A critique of J.C.D. Clark’s article, “Thomas Paine: The English Dimension” (an essay in the Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, Shapiro and Calvert, eds., Yale U. Press, 2014)
By Gary Berton
Secretary, Thomas Paine National Historical Association
Coordinator, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (Iona College)
The great historian E. H. Carr said, “By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.” In an essay published as part of a new collection of writings by and about Thomas Paine (Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, Yale U. Press, 2014), J. C. D. Clark has pushed this premise to absurd limits.
In contradistinction to the rest of the book, which contains a selection of primarily major works of Thomas Paine, Clark tries to refute any influence Paine had on the world, and scolds scholars for claiming he did. There is a long history of marginalizing Thomas Paine by conservative historians, from Jared Sparks to Forest MacDonald to
David McCulloch. Clark’s essay is the latest. In an awkward juxtaposition with Paine’s own writings, Clark questions the need to
read Paine at all.
The Thomas Paine National Historical Association and the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College knew about the preparation for this book through Clark himself, who attended the 2012 Conference on Paine Studies at Iona. He was eager to refute the originality, impact and significance of Paine. He latched onto the Institute’s Text Analysis Project, hoping to refute the authorship of as many of Paine’s attributed works as possible. His list of disputed works was exaggerated, however.
Despite better advice, the editors of Selected Writings of Thomas Paine went ahead and put Thoughts on Defensive War as their first selection, with the note that its “attribution has never been questioned”. The Institute questioned this in writing to Dr. Clark. And Clark himself makes reference to linguistic studies of Paine’s writings without ever acknowledging the Institute as the source, or the Institute’s complete analysis of the documents. But this a minor flaw compared to Dr. Clark’s essay, which is full of vitriol and demonstrably false statements about Thomas Paine, unworthy of a scholarly presentation. There is a chip on Clark’s shoulder which has tilted his stance, and it comes from the long tradition of conservative historians who have repeatedly tried to bury Paine. Perhaps Clark’s forthcoming book will provide evidence otherwise lacking in his essay Thomas Paine: The English Dimension.
Clark organizes his attack on Paine in the disguise of an “historic Paine” versus a “usable Paine”. To Clark, “historic” means the actual Paine he will supposedly define for us untouched by ideology. “Usable” means how other scholars, with a political leaning (unlike him), incorrectly appraised Paine in the past. Clark is to raise the questions and reveal the truth which everyone has missed because of ideological blinders. He will set us all on the correct path of dethroning Paine from his lofty perch. Unfortunately, Clark falls prey to the very thing he attacks – prolepsism: imposing one’s own views and prejudices upon a previous historical era and searching for evidence, often invented, to justify one’s views.
At the 2012 Thomas Paine Studies Conference, Clark, from the University of Kansas, did not submit an abstract yet attended anyway. He was given time to speak in deference to his reputation. He talked about what direction Paine Studies should take, but he was never clear upon what “direction” meant. It subsequently became clear. He was there to gather pieces of evidence to show there really shouldn’t be any Paine studies (other than finding reasons to dismiss him) because he believed Paine never said or thought anything original and his influence was marginal at best. His motives became evident when he declared “you can’t prove Paine was against the death penalty”, though all of the writings which documented Paine’s stance were listed. He went on to the issues of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, where there was some disagreement – Paine never made these subjects the focus of his writings despite his personal views in support of them. But Clark pushed it further, and it was apparent where he was going. He arrived there finally with his essay.
