The Discussion of Clark’s Recent Essays

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Burying Thomas Paine


Complete text of Berton’s Burying Thomas Paine, in response to 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).

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Monuments to Liberty


Complete text of Clark’s Monuments to Liberty.

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Berton, G. (9/23/15). Letter to the editor. The Times Literary Supplement.


Sir, – Reading Jonathan Clark’s essay on Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (Commentary, September 18) 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: www.thomaspaine.org), in which Clark described the British government in 1792: “the most famous and successful example of the representative system, the Westminster Parliament, was already operative in the Britain that Paine rejected with hatred” (Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, Shapiro and Calvert, eds, 2014). No need 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 a 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. It was the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College in New York which 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 proud (as Clark confirms) to be a part of Paine’s epic tome. Paine, Jefferson and Lafayette spent weeks together in the late 1780s discussing the revolutionary political philosophy taking shape in the transatlantic atmosphere, and there is data to suggest Jefferson also had a hand in these few pages. But Clark makes this accounting of a 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. I know Clark has credentials, but at what point does academia ask about his motives and cherry-picked manipulation of historical details? He 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 a capable eyewitness 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.

GARY BERTON

Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 983 North Avenue, New Rochelle, New York 10804.

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Chiu, F. (9/23/15). Letter to the editor. The Times Literary Supplement.


Sir, – As I am currently writing a textbook on Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, I would like to respond to Jonathan Clark’s essay.

Although it may well be possible that Paine had access to other sources, to suggest that the disputed passage was lifted from Lafayette or other writers goes too far even if we concede the flattering portrayal of the young marquis given his initial tepidness in the pursuit of reform. Indeed, if Paine was as “repellently egotistical” as claimed by Clark elsewhere, would he have stooped to engage in such practices?

As for the 6,000-word excerpt itself, there is no doubt that even though it reveals Paine’s interpretation of the French Revolution, it is at most a descriptive narrative of the conflicts among the parlement of Paris, the Assembly of Notables, and the royal court. Note, too, that it also serves to reinforce his earlier criticisms of the aristocracy and the king’s ministers, forming a consistent whole with the rest of the work. The very phrase that Clark identifies as Paine’s – the equation between “nobility” and “no-ability” – may have been borrowed from Lafayette, who had referred to them as “notables” in 1787.

This brings us to Clark’s more contentious claim that “rights are everywhere in Paine’s text” yet remain “hardly unpacked”. It is in these very pages that Paine refashioned the radical Dissenting and Whiggish ideas of such writers as James Burgh, Major John Cartwright and Joseph Priestley, recombining them with an infusion of Jeffersonian anti-aristocratic populism: much of which came to be refracted in the writings of French reformers and radicals such as Marat and Robespierre. This occurred at a time when British and French reformers exchanged thoughts on the earlier English republican ideas of Marchamont Nedham and James Harrington.

Paine’s true achievement lies in his analysis of the inequities faced by his contemporaries. Unlike any of the writings of the English Whigs or the French physiocrates, Paine’s Rights introduced the idea of natural and civil rights to a much wider political audience in a highly accessible style, challenging the feudalism of the British government, while proposing physiocrat-like measures to benefit the poor and elderly: ideas which had not been circulated so comprehensively since the Diggers in the late 1640s and would not be revived until 1935 with the arrival of Social Security in America.

It is therefore not surprising that Paine came to be treated as a modern Prometheus of sorts. Perhaps this is why good ol’ Tom continues to attract such “hagiographic readings” in our own time as we struggle with the familiar problems of increased inequality and the disproportionate political influence of the wealthy.

FRANCES CHIU

New School, New York 10011.

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Clark, J. (9/30/15). Letter to the editor. The Times Literary Supplement.


Sir, – My essay on Thomas Paine (Commentary, September 18) provoked some heated responses (Letters, September 25). I would welcome a serious academic debate, since my aim is to encourage greater attention to a figure recently too often taken for granted rather than rethought historically. What, then, did your correspondents offer?

