Introducing Harvey J. Kaye, and his book on Thomas Paine and the Promise of the America
On July 17, 1980, Ronald Reagan (another political entrepreneur) stood before the Republican National Convention and the American people to accept his party’s nomination for president of the United States. Most of what he said that evening was to be expected from a Republican. He spoke of the nation’s past and its “shared values.” He attacked the incumbent Carter administration and promised to lower taxes, limit government, and expand national defense. And invoking God, he invited Americans to join him in a “crusade to make America great again.” But Reagan had much more than restoration in mind. He intended to transform American political life and discourse. He had constructed a new Republican alliance-a New Right-of corporate elites, Christian evangelicals, conservative and neoconservative intellectuals, and a host of right-wing interest groups in hopes of undoing the liberal politics and programs of the past forty years, reversing the cultural changes and developments of the 1960s, and establishing a new national governing consensus. His ambitions were well known, but that night Reagan startled many by calling forth the revolutionary Thomas Paine and quoting Paine’s words of 1776, from the pamphlet Common Sense: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”!
American politicians have always drawn upon the words and deeds of the Founders to bolster their own positions. Nevertheless, in quoting Paine, Reagan broke emphatically with long-standing conservative practice. Paine was not like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams.
Conservatives certainly were not supposed to openly speak favorably of Paine, and for two hundred years they had not. Conservatives had despised Paine and scorned his memory. And one can understand why. Endowing American experience with democratic impulses and aspirations, Paine had turned Americans into radicals-and we have remained radicals at heart ever since.
Contributing fundamentally to the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the struggles of British workers in the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Paine was one of the most remarkable political writers of the modern world and the greatest radical of a radical age. Yet this son of an English artisan did not become a radical until his arrival in America in late 1774 at the age of thirty-seven. Even then he had never expected such things to happen. But struck by America’s startling contradictions, magnificent possibilities, and wonderful energies, and moved by the spirit and determination of its people to resist British authority, he dedicated himself to the American cause, and through his pamphlet Common Sense and the American Crisis papers, he emboldened Americans to turn their colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war, defined the new nation in a democratically expansive and progressive fashion, and articulated an American identity charged with exceptional purpose and promise. Five feet ten inches tall, with a full head of dark hair and striking blue eyes, Paine was inquisitive, gregarious, and compssionate, yet strong-willed, combative, and ever ready to argue about and fight for the good and the right.
At war’s end Paine was a popular hero, known by all as “Common Sense.” Joel Barlow, American diplomat and poet, who had served as a chaplain to the Continental Army, wrote: “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” And yet Paine was not finished. To him, America possessed extraordinary political, economic, and cultural potential. But he did not see that potential as belonging to Americans alone.
Reared an Englishman, adopted by America, and honored as a Frenchman, Paine often called himself a “citizen of the world.” But the United States always remained paramount in his thoughts and evident in his labors, and his later writings continued to shape the young nation’s events and developments. And yet as great as his contributions were, they were not always appreciated, and his affections were not always reciprocated. Paine’s democratic arguments, style, and appeal-as well as his social background, confidence, and single-mindedness-antagonized many among the powerful, propertied, prestigious, and pious and made him enemies even within the ranks of his fellow patriots. (Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of the America)