- "Could the Wolf Bleat Like the Lamb": Thomas Paine's Critique and the Early American Public Sphere
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 1999
- pp. 1-37
- View Citation
- Additional Information
EDWARD LARKIN "Could the Wolf Bleat Like the Lamb": Thomas Paine's Critique and the Early American Public Sphere There never was a man less loved in a place than Payne is in this, having at different times disputed with everybody, the most rational thing he could have done would have been to have died the instant he had finished his Common sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the world with so much credit. Sarah Franklin Bache, 14 Jan. 1781 'hen thomas paine arrived in Philadelphia, in November 1774, he was an anonymous and penniless immigrant, who, after years of struggling in England as a staymaker, exciseman, teacher, and storekeeper, had decided to try his luck in the colonies. A year later, with the publication of Common Sense, Paine was the toast of Philadelphia. But Paine's popularity was never entirely uncontested, and it would decline rapidly and not recover by his death thirty-five year later. As the epigraph demonstrates, Sarah Franklin Bache characterized Paine's dwindling reputation aptly in a 1781 letter to her father, Benjamin Franklin. From the outset, then, Paine's public role was intricately linked with controversy; the dispute over Common Sense was only the first of Paine's many public battles during his career as a political writer in America. In 1783, in one of his pleas for remuneration from the Confederation Congress, Paine recounts his initiation into the public arena in less than enthusiastic terms: "Scarcely had I put my Arizona Quarterly Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 1999 Copyright © 1999 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 16 10 Edward Larkin foot into the Country but it was set on fire about my ears. All the plans or prospects of private life (for I am not by nature fond of, or fitted for a public one, and feel all occasions of it where I must act personally, a burden) all these plans, I say, were immediately disconcerted, and I was at once involved in all the troubles of the Country" (2.1227). If Paine was reluctant to participate in public affairs, he certainly did not show any signs ofdiffidence in his writing. On the contrary, the author seems to relish his role as a public figure. His decision to adopt the pseudonym Common Sense after the publication of his hugely successful pamphlet only emphasizes the degree to which he had embraced his public persona. I will argue that although Paine was a strong advocate of a public political discourse, what we have come to identify as the public sphere, he also became one of the public sphere's most strident critics. While recent critics of Michael Warner's account of an impersonal public sphere have pointed to the centrality of orality and performativity in late-eighteenth-century America, Paine forces us to reexamine the political and class assumptions of the republican public sphere.1 Translated into the political terms of the late-eighteenth-century United States, the republican public sphere was not so much real, as an ideal espoused by the elites, the Federalists, in order to limit access to public political debates and retain control of the political arena.2 Recognizing that the republican public sphere was by no means the inclusive, accessible , cacophonous realm that many of its proponents claimed it to be, Paine attempts to construct a version of the public sphere devoid of the exclusionary principles introduced by republican ideology with its emphasis on the connection between individuals' economic wealth and their capacity for civic virtue and disinterestedness. The main thrust of Paine's critique, as we shall see, was aimed at the distinction between public and private that underwrites the conception of the republican public sphere. He saw this distinction as an overtly ideological strategy employed by elites to conceal their political motives.3 In spite of his skepticism about the propriety of disconnecting the private from the public in matters political, Paine strongly advocated a vigorous and open discussion of public affairs that he hoped would include the widest possible range of voices. For Paine, the solution lay in making the public sphere more accessible to middling and lower sorts...