Monday, November 09, 2009

Book Review: "The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine"

Jack Fruchtman, Jr. has, in The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) written the most concise and useful synopsis to date of Paine's political, religious, and economic philosophies. While Paine can "defy categorization," Fruchtman suggests, "by illuminating his thought, we can discover who he was and how he figured ideologically in the revolutionary mood of the late eighteenth century" (p. 4). Paine may have been "consistently convinced that he was always right and that anyone who opposed him was patently wrong and badly uninformed" (p. 3-4) - the more things change, &c. - he was, Fruchtman argues, remarkably consistent in developing a series of arguments for social change based around a set of major themes.

The themes Fruchtman sees in Paine's works, and which he examines in turn for the purposes of this study, are outlined on pp. 7-8, but can be summarized as: faith in God as benevolent deity; hatred of rank, privilege, corruption, injustice; democratic republics with written constitutions (and universal male suffrage); trust in civic-mindedness of citizens; strong commercialized society with a social welfare system; a strong navy, just taxation, and a fair banking system. Fruchtman adds a seventh theme - a belief in the transformative power of revolutions - but with the necessary caveat that Paine's views on this shifted after he was tossed into prison when things went sour in the years after the French Revolution.

Fruchtman notes that because Paine was writing not for the educated elite, but for "the people," and not to educate necessarily but to persuade, he "was often not particularly rigorous in his argumentation, frequently using sneering ridicule, personal invective, and entertaining humor to score points at the expense of those whom he thought were scoundrels and mountebanks. He certainly used hard evidence and sound theoretical principles, but only when he thought they played to his advantage. If the facts failed to fit his argument, he often discounted or ignored them. If a theory proved him wrong, he simply rejected it or even denied its existence as a rational principle" (p. 14). But, for all this, Fruchtman maintains, Paine was "the era's preeminent philosopher of political and social transformation" (p. 14).

In a series of six chapters, each of about thirty pages (the entire book is just 165 pages), Fruchtman delves into the themes outlined above, tracking Paine's life through his writings (offering both biographical details and a close reading of the works). The fifth chapter was the one I found most interesting, as Fruchtman makes the case for Paine's similarities with Alexander Hamilton on the question of economic policies (to a great extent they agreed on the means, but their vision of the ends were near-polar opposites). The first chapter, dealing with Paine's religious beliefs, was also quite intriguing, as was Fruchtman's depiction of his social welfare ideas on p. 125 (calling these "extraordinary" seems strikingly apt).

Fruchtman lets Paine do the summing up, quoting from an 1806 letter in which the great polemicist writes "My motive and object in all my political works, beginning with Common Sense, ... have been to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government and enable him to be free, and establish government for himself" (p. 151).

I should also note the excellent notes which Fruchtman has provided, which would allow anyone interested in the aspects of Paine's writings outlined here to dig as deeply as they liked into the existing scholarship on the questions. They're a delight. The book as object is also noteworthy, being very well designed and printed in a very crisp, nice font.

Lucid and succinct. A good book indeed.

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