Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye


Rating: (Recommended)




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Harvey Kaye examines the life and times of a Revolutionary War patriot whose legacy has often been portrayed through the lens of those who have selected a single point of view, or whose words have been quoted by those with whom Paine would vehemently disagree. In Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, Kaye provides a more complete view of Paine, and in so doing, raises more opportunity for exploring the impact of Paine on American life and in considering the extent to which we’ve lived up to his expectations and aspirations for us.


Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 2, “An American Revolutionary,” pp. 60-63:


A brilliant propagandist, Paine discussed battlefield setbacks in terms of the fresh opportunities they afforded. On one occasion, his doing so may have saved Washington’s command. In the winter of 1777—78, after inflicting a series of losses on the Americans, the British occupied Philadelphia, forcing Washington and his already weakened army to hold up at Valley Forge under the worst of condi­tions. Paine, hearing that members of Congress had begun to question Washington’s leadership, penned the fifth Crisis, berating the decision-making of the British commander, General Howe, and essentially showing Washington to be the smarter strategist and tactician. On yet another occasion, Paine distinguished between Britain’s rulers and com­moners and audaciously threatened to foment popular revolution in Britain itself.55

Over and over again Paine roused Americans to renew the strug­gle: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” He reminded them of the right­eousness of their cause and praised them for their world-historic accom­plishments. If only “the mist of antiquity be cleared away, and men and things be viewed as they really were,” he proudly wrote, Americans’ rank­ing above the supposedly superior Europeans ancient and contemporary would be plain, for “had it not been for America, there had been no such thing as freedom left throughout the whole universe.” Americans, he af­firmed, had every reason to hope and to fight. “I look through the pres­ent trouble to a time of tranquility,” Paine predicted, “when we shall have it in our power to set an example to the world.”56

The theme of American identity, nationalism, and solidarity per­vaded Paine’s wartime writings. He persistently worried about the country’s fragile unity, and a major dispute over the future of the west­ern territories gave substance to his fears. The Articles of Confedera­tion adopted by Congress in 1777 clearly favored states like Virginia that held expansionary claims to western lands, instigating Maryland, one of the “locked-in” states, to resist ratification. Unwilling to sit by and watch the country splinter, Paine applied himself to preparing and releasing a special pamphlet, Public Good, in which he proposed that the territories be treated as national property, and he presciently dis­cussed the possibility of their eventual admission as new states. Haunted by the possibility of the confederation breaking up, he again pushed for a “Continental convention” to create a United States con­stitution and a stronger federation.57

Paine worried not only about recruiting soldiers but also about equip­ping them, for fiscal woes persistently plagued the government, seriously jeopardizing the war effort. In 1780, when the tide once again seemed to turn against the Americans, he called upon the rich to advance the nec­essary funds. And though hardly rich himself, to set a good example he personally donated $500. But the real problem was that the Articles of Confederation made Congress financially dependent on the states, and any changes to the document required approval by all of them.

When Congress requested a change in 1781 that would have permitted it to impose an import duty, Paine dedicated one of the Crisis papers to urging its acceptance. And soon afterward, appreciating how Paine’s writings had helped to maintain troop morale and rally support for the army (and recognizing that Paine needed an income), Washing­ton arranged a secret commission for him to continue to cultivate sym­pathy for Congress’s need to raise revenue. While most states agreed to the new duty, Rhode Island—concerned about an encroachment on states’ rights and the impact such a tax would have on its trading econ­omy—did not, which led Paine to pen a series of public letters directed specifically to Rhode Islanders. Explaining the necessity of the duty, he implored them to see themselves as Americans above all else. In this instance, however, his arguments did not win out.58

The war demanded solidarity, and postrevolutionary prospects re­quired unity, but Paine did not expect, imagine, or desire uniformity. He applauded America’s diversity and pluralism and conceived of the United States as a political laboratory: “We are a people upon experi­ments, and though under one continental government, have the happy opportunity of trying variety in order to discover the best.” He firmly believed that American history would be progressive in every way, and he was fully prepared to make the case, against the dire prognoses of the propertied elites, that the growth of democracy would spur, not de­ter, economic development.59

In the summer of 1776 the Pennsylvania radicals with whom Paine had been allied before heading off to military duty had captured control of the state’s political convention. Determined to empower western farmers and Philadelphia artisans, they drew up the most democratic of the original state constitutions. Following Paine’s sketch in Common Sense and ignoring the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, they provided for a one-house legislature, annual elections, voting and office-holding rights for all taxpaying men, and term limits. (The drafters even entertained setting limits to the accumulation of property!) As expected, however, members of the wealthier classes fought against the constitution; and while Paine at first tried to stay out of the contest, he naturally sided with the radicals and in March 1777 helped to organize the pro-constitutionalist Whig Society.