In this essay, which stands in stark contrast to the reasoned, balanced introduction by Ian Shapiro, Clark begins by briefly examining why American scholarship of Paine outstrips British and French scholarship, and he blithely deals with it thus: “…there is some academic attention to Paine in France and Britain, but [there is] a major Paine industry in the United States”. The explanation is clear: in the United States Paine was swept up into the republic’s ’myth of origins.’ Many academics still implicitly treat Paine as an American whose primary significance is for that society’s present-day ‘civil religion’.” Leaving aside for the moment the Americanism of Paine, it is evident Clark’s relocation to Kansas (he was originally at Oxford) was a shock, witnessing the attention Paine is receiving here in comparison to Britain. Clark assumes there is some mania over Paine due to a myth of “civil religion” and a “myth of origins”, neither of which he accepts. But Paine was kept out of the “myth” of America’s origins for 200 years, he was not part of it, and was deliberately left out of it. Look at the 19th (and most 20th) century books written about the founding of America: nowhere is Paine part of the “myth of origins”. He has been marginalized, slandered, reduced to a quirky, disheveled side-line pamphleteer at best. Perhaps because he was not part of this myth creation story scholars finally asked why a man of such crucial importance to American history is left out of textbooks. I know that is why I started my scholarship on Paine 45 years ago. It is fair to attack the American myth of origins, but Clark accepts the conservative myths, which dominate, without question. What he doesn’t accept is any basis which shows there was a radical trend in the founding of the country.
As to Paine’s “primary significance” to academics in his use of promoting “civil religion”, the reference he makes in his footnote is to an essay by Bellah in Daedalus which refutes his point. Bellah excludes Paine from the founders who would be happy to create a non-specific religious creed acceptable for civil society. To Bellah, Paine is the exception to this civil religion which sought to coexist with Christianity, unlike the other leading founders – Franklin, Jefferson, Washington and others. (It is a separate question whether Bellah is correct in putting Franklin and Jefferson on his list in NOT favoring an end to organized religion – see Nature’s God by Matthew Stewart.) Paine is not an example of founders favoring the parallel existence of civil religion as Clark is posing him (although Clark clearly opposes Paine’s designation as a founder). So this does not explain why North American scholars are researching Paine. Clark’s disdain for American research, which he refers to as the “Paine industry”, arises in his belief Paine never ever acted as an American, nor an internationalist, but only as a befuddled, dogmatic Englishman.
Although to Clark’s credit, he does point out correctly the use which American propaganda makes of Paine concerning the country’s founding. But this does not explain the scholarship which preceded such propaganda. The propaganda began with Reagan, who decided to make use of Paine after the 200 year forced exile from academia. The breakthrough scholarship began with Alfred Young and Staughton Lynd in the 60’s, gained traction with Aldridge and Claeys in the 80’s (although Claeys’ scholarship is based from England not America), and E. Foner in the same period. After establishing and reanimating Paine based on these works, Paine studies increased to the dismay of Clark. He wanted Paine left buried in obscurity, as he is in England.
At least Clark is honest. Most conservative historians simply neglect and marginalize. Clark comes right out as a defender of the status quo, and he exposes his ideology when he states: “the most famous and successful example of the representative system, the Westminster Parliament, was already operative in the Britain that Paine rejected with hatred.” Meaning, there was no need to alter the British system of government in the 1790s! It was the “most successful” representative structure! (“Successful” for whom?) No need for the Reform Act of 1832, as small a step as it was. Certainly no need for a Rights of Man. No wonder Paine draws Clark’s ire.
The ensuing lecture from Clark lays out a series of negative rebuttals to Paine’s worth. The first is the concept that “Since the idea of ‘the Enlightenment’ was absent in Paine’s lifetime, his society’s reforming causes were not united under any overarching ideology: many campaigns or crusades were therefore missing from the historic Paine’s commitments that later commentators expected to find there.” Clark declares academics “proleptic”, inventing ideas and placing them in Paine’s head. Yes, academics have labelled the historic process (philosophic, social, intellectual, political) the “Enlightenment” because they needed a term (much like “civil religion”) to describe a real phenomenon. Just as Washington, Franklin and Jefferson did not know the term “civil religion” but promoted the concept without being aware of future conceptualizations, so too can people join the phenomenon of “Enlightenment” thinking without being aware of future designations. One does not negate the other. Clark is demonstrating idealist thinking, where the concept being made conscious determines its existence. The Enlightenment is the belief that science and reason are the real source of knowledge and understanding instead of religion and tradition. This is exactly Paine’s philosophy – opposition to organized religion and to the dependence on the traditions of hereditary government. According to Clark, Spinoza, for example, could not have advocated for Enlightenment thinking because he did not know the term – just ignore all the passages about reason, an objective material world, the role of science in human society. Spinoza wasn’t aware of 20th century conceptualizations of his period, so he could not have been part of the Enlightenment?
