"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."


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


Timothy Nelms


[October 2005]



Timothy Nelms of Morgantown, West Virginia, helped organize the Morgantown Thomas Paine Society which has held Paine birthday dinners for the past four years. He is active with Freethinkers of Morgantown, which meets biweekly to discuss books they are reading, such as: The Age of Reason (Paine); Walden (Thoreau); Tales of the Rational (Pigliucci); and the favorite so far, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Jacoby). Nelms is an emergency physician, avid cyclist, aspiring biblical exegete and a Europhile. He is a member of Thomas Paine Friends, Inc. Request to reprint this review must be made to Timothy Nelms who holds the copyright on this article.



Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, by Harvey J. Kaye, published 2005 ($25 hardcover), is introduced by a warm 1780 oil portrait on the book jacket. The reader is gently led through not only Paine's life, times and achievements but also the import and effect thereof over the next 200 years. This text is a definite must-have for the modern day Paine aficionado.

Ronald Reagan's quote in his 1980 inaugural speech ---"we have it in our power to begin the world over again" --- opens an introduction which explains Kaye's purpose in writing this book.

It is about the democratic currents that have run through the American experience -- currents that Paine did so much to bring forth, that later generations did so much to sustain, and that we continue to feel.

In 250 pages of text and 40 pages of references and notes, Kaye details, decade by decade, the relationship of Paine's ideas and the evolving American government. From revolution to peace to competing political forces and social change the connection is made to Thomas Paine's ideals, with generous quotes and anecdotes.

Various social progress movements in our country's history are chronicled, with Paine's influence detailed. For instance, Ernestine Rose traveled the country in the 1840s crusading for women's right to vote, women's property rights, and abolitionist platforms. Paine was her hero, and she spoke many times at his birthday celebrations, saying in 1852:

There is no need to eulogize Thomas Paine. His life-long devotion to the cause of freedom; his undaunted, unshrinking advocacy of truth; his deep seated hatred of kingly and priestly despotism; are his best eulogies ... to honor the memory of Thomas Paine we must endeavor to carry out what he so nobly began, for his principles were not for one age or nation, but for all.

Kaye explains well the early (and ongoing) dichotomous approaches to style of government. On the one hand is the common man's rights, contributions, and responsibilities -- a more democratic approach promoted by Paine, Jefferson, Madison, socialists, and modern day liberals. The opposing approach, by the likes of Edmund Burke, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, favors a more traditional, aristocratic, hierarchal, property rights style. The influences of Paine on the former and the attacks on Paine by the latter, through America's two hundred years, are remarkably repetitive.

The answer to the question of Paine's ignominious absence in our culture's historical memory is answered by some that it was due to the democratic ideas in Rights of Man, rather than the religious critiques in The Age of Reason. In the 1842 Democratic Review,/i>, W.A Jones (who would "have nothing to do" with Paine's religion) proposed that Paine's obscurity was due to the writing to and for "that many-headed monster, the people" ... and that "before Paine the mass of laboring poor were without a representative" -- that he was

the people's writer -- expressing their views as well as his own but better than any man could. Clear, plain, explicit, close, compact, he could be understood by all.

A difficult subject but important omission that I notice in Kaye's coverage of Paine's influence on our American experience, concerns a rational approach to religion. Deism has died and atheists are few. However, even some mainstream religious scholars such as Bishop John Spong have been advocating a more rational non-miraculous, non-literal, biblical interpretation. "Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will" on the library door of an Alexandria, Virginia Seminary, resonates with Paine's interest to,

... bring man to a right reason that God has given him ... unshackled by fable and fiction of books by whatever invented name they may be called.

Possibly the sensitive nature of religion prevents this full examination now, as it similarly caused such a heated reaction in the 1790s.

I heartily recommend a reading of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America,/i> and know you who read this newsletter will enjoy it. If you love Paine you'll love every page, as Kaye has densely filled the book with much wheat and little chaff. In tribute, here's a Robert Greene Ingersoll tidbit:

He had more brains than books; more sense than education; more strength than polish. He had no veneration for old mistakes -- no admiration for ancient lies. He loved truth for truth's sake, and for man's sake. He saw oppression on every hand; injustice everywhere; hypocrisy at the altar; venality on the bench; tyranny on the throne; and with a splendid courage he espoused the causes of the weak against the strong -- of the enslaved many against the titled few.


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