- Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic
Thomas Paine, American Revolution, French Revolution, Radical democracy
Tom Paine returned to America in 1802 a goat rather than a hero. If we are to gauge the radicalism of the American Revolution, historians must account for the dramatically diminished reputation of the age’s preeminent [End Page 132] English-speaking revolutionary writer. The appropriate tools are not so much those of a biographer or even a political historian, but instead those of an intellectual historian, carefully recovering lost or marginalized ideas. Paine inspired a group of self-consciously democratic printers in the 1790s, largely shunted aside in accounts of the founding generation. Meanwhile, the famous Paine helped keep the fires of democratic argument burning through the publication, most notably in Rights of Man, of his evolving political principles, produced against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Collectively, the democratic writer–publishers of the 1790s offered readers and rivals choices about how inclusive, mobilized, and cosmopolitan American political culture should be. By spurning these radical alternatives, Cotlar argues, Federalists and, ultimately, Jeffersonian Republicans opted for a politics circumscribed by nationalism, electioneering, and economic inequality.
The book captures the protean nature of the early 1790s, when political parties did not exist and newspapers served “as powerful agents of community-formation” (31). An informal network of editors spread French Revolution-inspired ideas about popular politics. For these editors, the work of revolution had not ended and was not exclusively an American project. Elites, whether old world aristocrats or new world self-styled natural aristocrats, would have to cede authority to a critically engaged citizenry. The democrats hoped to do far more than create a better informed electorate. They imagined the people as ongoing participants in the formulation of policy, organizing in order to influence every stage of governmental deliberation. The precise mechanisms for inserting public opinion into everyday politics were never fully articulated, though the Democratic-Republican clubs became the short-lived prototype.
Their opponents, congealing into the Federalist Party, found the internationalism of these papers particularly troubling. The democrats identified with radical overseas aspirations and groups, including those of the Jacobins and the United Irishmen. The French Terror, as well as the comparatively tame Whiskey Rebellion at home, suggested an alarming precedent for populist-inspired change. But the philosophical and rhetorical battle lines went beyond particular crises. The radicals suggested that true democrats should invest their loyalties and energies not in a single nation–state but rather in the principles of liberty and enlightened progress that bound people together across the Atlantic. Given the initial support most Americans expressed for the French Revolution, as well as increasing immigration to the United States, such boundary [End Page 133] crossing seemed promising for some, threatening for others. Cotlar argues that American nationalism emerged in large part to blunt the threat that Americans would translate their identification with foreign causes into challenges to elite-dominated politics at home.
Cotlar’s analysis of radical democracy hits full stride when taking up egalitarian economics. Writers such as Robert Coram and William Manning believed that the economic system should complement and promote democracy. To them, this meant finding ways to support the equalization of property holding rather than, in the manner of Alexander Hamilton, encouraging the concentration of wealth. These political economists were not backward-gazing agrarians or proto-socialists. Rather they strove to incorporate John Locke’s theory on labor and Adam Smith’s “ambivalence” (143) about the effects of capitalism into a search for government policies that diffused instead of concentrated property and power. Paine’s own influential thinking on economic equality had moved him well beyond minimal government to advocate the value of graduated tax rates and to remind the well-heeled of their debt to society. Cotlar’s discussion of political economy drives home his challenge to the scholarship of Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby, which emphasizes entrepreneurial free market opportunism as central to...