Clark is attacking the “misinterpretations” of scholars in leaping to link Paine to 19th century movements that carried into present day. While there are certain exaggerations in some interpretations, Clark is wrong on substance throughout all his negatives. Take the Enlightenment for example: there were references to self-knowledge about this revolution in thinking, well-documented by Jonathan Israel. The French were even referring to it as the “luminere” before Paine was born, and like-minded Enlightenment thinkers found each other, like the Encyclopedists. That demonstrates some common philosophy with common goals. We now know it as the Enlightenment, back then they knew they shared the same world outlook. And Paine’s core tenets fit exactly into this Enlightenment period. Clark is grasping at straws to try and prove a thesis which is unsustainable.
Clark’s thesis is: Paine’s “mindset, values, and frame of reference remained largely those of an English freethinker of the reign of George II, confidently repeating his religious teaching and its political consequences in the new situations into which he blundered.” (Notice the use of “blundered”, a repeated pattern throughout the essay of denigrating Paine.) In order to maintain this thesis, Clark must negate the core of what Paine wrote because it does not fit into his own misinterpretation.
Clark denies Paine’s relevance by showing Paine was not aware of movements like socialism, democracy, or Enlightenment thinking, and then denying Paine ever had a philosophy which linked to them anyway. In his denials he reduces Paine to an English yeoman, half-educated in the 1750’s intellectual trends, who never progressed past them. But to accomplish that, Clark must also deny reality, and the reality of the content of Paine’s writings.
Suffrage and constitutions
Let’s start with the most egregious insult to both Paine’s legacy and the scholars who have meticulously uncovered it, in his depiction of Paine’s lack of democratic ideals. Clark uses the tactic of attacking the strength of an opponent by hitting Paine on the issue of voting and constitutions:
“Was Paine a democrat? True, he always favored a wide franchise, but
on older premises he generally held that ‘men’ (ignoring women) were
entitled to vote as taxpayers or property owners rather than as
individuals.” (The women’s rights issue is dealt with
below.) Clark read every word of Paine looking for tidbits to feed his
theories, but a simple read of Dissertation on the First Principles
of Government would have shown him the falsity of his statement:
“Personal rights, of which the right of voting for representatives
is one, are a species of property of the most sacred kind: and he
that would employ his pecuniary property, or presume upon the
influence it gives him, to dispossess or rob another of his
property or rights, uses that pecuniary property as he would use
fire-arms, and merits to have it taken from him.”
“Whenever it be made an article of a constitution, or a law, that
the right of voting, or of electing and being elected, shall
appertain exclusively to persons possessing a certain quantity of
property, be it little or much, it is a combination of the persons
possessing that quantity to exclude those who do not possess the
same quantity. It is investing themselves with powers as a
self-created part of society, to the exclusion of the rest.”
“In any view of the case it is dangerous and impolitic, sometimes
ridiculous, and always unjust to make property the criterion of the
right of voting.”
Instead, Clark grabs onto obscure statements taken out of context to prove his negative view, like the franchise should be as “universal as taxation” from Rights of Man. The quote is part of Paine’s analysis of the fight between Fox and Pitt over the rights of Parliament: “With respect to the House of Commons, it is elected but by a small part of the nation; but were the election as universal as taxation, which it ought to be, it would still be only the organ of the nation, and cannot possess inherent rights.” Paine divided taxations into two parts, direct and indirect. He made this point clearly in Dissertation on the First Principles of Government where all consumers pay an indirect tax. The phrase used shows nothing, but that’s the best Clark’s biased hunt could come up with.
