In a small way, this book attempts to do for the Left what The Conservative Mind did for the Right half a century ago. Back then, nothing seemed so un-American as conservatism, the political philosophy of a Metternich or a Bismarck rather than an Adams or a Madison. Even Sen. Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Republican,” called himself a liberal. Today, tides of political fashion having turned, Harvey Kaye finds himself having to make the case that liberalism is no late transplant to these shores but has roots in soil as deep and old as the Revolution itself.

To do that, Kaye, a professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, returns to the life and thought of Thomas Paine, whose near-impeccable credentials as a radical make him a suitable Founding Father of the American Left. But the works and ways of Paine are only half of this book; like Russell Kirk, Kaye sets out to trace a genealogy, one that runs from Abraham Lincoln and Robert Owen through women’s suffragists and Franklin Roosevelt down to the present day. As Kaye would have it, the spirit and example of Paine have informed almost all of America’s progressive movements.

Conservatives, though not Kaye’s intended audience, stand to profit in two ways from his efforts. In reminding us of the radical tendencies of the American Revolution, Kaye indirectly furnishes an explanation for the surprising popularity of neoconservative ideology. The sons of Podhoretz, metaphorically speaking, may find much of American history as remote from their concerns as the War of the Roses, but their universalist aspirations and ardor for global revolution stir some of the same passions in the American psyche that Paine once inflamed. “The true idea of a great nation, is that which promotes and extends the principles of universal society,” Paine wrote in his Letter to the Abbe Raynal, and eventually he came to favor exporting the French Revolution to Prussia and Austria by force of arms.

The second service Kaye renders to the Right is to shake us out of the complacent belief that our own Revolution was entirely conservative. Paine, through Common Sense and The Crisis, was as integral to the Revolution as was Lexington and Concord, and the radicalism of Burke’s pamphleteering foe is in no doubt. While other rebellious colonial Englishmen still spared King George the brunt of their criticism and prayed for rapprochement, Paine demanded independence and a republic. He went further, too, beyond the point where most Americans were willing to follow him, calling for the abolition of slavery, universal male suffrage, and a progressive land tax. When, after the Revolution, he assailed organized religion in The Age of Reason, Paine cost himself much of the esteem in which he had been held by the American public. But even then, he gave eloquent voice to a persistent minority. Kaye is convincing when he argues that there has always been a Painite strain in the American character. Such a strain surely is not conservative, though one may question whether it is as liberal, in the modern sense, as Kaye believes.

The biographical half of Kaye’s book is compelling. He sketches Paine’s life deftly and sympathetically; Paine makes a plausible working-class hero, which is just what Kaye would have him be. Born in 1737, Paine was the son of a Quaker and an Anglican, ensuring him an early acquaintance with Britain’s political-religious conflicts. As a young man he held a variety of mostly low-paying jobs, as corsetmaker, sailor, small-shop keeper, and excise officer. He lost the shop and his excise position in 1773, and with the breakup of his second marriage, nothing remained to tie him to his country. The following year, carrying a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he came to America. Soon he made a new life for himself as journalist–cum-propagandist, becoming editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine almost immediately and more than doubling its circulation, turning it into the best-selling magazine in the colonies. And that, of course, was only the beginning.

For all that Common Sense and The Crisis did for the cause of independence, Paine made enemies among his new countrymen, most notably, in Kaye’s account, the snobbish Gouverneur Morris, who after the Revolution characterized Paine—in Congress, no less—as “a mere adventurer from England, without fortune, without family or connexions, ignorant even of grammar.” Morris would very nearly be the death of Paine in 1793, when as American minister at Paris he made only the feeblest efforts to have Paine released from the prison into which the Jacobins had clapped him.

The French had feted Paine when he came to them the previous year, awarding him honorary citizenship and, upon his arrival in Calais, making him a representative to the National Assembly. There he was closer to the Girondins than the Jacobins, and not long after Robespierre’s ascent, Paine, now a “foreign conspirator,” was imprisoned. He would have been executed, too, had Robespierre not preceded him to the guillotine. With James Monroe succeeding Morris in Paris, an ailing Paine was soon released into the care of the future president and his wife. The episode neatly illustrates—though Kaye does not dwell on it—the propensity of revolution to consume its own, in this case threatening to devour not its offspring but its spiritual forebear.

