probably because they sense the country has lost its way and needs to retrench by getting back to basics. (Does anyone think the Tea Party’s read the constitution bumper sticker is advocating scholarship rather than action?) Paine did not become a public intellectual because colonists (and later, citizens) cared much about him; they read him because they cared about their own predicament and sought advice on how to improve their situation. Paine was and is too important to be confined to academic closets. Closets are for academic moths; political gadflies must be allowed to fly freely. 

Drew Maciag is author of Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism (Cornell University Press, 2013).