On women’s rights, Clark should have taken time to read an essay by Eileen Hunt Botting in the same book his essay appears, who gives a scholarly analysis of the question, summarizing thus: “Much of what Paine argued in the latter part of his career, especially in Rights of Man, Part the Second(1792) and Agrarian Justice (1797), either explicitly or implicitly endorses women’s equal rights with men, especially welfare rights but also political rights such as suffrage.” This does not fit Clark’s thesis so he ignores it. It would be hard to find women’s rights in the 1750 English countryside, or universal male suffrage not based on property qualifications, so when facts disagree with his imagined thesis, to Clark, they can’t be valid.
To an unprejudiced mind, Paine’s philosophy on suffrage would be plain enough. And this view of voting rights is central to Paine’s political philosophy, as is his theory of constitutions. But Clark also states: “It has now been established that Paine had no hand in drafting the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, whose extensive franchise is still sometimes taken as demonstrating his views.” Paine did have a strong hand in that Constitution. The “established” reference is to P. Foner who remarked that Paine had left for the war before the actual writing of the constitution. But the philosophy and even the structure of the 1776 constitution rest on Paine’s fourth Forester letter and Four Letters on Interesting Subjects, the letters being left behind as the model for the constitution as he was enlisting in the army. [Four Letters has been verified by the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies’ Text Analysis Project as clearly Paine’s work, as Aldridge anticipated.] And Paine took the Pennsylvania Constitution as the model for the French Constitution of 1793. By dismissing Paine’s link to revolutionizing the nature of constitutions with this off-hand remark, Clark avoids having to deal with the immense impact Paine had in this area. [See Robin West’s Tom Paine’s Constitution for an analysis of the democratic road not travelled in America.]
Paine’s theory of constitutions is the most democratic form ever devised, but Clark would prohibit us from calling it democratic because Paine didn’t know the word. The features of the 76 Pennsylvania Constitution can be found in the Four Letters article, and also in To the People and Candid and Critical Remarks on a Letter signed Ludlow, the latter of which Clark tried to de-attribute from Paine as well, but was tested to be Paine’s. The public debate between the radicals and the moderates in Philadelphia, to present a model constitution for the rest of America, had Paine at the center, and the radicals won. I won’t belabor the point here by listing the structure of the Pennsylvania constitution and these articles, but any reasonable scholar can discern Paine’s clear influence on the former. Issues like a plural executive, unicameralism (more on this below), a Bill of Rights reflecting natural rights, etc., all begin with Paine popularizing these democratic issues. All the public debates on Constitutions in the spring of 1776 – from Tiberius to Cato to Forester – all center on Common Sense.
Constitutional theory is one of Paine’s greatest contributions to political philosophy, and to democratic structures. To dismiss it like Clark does is not being honest or accurate. But he couldn’t find this new theory of constitutions in 1750 England, so he had to flippantly dispose of it.
Class and labor
The same can be said of Clark’s labored attempt to sever any connection between Paine and the emerging labor movement. His claim that “Paine’s economics thus had nothing to do with the new doctrine of socialism, which emerged only in the 1820’s” while technically true is used by Clark not only to scold academics who link Paine to that emerging ideology, but to denigrate Paine’s motivations and world view. To Clark, Paine “did not conceive of ‘the working class’ or any synonym for it, and did not defend such a reification.” To Clark, all that exists is “Paine’s very English ambition … to become a small freeholder, an independent yeoman … although a failure as a farmer in America.” [Another in a long list of vitriolic characterizations from Clark – Paine took up farming at age 67, in retirement, and was too old for the work until he had a stroke 2 years after. Clark calls that a “failure”.] Clark’s claims that since ‘class’ was an unknown concept in Paine’s day, there couldn’t have been class views, class interests, or class contradictions. Another idealist position. Clark gloats over the fact that in academia (at least in Kansas) there exists the “progressive weakening of the politics of class in recent decades” and then states that “a language [of class] was devised only after Paine’s lifetime.” If Clark had properly studied Paine, he would have noticed a letter in 1778 to Henry Laurens:
To Henry Laurens Spring 1778
As we are forming government on a new system, that of representation I will give you my thoughts on the various classes and merits of men in society so far as relates to each other.
