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


Review of the Book

Thomas Paine and the American Revolution
by Vikki J. Vickers

Klara Rukshina



[Review of the book by Vikki J. Vickers. Reprinted from
the Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends, Vol.7, No.4, December, 2006]


In my opinion, the first book of a young historian, Vikki J. Vickers, is the best of all works published about Thomas Paine during the last two decades (2006, New York & London: Routledge). Her only outstanding rival is Eric Foner, the famous author of Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976, London: Oxford University Press). Vickers appreciates Foner's book as a "brilliant work," but to her mind, "it is not a biography of Paine; in many ways it is more significant as a micro history of Revolutionary Philadelphia." She states: "Foner did issue an important challenge to historians; the challenge of producing a complete study to explain how Paine's beliefs developed and their significance." (pp. 10-11) Vickers accepted the challenge.

The purpose of her study is "to investigate who Thomas Paine was, what he believed, how those beliefs motivated him to political action and how those actions helped to found the United States of America." She calls her work "the first intellectual biography" of Thomas Paine . (p.11)

Vickers is the first who applied consistently an interdisciplinary investigation into Paine's politics, religion, and rhetoric. As Paine was an exceedingly reticent person, the lack of reliable data of his life is always in the way of his biographers.[1] In order to deal with the problem properly, Vickers works out and strictly keeps to the following rules: "Circumstantial evidence may be employed-but carefully. Far too often scholars state as facts what can best be termed conjecture, and conjecture should never give way to suppositions." She is most careful while choosing her arguments and right in the confession: "in the end what evolves can only be a rough portrait of a very public yet very private man." (p. 62)

What are, in my opinion, Vickers' main results ?

(1) First and foremost, Vickers is a pioneer in investigating Paine's religious beliefs in-depth and their influence on his political ideas. She managed to reject the scholarly tradition of considering separately "Paine as a political figure investigating his career as a political pamphleteer and Paine as the author of The Age of Reason, dealing with his religious beliefs." The historian traces the evolution of Paine's religious beliefs from his birth until the publication of The Age of Reason in 1794 when "he opened his mind to the world." (p. 144)

In Vickers opinion, Paine's God differs from the widely spread notion of God during the period of Enlightenment. As she puts it: "Paine's deist God connected with the need for humanitarian philanthropy should not be confused with a theistic God who is completely transcendent, utterly unknowable, and completely independent of His creation. So the principal difficulty with the theistic deity is that there is no incentive to pray or worship God. In contrast, Paine's deist God was knowable, at least to the point of establishing God's benevolent nature. More importantly, Paine's God both watches and judges mankind and has an active role in His creation. Humanitarianism in Paine's system, therefore, was not only logical, but necessary." (p. 123) "He envisioned nations (in particular Great Britain) that took responsibility for the welfare of its citizens." (p. 8)

As Vickers reasonably asserts, Paine would never be tolerant to atheists. "Paine's championing of the cause of religious freedom did not extend to atheists. Moreover, Paine's career as a pamphleteer (in which he tried to convert the world to deism) is strong evidence that what Paine really advocated was religious tolerance -- not freedom " (p. 123)

Vickers' analysis of Common Sense from the point of view of Paine's religious beliefs is original. She offers evidence that "at times Paine ... forced his fellow countrymen to choose between paradise and purgatory." For example, Vickers demonstrates that Paine's arguments against monarchy and his appeal to replace "George III with a government based on equality and reason assured Americans not only of freedom from British but freedom from God's vengeful grasp." (p. 51) Vickers is the first who investigated thoroughly the origin of Paine's arguments against monarchy and biblical citations to the point in Common Sense. She suggests that Paine took all these ideas from John Milton's "A Defence of the People of England" (1658). Milton presented monarchy as "an evil, blasphemous institution" and Paine's argument against monarchy "is practically a carbon copy" of Milton's ideas, (p. 49)

