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

Review of the Book:

Six New Letters of Thomas Paine
With an Introduction by Harry H. Clark

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

[Reprinted from The New England Quarterly,
Vol. 13, No. 2 (June, 1940), pp. 377-378.
The book published by the University of Wisconsin Press, 1939]

This attractive volume includes six letters written by Tom Paine for the Providence Gazette from December, 1782, to February, 1783, as part of a campaign to induce Rhode Island to support the impost recently levied by Congress. To Professor Clark these letters are important mainly as evidence for the argument he develops in his able introduction: that Paine, far from being the radical of legend-hating control and restraint, reveling in the free exercise of his own will-was in many respects at this period a conservative of the Federalist stripe. Professor Clark cites further evidence. In Common Sense Paine founded government on human depravity and was nowhere animated by any theory of the natural goodness of man. Most of his writings in these years shared the characteristically Federalist assumption that self-interest was the crucial motive in human behavior. He opposed paper money as a device for cheating creditors. He was among the first to advocate a stronger federal union. Hamilton and Morris were his friends, and at one time even John Adams approved of him. The tone which won Paine his reputation, Professor Clark feels, came as a result of the French Revolution.

Much of this argument is plainly correct, but Mr. Clark succumbs occasionally to the temptation of overworking it. Labeling a man "conservative" easily leads to quibbles over definition; but there is clearly a difference between conservatism of temperament-a stubborn disposition to accept the existing order and resist change-and the advocacy of specific political or social views which, because of their later fortunes, historians have agreed to describe as "conservative." Legend -- or, at least, Gamaliel Bradford, whom Mr. Clark singles out for special reproof -- was talking about Paine as a temperamental rebel, and it is hard to see how all Mr. Clark's evidence affects this judgment. When in the 1770's Paine was consorting with Adams and Washington, he was consorting not with Federalists but with revolutionists. When in the 1780's he was agreeing with Hamilton and Morris, he was agreeing not with conservatives but with dissenters from the established order. In the 1790's, when these men became Federalists in the developed sense of the word, Paine no longer followed them. And it is hardly fair, for example, to expect romantic theories of the goodness of man in Common Sense, written in 1776. The argument, then, is far from conclusive that Bradford was wrong in calling Paine a temperamental radical. But Professor Clark shows beyond much dispute that in the 1780's Paine adopted a number of positions also held by Federalists (and held by both in opposition to the established order); and these views, as developed in the 1790's and interpreted by later historians, are now known as "conservative."

Professor Clark has also performed a distinct service in making the text of the letters available.

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