The first useful class of citizens are the farmers and cultivators. These may be called citizens of the first necessity, because every thing comes originally from the earth.
After these follow the various orders of manufacturers and mechanics of every kind. These differ from the first class in this particular, that they contribute to the accommodation rather than to the first necessities of life.
Next follow those called merchants and shopkeepers. These are convenient but not important. They produce nothing themselves as the two first classes do, but employ their time in exchanging one thing for another and living by the profits.
Perhaps you will say that in this classification of citizens I have marked no place for myself; that I am neither farmer, mechanic, merchant nor shopkeeper. I believe, however, I am of the first class. I am a farmer of thoughts, and all the crops I raise I give away. I please myself with making you a present of the thoughts in this letter.
And as a “farmer of thoughts” he was no failure.
Clark states the obvious that Paine did not know the word “socialism”. But Clark uses this to negate scholars who tie Paine to the socialist movement. When Paine wrote: “This is putting the matter on a general principle, and perhaps it is best to do so; for if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.” (Agrarian Justice), he was not planning the socialist revolution, but he was contributing to the labor movement which evolved into the socialist movement. Why divorce his contribution to that growing consciousness among workers? He was the most influential writer in his time to the ordinary laboring and dispossessed people, he wrote directly to them and contributed to the awakening in them to their rights, individually and collectively. Because he didn’t know the term ‘socialism’ does not diminish his influence in the movement. There is a firm reason why the early unions of New York City hosted and toasted Paine. While the politics of class struggle mostly passed Paine by just before his death (as Alfred Young points out), it doesn’t mean workers (or mechanics or artisans) were not aware of his contributions at the time.
Clark makes similar arguments about “liberalism” and “radicalism”. He accuses scholars of drawing links to Paine, and then denying Paine did anything that advances these trends. The method is consistent throughout.
Clark even questions Paine’s uncompromising attack on monarchy. He reduces Paine to favoring one group of monarchs over another. “Paine’s mind was formed in the decades before 1760, years in which the legitimacy of monarchy was framed almost wholly as a dynastic alternative between the houses of Hanover and Stuart, not between monarchy as such and republicanism.” I guess all the passages in Common Sense, Rights of Man, Address to the Addressers, etc., were to get the Stuarts back on the throne? Paine’s watershed stance against monarchy was an historical leap. All the other reformers and Dissenters in the 1770s never broke with monarchy completely – Price, Cartwright, Burgh, Priestley and their precursors Locke and Montesquieu, wanted only reform of monarchy, giving more power to others, especially the emerging mercantile classes. It was Paine in Common Sense that caused the crack in the dam of political thinking which couldn’t be mended – no compromise with monarchy on principle. Breaking with the unquestioned traditions of hereditary rule and organized religion completely, and not in small reformist steps, was a major contribution of Paine, and it is what made him revolutionary.
Clark makes the unsupported claim that “Poverty was not central to his [Paine’s] political thought.” Let’s look at how poverty was central to his political thought:
“It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am
pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it
is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it
is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of
affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye,
is like dead and living bodies chained together.” Agrarian Justice
The existence of poverty, which Paine declared increases with the advance of civilization, was the central focus of his attacks on monarchy. His politics and remedies all centered on ending poverty. The plans in Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice, for instance, present concrete ways to at least alleviate the issue, to curb the accumulation of wealth to benefit society.
