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

Hill and Wang, 2005. 326 pages, $25.00

We are living and working in the very days and nights of the American Emergency, the climactic American Crisis.

Our elections are bought and our government is run by and for the major transnational corporations. The president announced in 2002 his illegal presidential policy that we can and will attack other nations first, waging war on them, when he so decides. He is now
waging, as if in our names, a bloody war of aggression against Iraq, a crime against humanity under the Nuremberg principles that we and our allies established and enforced with hangings after World War II. The president, the vice-president, and their factors sold this war to Congress with twistings and lies that were crafted to infuriate and terrorize us about Iraq's alleged connections to Al Qaeda and endangerment to us—all of which did not exist.

In polls, six of 10 Americans do not believe the president is honest. Yet he has three more years of dictatorial control over our nuclear and other arms and our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Professor Kaye's book on Thomas Paine could not be more timely, for exactly now again these are the times that try men's and women's souls.
Paine's biography occupies only two-fifths of Kaye's text; in the rest the Wisconsin professor hops, skips, and jumps through our history since Paine, citing various posthumous characterizations of him, from Teddy Roosevelt's “filthy little atheist” to T.V. Smith's “the harbinger in darkness of our democratic way.” But there are plenty of biographies of Paine, and Kaye does establish the important historical fact that Paine, this poorly educated son of an English corset maker, has been unfairly and often maliciously excluded from the Founding Fathers, and for consequential reasons.

One of those Founding Fathers, he indubitably was. His pamphlet, Common Sense, at less than 50 pages, both sensationally converted the colonists to revolution and declared America's founding role in world democracy in our modern period. Yet, Kaye shows, Paine has been vilified again and again for his religious radicalism in The Age of Reason and because he—and only he—among the founders believed in the “genius and talents” of common people, was a common man himself, and understood and passionately advocated economic as well as political democracy.

For example, Paine proposed, in The Rights of Man, a public welfare system to offset economic inequalities, and, in Agrarian Justice, the payment of a certain tidy sum to every person on their 21st birthday and the payment of another such sum every year to every person 50 or older. Certainly, as Kaye insists, in Washington, DC, there should be a statue of Paine or a monument to him like Jefferson's, such as on the Mall. In fact Paine should be on Mount Rushmore.

Kaye reminds us, too, that there is much to draw us to Paine again in this, our crisis. It was Paine, who had to go to work at 13, who announced the principle of American government as the “equal rights of man.” Paine, a crewman on a British privateer, who wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Paine, a dissenter in England, who wrote, “The birth day of a new world is at hand.”

It was Paine, a self-educated bookworm, who first proposed a constitutional convention among the colonies. Paine, an editor of a Pennsylvania magazine, who wrote, “It is yet too soon to write the history of the Revolution,” Paine, a founding member of the first American Anti-Slavery Society, who wrote, “My country is the world. To do good is my religion.” Paine, a fugitive from the armed minions of the King of England for “seditious libel,” who then very narrowly escaped beheading under the French guillotine.

And it was Thomas Paine who proposed that the United States help form an “Association of Nations” in “a new epoch of history for all peoples.” Our cause, Paine proclaimed, was “to see it in our power to make a world happy—to teach mankind the art of being so—to exhibit, on the theater of the universe a character hitherto unknown.”
He died on June 8, 1809, and was buried, with no national dignitaries present, in New Rochelle, New York. A well-meaning admirer, undertaking to rebury him in England, lost his bodily remains. Three-and-a-half years from the 200th anniversary of his death, it is again “time to stir. ... time for every man to stir,” and every woman. “We are a people upon experiments,” he proclaimed, “It is an age of revolutions, in which everything may be looked for.” His body is lost but his spirit is with us. By the anniversary of his death, we well may have either lost, perhaps for good, or re-secured, the American dream he invented.

Reviewed by Ronnie Dugger
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