- Thomas Paine: Context, Text, and Presentism
As a European intellectual historian, I have found it useful over the last few years to include lectures on Paine in my course on eighteenth-century thinking. In that context, Paine’s writings, especially Common Sense, Letter to Raynal, and Rights of Man, help explain transformations in the thinking of English radicals from the 1770s on. Through its influence on Raynal’s (and Diderot’s) extremely popular Histoire philosophique et politique des éstablissemens et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indies (especially the third edition of 1780), Common Sense came to figure prominently in French constitutional debates of the 1780s. In the Letter to Raynal (1782), moreover, Paine responded to the Histoire—at least to the section on America that had been translated and published separately by R. Bell in Philadelphia in 1781 under the title The Revolution of America. Two 1783 French translations of Paine’s Letter added a further Painite element to the French constitutional debate of the 1780s. And as scholars have long known, Rights of Man (1791 and 1792) was perceived as an important contribution not only to the European debate about the French Revolution but to the politicization of the English working class as well.
Similarly, certain aspects of Paine’s work—especially his choice of language—raise questions for the European intellectual historian about the role millenarianism played in the development of his political radicalism. And behind these questions looms the larger issue—now heatedly debated by students of English political thinking in the eighteenth century—of why so many European thinkers (e.g., Burke in England and the theocrats in France) as well as detractors of Paine in America in the 1790s (e.g., D. Levi and E. Boudinot) regarded the French Revolution as a religious as well as political event in Western history.
Because these concerns are grounded in European contexts they have remained more or less on the periphery of most studies of Paine in his American context. But that situation is rapidly changing for, as has been recently observed, a recent “mini-Paine revival” has tried to situate Paine in a [End Page 216] context that is simultaneously European and American—“Atlantic” to be more precise. 1
A review of recent Paine scholarship by Sean Wilentz has traced the new interest in Paine to presentist political considerations, considerations that involve, among other things, a struggle for hegemony over Paine between political parties on the right and left in Britain and America. To that end, much of Wilentz’s review revolves around the question of Paine’s relevance to the contemporary political debate.
As interesting as the presentist perspective is, there is a more scholarly side to the Paine revival. Many of the best recent contributions to Paine scholarship have come from scholars—Isaac Kramnick, Gregory Claeys, and Mark Philp—who approach Paine’s political writings, especially Common Sense, with what the Cambridge school of political theory would call language identification in mind. For these scholars, what Paine scholarship needs to do is to come to terms with the “meaning” of Common Sense—a challenge that has little to do anymore with explaining how Americans read or were influenced by Common Sense in the 1770s, still less with how Paine figures in contemporary political debates. Rather, according to them, the task facing Paine scholarship today is to give a fuller historical account of how it was that Common Sense came to be written the way it was. More specifically, these scholars want to know two things: how Common Sense “worked” as a political argument in general; and what ideological resources Paine drew upon to write the pamphlet he did in 1776.
That much of the scholarship in the mini-Paine revival is language-oriented is easy to show. Kramnick (Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism, 1990), for example, sees the argument of Common Sense revolving around languages derived from identifiable Lockean, Dissenter, English Republican, and liberal economic sources. These languages provided the ideological components of what Kramnick calls Paine’s “bourgeois radicalism.” Claeys (Thomas Paine...