Clark does it again

Plagiarism – Really?

Reading Clark's essay on Paine’s Rights of Man in the 9/16/15 issue of the Times Literary Supplement reminds me of a small dog nipping at the heels of a passing steed. History is passing Clark by, and he does not accept the fall of monarchism, and the demon Paine who precipitated the fall. Clark has an ideological approach to Paine, evidenced by a recent essay similar in dubious content and tone, “Thomas Paine: The English Dimension” (reviewed here). He described the English government in 1792 as ""the most famous and successful example of the representative system, the Westminster Parliament, was already operative in the Britain that Paine rejected with hatred." (in his essay in Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, Shapiro and Calvert, eds., Yale U. Press, 2014). No reason for the reforms of 1832, it was the most successful “representative” form! The rotten boroughs, the autocratic repression, the endless wars, the oppressive poverty. Quite successful. And Rights of Man was the death knell for monarchism, the system cherished by Clark.

So as an historian, Clark strains to find a soft underbelly to take apart Rights of Man. And he thinks he has found it in a few pages describing the events of the beginning of the French Revolution. The reprint in other publications around the world from the Times Literary Supplement use a headline about “plagiarism” accompanying TLS’s use of most slanderous cartoon from George III’s reign ridiculing Paine’s looks and supposed profession (as a teenager Paine apprenticed as a staymaker, but only worked at it for a couple of years, and the Crown propaganda machine insists in linking that to his vocation), and which accompanies a carefully placed quote in Clark’s essay containing "wretched was the condition of a disrespected man" from an admittedly uncertain source - more like yellow journalism than a “literary” publication.

It was the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College in New York that confirmed that this passage was mostly written by Lafayette, not an unusual practice of collaborative thinkers in the period, as Clark should be aware. Lafayette was fully aware and proud (as Clark confirms) to be part of Paine’s epic tome, hardly a plagiaristic scenario. Paine, Jefferson, and Lafayette spent weeks together in the late 1780s discussing the emerging revolutionary political philosophy taking shape in the trans-Atlantic atmosphere, and there is data to suggest Jefferson also had a hand in these few pages. But Clark makes this accounting of an historical event a "foundational episode" in Rights of Man, when in fact it merely sets the stage for the philosophy of government and human rights that has made Rights of Man central to the world movement for justice, liberty, and democracy - all movements against the archaic and reactionary philosophy of 1792 monarchism. I know Clark has credentials, but at what point does academia ask about his motives, and cherry-picked manipulation of historical details? Clark would discount the accuracy of these pages because they didn’t come directly from the mind of Paine, a man he diminishes at every chance, and dismisses as irrelevant at every opportunity. A first-hand account from the most capable eyewitness in the world at that time is a valuable piece of literature to use. And Paine did so properly, never pretending to have been standing in Paris as these events unfolded.

Clark has come up wanting one more time, demonstrating he will double-down on his “English Dimension” misinterpretation. Yes, “Historians have much re-thinking to do” about J.C.D. Clark.

Gary Berton

Secretary, Thomas Paine National Historical Association