First, Gary Berton. He is part of a team at Iona College, New York, that is undertaking the computer modelling of Paine’s prose in order to determine which anonymous essays, long credited to Paine, were probably not by him. I have applauded this enterprise since first learning of it, as I still do, for I had been engaged in a similar exercise using the more traditional tools of textual criticism. To that end, we exchanged co-operative emails, and I supplied Berton with successive drafts of the Appendix to my book, “Paine De-attributions”, to assist his own research. When I framed the hypothesis that the key 6,000-word passage in Rights of Man was not primarily by Paine, I announced the idea at a conference at Yale, copied it to colleagues, and conveyed it also to Berton. He replied “I am also intrigued about the Rights of Man passage, and we will add that to our testing list as we perfect our techniques”. He later wrote “There is nothing in there [my Appendix] that we disagree with”. His TLS letter did not dispute my reattribution to Lafayette, but rightly recorded that the Iona team “confirmed” it. So what is his problem?

His problem is that Berton is also the highly engaged leader of the American Thomas Paine National Historical Association. Later, he read other work on Paine by myself and reacted strongly against it, evidently on the grounds that I was insufficiently respectful of St Thomas. What, then, is the substance of his case? It is only that I am a bad man to write such things. Now, I must seriously protest against this estimate of my character. The truth is that I am very, very much wickeder, since far from being insufficiently respectful I take the view that it is no part of the historian’s remit to intrude normative judgements on people or movements in the past at all; and that this intrusion merely occludes real understanding. So it is here: Berton thinks it enough to remind readers to repeat the familiar idea that Rights of Man is “central to the world movement for justice, liberty and democracy”, but I, having been brought up with that very assumption, now find that much evidence points in different directions. It will be unfortunate if Berton’s indignation detracts from the work of the Iona College group on the verification of texts, in which study there is much common ground between us.

Second, Frances Chiu. She was evidently unaware that the Iona College results confirmed my reattribution, and, reasserting Paine’s authorship, repeats the conventional interpretation that Rights of Man was central in the triumph of natural rights theory. Again, this is what I, too, once thought but have come to doubt. I argue at length elsewhere that natural rights discourse became ever more widely diffused during the eighteenth century, to the point where it was easily replaced by the discourses of utilitarianism and socialism in the early nineteenth. A wider and longer perspective than that yielded by Chiu’s reading of Rights of Man alone is needed if this hypothesis is to be fairly tested. Her description of “the British government” of the 1790s as “feudalism” hardly inspires confidence in her historical grounding.

Paine was a remarkable and important figure; but he was remarkable and important in ways that Berton and Chiu have not grasped. If these arguments are to be adequately explored in academe, we must set aside the passionate normative commitments, for and against, that have distorted the interpretation of Paine from his lifetime to the present. I would encourage Gary Berton and Frances Chiu in that cause.

JONATHAN CLARK

Department of History, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045.

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Berton, G. (10/7/15). Letter to the editor. The Times Literary Supplement.


In response once again to Clark on Thomas Paine and Rights of Man, I have only space for two points in correction: First, he misrepresents the exchanges regarding our Text Analysis work. The purpose is not, as he stated, to simply de-attribute misattributed Paine essays, but to discover new, undiscovered essays of Paine. His intent was the former, so he ignored our real purpose. To date there are already far more new finds than his confirmed list of misattributions, a list that consists mostly of essays previously questioned by other scholars. We questioned several on his list as inconclusive so far, but we were adamant that “Magazine in America” from his list was clearly Paine’s. So his statement that we agreed with the list is flawed, shall we say. And he was no help in our process. As to this passage from Rights of Man, we had three contributing possible authors, led by Lafayette, but also including Paine and Jefferson, suggesting the strong collaboration between the men I stated in my other response. So my “problem” is not about the source of the passage, but its interpretation. To Clark it’s the smoking gun that brings into question the importance and legacy of Rights of Man; to most informed scholars of Paine, it is a well-known footnote to the work that goes back to Conway in 1894 who noted it came from Paine and “the best men in France–Lafayette, Danton, Brissot, and others,–“.(Thank you, Mariam Touba). His strained interpretation is the “problem”.

Secondly, my indignation is with someone presenting baseless judgments as an established historian, not objective deliberation. In personal dealings with Clark I have seen his selective, anti-Paine vision in action. I am here not to defend Paine, but to bring what knowledge I have gained in 45 years of studying him, study that afterward brought me to the Paine Association. We are applying cutting edge technology to get to the truth, and to see Clark manipulate that according to his own ideology raises indignation. To extrapolate this rediscovered passage in Rights of Man into re-evaluating the French Revolution is at best a misguided attempt to cast doubt on Paine’s impact on history, at worst an absurd dead end.

GARY BERTON

Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 983 North Avenue, New Rochelle, New York 10804.