“All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a
man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and
he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of
civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from
whence the whole came.” Agrarian Justice
Clark claims that “Even his program of social security chiefly extended the practice of English poor relief in his youth,” and “Paine had been a member of the vestry of St. Michal’s parish, and was involved in the regular payments to the poor,” to try and show no original thought. But again he obscures the main point: Paine sought to make government, not private charity, the means to solve the problem, government intervention to redistribute wealth. The last phrase is a modern description of what Paine did, eventually creating the basis for social democracy and the welfare state by popularizing this new approach to government.
Poverty was not seen as endemic to capitalist production by Paine, obviously, even though he made reference to workers not getting fair value in a previous quote. He did show the sources of poverty lie in unfair compensation, tax policies, and theft of land. Capitalism had not matured to industrial capitalism, the systemic impoverishment of populations by the new system had not emerged fully, yet still, the problem of poverty appears throughout Paine’s writings from Europe, and is repeatedly targeted as the problem that cannot be solved by monarchy. Monarchy and hereditary succession were the immediate obstacles to human progress (along with their religious organizations). That was what Paine was dealing with. Yet the seeds in the arguments to overthrow monarchy as a system and mindset did grow into movements on other fronts once the lid on Pandora’s box was removed, and Paine was ever present in postulating new approaches and new concepts to advance humanity’s condition. By popularizing, to the majority of the people, the issues of the new age, Paine played a pivotal role in the mass politics of the new era that carried into the 19th century movements.
Clark even tries to make the case Paine had no idea what was going on in America in 1776, that the impact of Common Sense was exaggerated, and it did not have wide distribution. No evidence is given except to mention Common Sense was only reprinted as a pamphlet in 7 of the 13 colonies. Of course he neglects all the newspaper reprints, all the comments in newspapers about Common Sense from every state, the 96 declarations of independence based on the language of Common Sense written from every state, etc. He makes fun of the 500,000 copies figure some scholars used, but fails to say it included foreign printings where French editions outpaced American.
By confusing the motives of scholars with the objective role historic people play should immediately discount Clark’s ideas, as his English-centric (to the exclusion of everything else) model has ideological fingerprints all over it, from hands that have used these marginalization techniques against Paine for 200 years. In an attempt to lecture uncontrollable scholars, Clark has an eye to downgrade Paine’s role in history, and his dismissive terminology demonstrates this: Clark refers to Paine “blundering” into situations and applying his disjunctive ideas to alien phenomenon; Clark declares that “Common Sense was more of a bitter negation of his homeland” than a blueprint for American society, “bitter” being a slander taken from the book about former Englishmen trying to get even with their mother country; “Paine failed in a project of universal citizenship” is a claim made by Clark after declaring Paine could never separate himself from the culture of parochial England; Clark claims throughout Paine never learned anything outside of his first two decades in the English countryside, a preposterous claim, but slanderous in its presentation; “Paine was out of his depth in the French Revolution”; “a failure as a farmer in America”; “the society that developed [in America] after 1776, Paine understood little.”; and “Paine’s ideas are seldom now employed functionally to solve present-day problems.”
This last brusque statement is another flaw running throughout Clark’s analysis – because the world did not follow Paine’s philosophy, he had no influence. Because Britain followed the monarchical representative system and not Paine’s system, he had no influence; since America had a bicameral system, Paine had no influence in America; since the French Revolution devolved into tyranny, Paine was irrelevant, etc. Clark confuses the movements to challenge the status quos with the status quo. Paine has been the inspiration for many progressive movements, from free speech to national liberation in South America. This is what makes Paine the perennial revolutionary, not the narrow-minded yeomen stuck intellectually in 1750 Norfolk. To “functionally” apply Paine’s philosophy would entail a level of democratic rule that is scarce in the world, evidenced by struggles for democracy around the world, including the US. It would mean the implementation of FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights, or the abolition of corrupt monarchies, including Britain, or an American government free of oligarchic rule.