Kaye’s account of the ideological struggle taking place in America while Paine languished in France holds just as much interest. In his telling, the work of such barnstorming Painites and radical democrats as Abraham Bishop, Jedidiah Peck, and Matthew Lyon—as well as Paine-inspired newspapermen like Benjamin Franklin Bache and Philip Freneau—readied the way for Jefferson’s “Second American Revolution.” “America in the early 1790s witnessed a ‘veritable Paine revival,’” Kaye writes, though he notes that Jefferson himself never credited Paine for his 1800 victory. Indeed, while Paine’s revolutionary rhetoric and The Rights of Man might have helped Jefferson, Kaye acknowledges that where The Age of Reason is concerned, “the work would make Paine anathema to those who had long considered him one of their champions.” On other questions, Americans were willing to embrace Paine en masse, even while disagreeing with his most radical proposals. But in religion, Paine and the American public were intractably at odds.

This poses a problem for Kaye, one that goes largely unaddressed in Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. “Freethinker” is one of Kaye’s favorite words, ranking alongside “democracy,” the latter of which he frequently italicizes for further effect. Kaye evidently is no great admirer of religion, although he duly notes the role progressive Christianity has played in American social movements of the Left. Still, atheists, agnostics, and deists receive the most attention within his pages. Kaye is on firm footing with respect to his central theme here: the American Left is at least superficially Painite in its staunch secularism. But if Kaye expects the Left to renew its appeal to the American public by returning to the spirit of Paine, this thread of his thought is the very worst one to emphasize.

As well, the more closely one compares Paine’s earnest deism to today’s antireligious Left, the more difficult it becomes to escape the conclusion that the two are not so closely related after all. Paine took religion seriously and wrote in good faith, however heterodox his conclusions. Those who now have nothing better to do than campaign for the removal of the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, on the other hand, seem motivated less by the spirit of Enlightenment than by simple spite.

Kaye’s book becomes progressively less interesting as he advances through history, leaving the Age of Paine for abolitionism, the labor movement, and the welfare-warfare state of Wilson and FDR. Rarely is his account more than one-dimensional: the rich and religious, at almost every turn, wear the black hats. The poor, and those who claim to speak for them, are Kaye’s heroes. When Paine’s influence upon the nation wanes, it is thanks to conspiracies by the “propertied, powerful, and pious”—usually assumed to be more or less the same, despite the readily apparent religious convictions of ordinary Americans throughout history. Kaye’s skepticism is reserved entirely for church and industry; strangely for an admirer of Paine, he shows little concern for the idea that “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”

Paine himself came to adopt a more expansive view of compulsory power than that line would suggest, but it remains doubtful that he would have embraced the managerial state the way modern liberals have done. As Kaye notes, Paine was no socialist, and while he was egalitarian up to a point, he forthrightly recognized that “property will ever be unequal.” Usually, Kaye is conscientious in reminding his readers on the Left that Paine’s understanding of the free market is not theirs. “It may seem odd to many of us today,” he writes, “but like many eighteenth-century radicals … Paine comprehended ‘political liberty and economic liberty’ as mutually interdependent and imagined that economic freedom served to assure equality of opportunity and results.” But Paine’s economics, unlike his religious views, our author is content to leave in the past.

Kaye hardly fails to consider Paine’s afterlife on the American Right, however. Indeed, both his first chapter and his next-to-last open with Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican convention, where Reagan, quoting from The Rights of Man, assured us, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This was not the customary language of the American conservatism. But Reagan had been, and in some ways remained, a New Deal liberal himself, and according to Kaye, “like Paine, he grasped that no political movement could succeed in the United States that did not project the ‘progressive’ understandings of the nation’s prospects and possibilities.”

Not that Reagan was the first on the Right to adopt Paine. Kaye passes fleetingly over the Old Right, the individualist writers from the 1920s to 1940s who stood for laissez faire at home and neutralism in foreign affairs. He recognizes, but understates, their affinity with Paine. Had he delved deeper, he would have discovered that Albert Jay Nock, for example, had hoped to republish Paine’s Agrarian Justice and that the journal he edited, The Freeman, he had originally wanted to call Common Sense. Kaye, however, has only a faint knowledge of the Old Right; he believes after World War II “they became staunch anti-communists and McCarthyites.” Applied to Frank Chodorov and Murray Rothbard, both named by Kaye, this is entirely misleading. They were anti-communist all right and occasionally had a good word for McCarthy, but those men—and others like them—were second to none in decrying Cold War militarism and any abridgement of civil liberties.

Kaye is a serious enough historian that he could have produced an insightful chapter or two on Paine and the interwar Right or Paine and such earlier unorthodox conservatives as the atheist Robert Ingersoll, who receives similarly cursory treatment. There is at least as much Paine in them as in Robert Owen or Victoria Woodhull. But this book is not the place to look for the history of the Painite Right. As a primer of Paine’s life and legacy on the Left, however, Kaye’s work serves its purpose, and one need not buy into his story in every particular to benefit from it.  

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