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Chiu, F. (10/7/15). Letter to the editor. The Times Literary Supplement.


If Jonathan Clark wants a “serious academic debate,” he shall have one.

Had Clark not decided to respond so hastily, he would have realized that my statement on Paine’s “challenging of the feudalism of the British government” was not necessarily claiming that Britain was feudal in the 1790s–but rather that the contours of the British government were still essentially so. There is a reason, after all, why reformers and radicals from the 1770s through 1820s stubbornly invoked the idea of the Norman Yoke–and why so many objected vehemently to Burke’s veneration for the age of chivalry in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. There is also a reason why James Mackintosh, Vicesimus Knox and so many others complained of the many lingering feudal vestiges; as William Godwin famously put it, “the feudal spirit still survives.” The fact is that the church and aristocracy (in both the House of Lords and House of Commons) continued to wield disproportionate political influence in late 18th-century England: indeed, it is one of the reasons for the popularity of the Gothic novel in the 1790s, with its mock medieval settings, crumbling castles, arrogant aristocrats and evil ecclesiastics. Of all people, Clark should know this as he repeatedly refers to 18th-century England as an “ancien regime state,” where “hereditary rule, primogeniture, and religion were society’s organizing principles.”

As for the apparent replacement of the discourse of natural rights by those of utilitarianism and socialism, Clark should also be reminded that this shift in discourse had far more to do with the sheer facts of rapid industrialization and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts than any significant diminution of Paine’s popularity. Let’s not forget that arguments made by Paine in favor of universal male suffrage and against hereditary government and church-state establishments came to be re-adopted by Bentham after 1809–whatever his dismissive references to natural rights as “nonsense on stilts” and “bawling on paper.” Nor is it surprising that the growth of capitalism would necessitate a shift from the demonization of aristocrats to the demonization of capitalists, one accompanied no less by a shift in rhetoric from the rights of man to the rights of labourers (something which Paine himself had briefly addressed in his Case of the Excise Officers in 1774 and Rights of Man, Part 2).

But even here, it is difficult to overlook Paine’s impact on radical journalism and the rise of Chartism: a movement that would influence Engels and Marx. Indeed, if anything, the spirit of Paine–rather than communism–can be said to be the spectre that was haunting 19th-century Europe and America alike: nowhere yet everywhere. That Paine’s fundamental emphases on equality and a government which attends to the needs of the vast majority have remained central to liberal and progressive thought throughout the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be denied, regardless of the actual terms of discourse. This may explain why Tea Baggers and Occupiers alike have embraced Paine for his populist rhetoric and bashing of elites.

FRANCES CHIU

New School, New York 10011.

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Clark, J. (10/14/15). Letter to the editor. The Times Literary Supplement.


Sir, – You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Recently (Letters, October 2) I invited your two correspondents to be at least open to thinking historically about Thomas Paine, rather than repeat passionate commitments for or against him. I suggested that there just might be evidence that pointed away from the conventional interpretations. Alas, all in vain. They respond (Letters, October 9), as Gary Berton too frankly discloses, with “indignation”.

I questioned Frances Chiu’s remarkable characterisation of “the British government” of the 1790s as “feudalism”, but in her latest letter she decides to nail her colours to this mast. She asserts, even after reflection, that “the contours of the British government were still essentially so”, as if “the church and aristocracy” in 1790 were “essentially” the same as in 1090. It would be unseemly to argue further against so weak a case. Inconsistently, she sees natural rights discourse as dominant in her feudal society of the 1790s; but the contradiction is evidently unimportant for her, as long as Paine can be credited with that dominance.

There is a problem, though, partly because the conventional scenario of the supposed inspirational transference of revolutionary natural rights theory from America to France did not rest on Paine’s authority (such a transference has anyway, in my view, been overstated), and she does not think through the significance of the Iona group’s endorsement of my argument that the “primary author” of the key passage of Rights of Man was not Paine.

Berton cannot disagree, only protesting (perhaps irrelevantly) that it is “possible” that others as well as Lafayette may have had a hand in composing this passage (I had myself argued that Paine “wrote out” this narrative, and put some of it into his own words). We await the results of quantitative research on that point. Meanwhile – and this is an unrelated problem – Berton can still only see any polite questioning of familiar nostrums as an “anti-Paine vision”, a normative attack on the man himself. If he holds to this article of faith, I fear that nothing will persuade him. By all means let the results of the computer-assisted analysis of prose styles contribute to our knowledge; but let those results not contribute to hagiography.