But despite the shortcomings of history, Paine has already won, not failed. The conventional wisdom – although not necessarily in practice but in ideals – was Paine’s wisdom: democracy (people, not elites, should control government), a complete separation of church and state, and a loosened, if not severed, grip of organized religion on society.
There is so much more to untangle from Clark’s gnarled analysis. Here are a few misinterpretations, negative spins, and false claims not already mentioned:
- “Paine was widely read in his day, but a politically aware mass reading public was the creation of the Reformation and the 1640s, not the late eighteenth century”. By denying that Paine created a mass reading public, he slurs over the fact that the reading public of the 1640s was confined to the elite – Paine enlarged that base to the majority.
- “Although he had worked as an artisan, he never attributed to artisans, even urban artisans, any special political character or role.” Eric Foner’s documentation on this to the contrary is sound, and issues like the Bank of Pennsylvania cannot be explained outside the political stance of the mechanics of Philadelphia, where Paine’s support was.
- “Although Paine protested against the cruelty and misconduct of governments, especially in their colonies, he never systematized these critiques to protest against ‘imperialism’ or ‘colonialism’, concepts that derived from the economic theory of the late nineteenth century.” Again, because Paine didn’t use the term ‘colonialism’ his opposition to British plunder and rule doesn’t count because he did not systematize it, as if America was not a colony. Paine stood in the middle of the first great anti-colonial struggle, yet Clark cannot find a link to more modern forms of colonialism.
- Rights of Man “contained no worked out theory of natural rights”.
From Rights of Man:
“Every history of the Creation, and every traditionary account,
whether from the lettered or unlettered world, however they may
vary in their opinion or belief of certain particulars, all agree
in establishing one point, the unity of man; by which I mean that
men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born
equal, and with equal natural rights, in the same manner as if
posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation,
the latter being only the mode by which the former is carried
forward; and consequently, every child born into the world must be
considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new
to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural
right in it is of the same kind.”
“Hitherto we have spoken only (and that but in part) of the natural rights of man. We have now to consider the civil rights of man, and to show how the one originates from the other. Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured. His natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights. But in order to pursue this distinction with more precision, it is necessary to make the different qualities of natural and civil rights.
A few words will explain this. Natural rights are those which apper tain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society.
Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not, in all cases, sufficiently competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection.
From this short review, it will be easy to distinguish between that class of natural rights which man retains after entering into society, and those which he throws into the common stock as a member of society.
The natural rights which he retains, are all those in which the power to execute is as perfect in the individual as the right itself. Among this class, as is before mentioned, are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind: consequently, religion is one of those rights.
The natural rights which are not retained, are all those in which, though the right is perfect in the individual, the power to execute them is defective. They answer not his purpose. A man, by natural right, has a right to judge in his own cause; and so far as the right of the mind is concerned, he never surrenders it: but what availeth it him to judge, if he has not power to redress ? He therefore deposits his right in the common stock of society, and takes the arm of society, of which he is a part, in preference and in addition to his own. Society grants him nothing.
Every man is proprietor in society, and draws on the capital as a matter of right. From these premises, two or three certain conclusions will follow.
First, That every civil right grows out of a natural right; or, in other words, is a natural right exchanged.
Secondly, That civil power, properly considered as such, is made up of the aggregate of that class of the natural rights of man, which becomes defective in the individual in point of power, and answers not his purpose, but when collected to a focus, becomes competent to the purpose of every one.
Thirdly, That the power produced from the aggregate of natural rights, imperfect in power in the individual, cannot be applied to invade the natural rights which are retained in the individual, and in which the power to execute is as perfect as the right itself.
We have now, in a few words, traced man from a natural individual to a member of society, and shown, or endeavored to show, the quality of the natural rights retained, and those which are exchanged for civil rights. Let us now apply those principles to governments.”
This seems like a worked out theory of natural rights far beyond the 1750 English political discussions of Paine’s youth.