Vickers' summary on the interrelation of Paine's political and religious beliefs runs as follows: "God's 'benignity', according to Paine, required reciprocation. Man's duty to God was simple: as God was benevolent to mankind, so should mankind be benevolent to one another. Ultimately Paine came to the conclusion that political revolution was the most benevolent act of all. Replacing false systems with true ones, encouraging mankind to use their reason to discover not only the truth about politics, but also the truth about God-this was his mission." (p. 107) Vickers concludes: "Paine's dual mission to spread both political revolution and deism throughout the western world is a prime example of the information that can be gleaned by approaching Paine's work with a fresh, interdisciplinary perspective. The confluence of his religion and concomitant political ideology created a rhetorical style that was both recognizable and immutable. Paine's mission led him to a degree of success unparalleled in his day." (p. 130)

It seems that Vickers has fruitfully solved a most urgent problem -- interrelation and interaction of religion and politics in Paine's beliefs which clarified his double mission and "revealed a significance previously missed by historians." (p. 130)

(2) Common Sense "catapulted America towards Independence" (p. 59), as Vickers aptly expressed its immediate effect. Why not any of famous Americans, but "Thomas Paine -- an absolute nobody from nowhere" (p. 57) happened to write the trailblazing pamphlet? This is another most complicated problem Vickers tries to examine. She defines the starting point of her approach to the enigma: "The fact that Paine was reared and educated in England is crucial, because it gave the future author of CS a more immediate knowledge of King and Parliament which most Americans were not privy to" (p. 61). Vickers presents a detailed and well-grounded description of Paine's life in England and "the influence his tune there had on his political ideology." The appropriate context of eighteenth-century England is skillfully and professionally applied.

As an innovator, Vickers studies Paine's writings before Common Sense. In her opinion, the Case of the Officers of Excise (1772) served as a warning for Paine, who at that time "sees only trees instead of the whole forest." So whether Paine "did it consciously or not but Common Sense is an absolute contrast to the Case. It was as if Paine recognized how poorly executed his first political work was and made every attempt to do exactly the opposite" (pp. 56-57)

Paine's contribution to The Pennsylvania Magazine (February-August, 1775) has likewise been considered from a new approach. Vickers states that "scholars will never know with any degree of certainty what Paine wrote. There simply is no concrete evidence to link him conclusively to any of these essays. To be sure, many of those written by "Atlanticus" and others do closely resemble Paine's style. But to say definitively that Paine wrote this essay or that poem would not be good scholarship." As an historian she prefers "a broader analysis and the larger significance of Paine's time in me magazine." Vickers makes a comparative study of Paine's editorship versus that of Aitken, the owner, and "reveals that clearly Paine brought a radical political voice to The Pennsylvania Maga/zine -- whether or not one of those voices was his own is irrelevant." Vickers comes to the conclusion that "during Paine's editorship the magazine was rarely explicitly political" (pp. 30-31)[2]

(3) A most remarkable feature of Vickers' book is that it stimulates new research by Paine's scholars and historians. Here are some of my "hints" to the point.

a) Vickers presents an original investigation of Paine's writings before 1776 with an obvious aim: to find out any background or roots to explain the sudden and overwhelming success of Common Sense. But the purpose has not been achieved. Paine was about forty when he wrote his Common Sense, a work of genius. And this work has almost nothing in common with Paine's previous writings. Great works of genius, especially a political writing, cannot appear that way. So Paine's case still seems to be unique in the world history. In my opinion, the mystery of Common Sense's appearance has not yet been solved.

b) Vickers deals with the problem of Paine's contribution to the Declaration of Independence. In her opinion, the claims that it was Paine, not Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, "once in abundance, have now rightfully been dismissed as false" (p. 136) "There is no evidence that Paine had any part in the actual drafting of the Declaration, and a great deal of evidence that proves that Jefferson acted alone." (p. 171, note 17) The historian offers her own version of Paine's contribution to the Declaration of Independence: "By rallying the American people to the cause of Independence, Paine did in fact create a support base which Continental Congressmen could use to urge the matter forward. Those in Congress who had consistently ignored the minority radical faction were no longer able to do so after Common Sense; the American people demanded revolution and their representatives were forced to respond. That response led, ultimately, to the Declaration of Independence." (p. 137) Surely one may consent with her view. Nevertheless, Vickers' assertion that in this way "by studying the political context of America, the nagging question of Paine's role in the Declaration of Independence has also (hopefully) found resolution" (p. 130) is at least dubious.