JONATHAN CLARK

Department of History, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045.

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Chiu, F. (10/21/15). Letter to the editor. The Times Literary Supplement.


To pick up on Clark’s horsey proverb, let me add a rejoinder by observing that it would be equally unseemly to flog a dead horse. As such, I would like to reiterate the importance of fact, fact, fact–even at the risk of sounding like that other Thomas, Dickens’ Gradgrind–and begin by addressing Clark’s somewhat disingenuous statements on the curious phenomenon of a natural rights discourse in a period which still betrayed the contours of feudalism. Again, one need look no further than the pages of another work of his, The Language of Liberty 1660-1832, for validation. Here, Clark explains that although “it may appear paradoxical that 18th-century British society….should have been increasingly pictured by its own dissidents in terms of sinister feudal, monarchical and clerical anachronisms,” this apparent inconsistency can be explained by recalling that the “rebellions of the 1640s and 1688 did not constitute a revolutionary watershed” and that in fact “many social forms and institutions of ancient lineage survived into a Whig present to be the targets of attack.” So there you have it–straight from the horse’s mouth! Unless Clark has completely reversed his position from 1993, I see no reason for his quibble.

Indeed, the very nature of that quibble should make us question Clark’s assessments  even more rigorously. I do not object so much to the attribution of the 6,000-word passage to Lafayette, Jefferson or anyone else as to Clark’s views on Paine’s interpretations of the American and French revolutions–or the still more incredible notion of Paine’s overall inconsequentiality. To reiterate how the various state constitutions and Declaration of Independence–not to mention Paine’s own widely read Letter addressed to the Abbe Raynal–were subjects of debate and sources of inspiration for the Estates General of 1789 is to belabor the obvious but not exclusive influence of the American revolution. As for Paine himself, let us remember the famous, if grudging acknowledgment by his arch nemesis, John Adams–the last person to be guilty of Paine “hagiography”: “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine….Call it then the Age of Paine.” In short, whether or not one admires the ideas of this “mongrel between pig and puppy,” it was true in 1805–and still true more than two centuries later.

FRANCES CHIU

Department of Social Sciences

New School, New York 10011.

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Berton, G. (10/21/15). (Unprinted) Letter to the Editor.


It is a ruse to suggest we are not thinking historically. That’s all we are doing. But history is an interpretive art, and as such, when facts are left out, or exaggerated, then the interpretation is skewed. Paine’s role, in general, has not been exaggerated, but usually the opposite. Most history books for 200 years have marginalized Paine. That was the “conventional” interpretation then. It is that bias that has been largely overcome in the last 30 years, led by Claeys and Aldridge, as well as E. Foner. The absent facts, sidelined by biased judges of history, were placed into the discussion and Paine’s significance grew in the eyes of this generation of scholars. It is not clear whether this is what Clark now calls “conventional”. That may be (if that means it is winning the day), but it is evolving with the new data and analyses.

The noted historian of the American Revolution, for example, Bernard Bailyn, had little use for Paine, and mentioned him as an also-ran to history, relying on the work of the historians of the past 200 years. But in his work he isolated one tract that he considered as providing “brilliant sparks thrown off by the clash of Revolutionary politics in Pennsylvania, lit up the final steps of the path that led directly to the first constitutions of the American states.” (Ideological Origins, pg 182) He put this pamphlet, “Four Letters on Interesting Subjects”, as one of a few that defined the American creed of government and represented the fruits of the American Revolution. Bailyn was unaware that Paine had written it, but our Text Analysis confirms Aldridge’s suggestion that this was Paine. I wonder if Bailyn would have reconsidered Paine’s role if he had this knowledge? That creed spread to France where Paine brought those ideas of constitutions to his work on the 1793 constitution, which then spread to the public debates. Facts, not hagiography. This is just one of many contributions to our growing knowledge – not to idolize, but to elucidate. Our information will be that much richer and comprehensive.

The passage in question is not a new discovery, and it is descriptive not theoretical. It does not begin to undermine the debate over natural rights theory, or Paine’s place in the history of political philosophy. Clark needs to find something of substance if he is to reverse the scholarship on Paine.

GARY BERTON

Thomas Paine National Historical Association, 983 North Avenue, New Rochelle, New York 10804.

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