- Clark even questions Paine’s legacy in freethought: “Only in the history of English freethinking did Paine enjoy a posthumous prominence; but freethinking was to lead via agnosticism to atheism, positions that the deist Paine had repudiated.” Clark fails to see the legacy that Paine has in the freethought movement is his stance against organized religion. The Age of Reason still inspires new freethinkers and remains the enchiridion of freethought.
- Paine “has written nothing in condemnation of British ‘colonialism’ or ‘imperialism’; indeed he had been an enthusiastic combatant in the war of 1756-1763…” A teenage sailor was “enthusiastic” about extending the British empire? e,e, cummings was a soldier in W.W. I, so that proves he really wasn’t an anti-war poet?
- Paine’s famous quote “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” from Common Sense is reduced by Clark to a sermon from the pulpit: “In a secular sense this was impossible, and his pamphlet demands interpretation not as a prophetic emancipation but as a product of Paine’s English religious experience, mobilized in a new context.” This ignores the fact that this phrase summed up Paine’s detailed argument of how America can break free of the old Europe and invent its own government philosophy free of privilege and anciens regimes. And in a secular sense it did prove possible, and has inspired nascent revolutionary movements ever since.
- Clark claims Paine was not aware of the link between the American and French Revolutions until Part II of Rights of Man. But his letters to Rush and Washington in 1790 and 1791 refute that. He states that to debunk Paine’s supposed self-image as “progenitor of revolutions”, but Paine describes himself as a servant to the cause, never its originator, even as he proposed ideas that were original in their application. Clark goes on to deny any effect on France from the American Revolution anyway, which stands opposed to the fact that revolutionary leaders in France paid homage to American leaders, including Paine.
And there are dozens of other poorly supported statements, easily refuted:
- “Paine moved in a cultural cocoon.”
- “He wrote nothing to show that he recognized anything essentially different about American culture.” And then he contradicts himself later with: “What attuned Paine with the American population was his use of English religious imagery and argument” but states he hid his deistic views, showing a sophisticated awareness of American culture at the time of Common Sense.
- Clark speaks of a passage in Rights of Man where Paine uses an account from Lafayette, describing it as “awkwardly inserted” and Paine “unknowingly swallowed” the “self-serving” account.
- After 1802 on Paine’s return to America, “Paine persisted in a lurid binary view of American party politics, a view still indebted to the English polarity that dated from the Exclusion Crisis of the 1680s.” The binary view was the struggle between two ideologies, Federalism and Republicanism, being fought out in America. To stretch that back to the Exclusion Crisis is creative, although myopic.
- “Two revolutions had made little difference to his core beliefs; although he extrapolated those beliefs in a few areas, he seldom did so logically or systematically.”
- “…he became open to the idea of bicameral assemblies, although this again echoed the Westminster model rather than the new American states.” It echoed neither because his openness was not to bicameralism, as in Lords and Senates, but to having assemblies debate separately and come together afterwards to pass laws. Paine objected strenuously to the idea of a House of Lords or a Senate, and said so consistently.
- “…his celebrity in his lifetime is more difficult to explain”. Only in Clark’s world is this easy to imagine.
John Adams was a major ideological opponent of Paine, because Adams regarded Paine as a threat for being “so democratical”. He summarized Paine’s role in history as he was experiencing it: “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs or the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.” It seems that Clark is channeling Adams. Like Adams, Clark can’t understand why Paine is so popular. It is clear from even his opponents of the day that Paine was an impactful player, his philosophy was threatening the old regimes, and he was unleashing forces the old guard could not control. It appears Clark has the same grudges. He would rather slander than explain, bear false witness than show scholarship.
Or perhaps Clark’s essay was meant as farce, a lampooning of conservative interpretations of Thomas Paine. If it was not meant that way, he has still provided one.
As if by accidental metaphor, Paine refuses to remain buried.
“Slander belongs to the class of dastardly vices. It always acts under cover. It puts insinuation in the place of evidence, and tries to impose by pretending to believe.” – Thomas Paine