None of the well-known Paine scholars has ever tried to solve such an enigma: How does it happen that the Declaration of Independence corresponds exactly (only the introductory part excluded) to the plan of it laid out in Common Sense. Here is the extract: "Were a manifesto to be published, and dispatched to foreign courts, setting forth (1) the miseries we have endured, (2) and the peaceful methods which we have ineffectually used for redress; (3) declaring at the same time, that not being able any longer to live happily or safely under me cruel disposition of the British court, we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her; (4) at the same time assuring all such courts of our peaceful disposition towards them, (5) and of our desire of entering into trade with them. .."[3] Jefferson's Declaration of Independence keeps to Paine's plan in strict sequence. This is an unexplained phenomenon up to the present, and still leaves open whether Paine had a specific role in the drafting.

c) The following is one more specification to the point concerning Paine's input to the cause of Independence. To Vickers' regret, "Paine never had a chance to write his history of American Revolution" (p. 130), and therefore we would never know "what he considered significant about his contribution to the cause of Independence." (p. 131) But Paine did have a clear view of his input to the great cause. In his address "To the Citizens of the United States" in 1805 he clarified the problem: "The independence of America would have added but little to her own happiness, and been of no benefit to the world, if her government had been formed on the corrupt models of the old world. It was the opportunity of beginning the world anew, as it were; and of bringing forward a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved that gave value to independence. The pamphlet Common Sense … embraced both those objects. Mere independence might at some future time, have been effected and established by arms, without principle, but a just system of government could not. In short, it was the principle, at that time, that produced the independence; for until the principle spread itself abroad among the people, independence was not thought of, and America was fighting without an object. Those who know the circumstances of the times I speak of, know this to be true." (Italics-Paine)[4]

Here Paine formulates the "principle" that makes the core of modern democracies: "a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved" and proclaims himself the forerunner of the "system" that begins "the world anew." In my opinion, this extract is of great importance and deserves more attention of historians and Paine scholars.


Conclusion


Vickers' book is that of a genuine historian. Through her painstaking analysis of Paine's life, works and the voluminous literature on the subject in the broad interdisciplinary context, the pivot of Paine's mentality has been distinguished, his intellectual personality is adequately presented.

Her book stands out for its depth, originality, academic preciseness. As she puts it, her study is "an attempt to finally bring closure to the way studies of Paine had proceeded in the past in order to encourage a more accurate, interdisciplinary approach in the future. Hopefully new avenues of Paine's role in history may be explored as the old questions need no longer occupy scholars' attention." (p. 129) I agree with the author. The first intellectual biography of Thomas Paine by a talented young historian Vikki J. Vickers is an evident success.


NOTES AND REFERENCES

  1. See: Vickers. pp. 68, 155-156. where she writes that recent evidence has been reported by Australian researcher. Hazel Burgess, that Paine had a daughter Sarah who died on September 12, 1761; she was nine months old. (Thetford Magazine, 22: 15. Summer 2000)
  2. My remark concerns the section "Montly Intelligence" of The Pennsylvania Magazine that still remained a political one even after Paine left his job as a contributing editor in September 1775.
  3. Th. Paine, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, edited by Philip S. Foner, 1969, New York: Citadel Press, I: 39
  4. Th. Paine, "To the Citizens of the United States," Leter VIII, June 5, 1805; In: P. Foner, The Complete Writings, 1969, II:956.




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