In late 1778, after the British withdrew from Philadelphia to shift their military efforts to the southern colonies (where they believed the greater numbers of Loyalists would rush to support them), Paine him­self championed the radical-democratic Pennsylvania Constitution in “A Serious Address to the People of Pennsylvania on the Present Situa­tion of Their Affairs.” Presenting his case in the form of letters to the Pennsylvania Packet, he pressed the connection between democracy and material prosperity, basing his brief on the assumption that the state—and the United States—needed people, working people, to im­migrate. “The true policy of constructing constitutions in a young coun­try, is to calculate for population,” he wrote. “The strength, the riches, the defence of a State rest upon it.” Democracy, he contended, would draw people to Pennsylvania, where democracy would favor rich and poor alike: “As a rich man, I would vote for an open constitution, as the political means not only of continuing me so, but of encreasing my wealth; and as a poor man I would likewise vote for it, for the satisfac­tion I should enjoy from it, and the chance of rising under it.”6°

Here as well, Paine set out a series of powerful propositions on freedom, equality, and democracy. Registering that “the toleration act in England, which granted liberty of conscience. . . was looked upon as the perfection of religious liberty,” he proudly maintained that “America is the only country in the world that has learned how to treat religion,” for “in America we consider the assumption of such power as a species of tyrannic arrogance, and do not grant liberty of conscience as a favor but confirm it as a right.” At the same time, he never lost sight of the dangers of class. Admonishing his fellow citizens—the well off, in particular—not to forget that “in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.”61

Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent po­litical corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”62



On October 19, 1781, the Americans and their French allies defeated the British at Yorktown, effectively ending the war. Eighteen months later, in April 1783, Britain and America signed the Treaty of Paris. And on April 19, eight years to the day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Paine issued Crisis XIII, leading off with “The times that tried men’s souls are over.” He reveled in the triumph and swelled with pride in the Revolution and the nation it had wrought.63

Nevertheless, Paine remained anxious: “It would be a circumstance ever to be lamented and never to be forgotten, were a single blot, from any cause whatever, suffered to fall on a revolution, which to the end of time must be an honor to the age that accomplished it.” Perhaps he was thinking of slavery. Definitely he had in mind the troubled status of the American confederation. “I ever feel myself hurt when I hear the union, that great palladium of our liberty and safety, the least irrever­ently spoken of. It is the most sacred thing in the constitution of Amer­ica,” he declared, “and that which every man should be most proud and tender of. Our citizenship in the United States is our national charac­ter. . . Our great title is AMERICANS.”64

Devoting the final Crisis to promoting the “Union of the States,” Paine exhorted his fellow citizens to appreciate, embrace, and strengthen it. Yet his concerns extended beyond that of maintaining a hard-won independence, however fundamental. They had to do with America realizing its purpose and promise and inspiring the world in the process. It was, he proclaimed, “to see it in our power to make a world happy—to teach mankind the art of being so—to exhibit, on the theatre of the universe a character hitherto unknown.”65


55. Crisis II, pp. 1:68, 71; Crisis V, pp. 1:105—29.

56. Crisis IV, pp. l:102; Crisis V, p. 1:123; Crisis III,p. 1:83.

57. Paine, Public Good (1780), in CW, pp. 2:303—33.

58. Crisis X; Paine, “Six Letters to Rhode Island” (1782—83), in CW, pp. 2:333—66.

59. Paine, “A Serious Address to the People of Pennsylvania on the Present Situation of Their Affairs” (1778), in CW, p. 2:281.

60. Ibid., pp. 2:277—302.

61. Ibid., pp. 2:284—85.

62. Ibid., pp. 2:284—89. Paine at this time would have excluded from the franchise only those men “in voluntary [and temporary] servitude,” specifically, those hold­ing “offices or employments in or under the state . . . to which there are profits an­nexed” and “servants in families, because their interest is in their master” (p. 2:287).

63. Paine, Crisis XIII, in CW, p. 1:230.

64. Ibid., pp. 1:232, 234.

65. Ibid., pp. 1:233—34, 231.


Paine’s legacy of articulating a radical vision of freedom and equality continues to provide inspiration today. For many readers of Paine, the implications can be overwhelming, and the democracy he favored has often been diluted in favor of representative government by an elite class. In many ways what was radical in the 18th century remains radical today, and reading Thomas Paine and the Promise of America reminds us all that the promise remains attainable. Those who have quoted Paine, but fundamentally disagree with his politics may cease their quoting after reading this book.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2005



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