Earlier this month, Harvey Kaye led a discussion of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Common Sense, and Other Political Writings at the Bryant Park Reading Room. It got me thinking: what is the influence of Paine on Americans today? Who among us are the devotees? Are we over-quoting, over-citing, over-appropriating his politics?
So, I decided to introduce Harvey Kaye to Elvin Lim, and ask if they wouldn’t mind corresponding about this matter. They readily agreed. Below is the first of four installments of this conversation; the second of which you can read here.
Kaye is the author of the award-winning book, Thomas Paine: Firebrand of Revolution, as well as Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change & Development and Director, Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. Lim is author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and a regular contributor to OUPBlog.
I’m almost done reading your book, and I read it, in part, as a call to return Paine as much to the American Left or Center as he has been appropriated on the Right in recent decades.
To get things started, I’d start with a contrarian volley. If Paine was the major harbinger of the democratic impulse in American society, I do wonder if he nevertheless has a natural affinity to the American Right. I say American, because Burkean conservatives / traditionalists, American Tories of the Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver variety, have always been a minority within the American conservative movement. The conservatism that has had any salience in America has been of the Barry Goldwater / Reagan kind. This mainstream conservatism has always been trenchantly populist.
A reason why, I propose, is that the conservatism that emerged in the 60s was anti-New Deal and anti-establishment. And that was a natural fit with the ideas of the revolutionary generation. Paine et al were not (yet) concerned with building “a more perfect union” – that would be left to the Founding generation. In the 1770s, the concern was one of NEGATIVE liberty, freedom from tyranny (and this was sometimes operationalized as freedom from government – hence the high correlation with natural rights talk).
It is perhaps no surprise then, that the Federalists who took over the reigns of government in the 1790s were in fact highly anti-democratic and anti-Jacobin. (The electoral college, the Senate, and the Supreme Court were institutional instantiations of their anti-democratic bias.) The Federalists had seen the dangers of too much anti-governmentalism and now saw the virtues of POSITIVE liberty, which could only be delivered by good government.
I wonder what you thought of my “affinity” argument between the modern American Right and the concerns of Paine and his generation?