Clark: Myth-Busting Paine

By Craig Wright | 01 Nov 2022 | Education

Clark’s analysis of Thomas Paine contains more “myth busters” than a biography.[1] Clark’s tome, titled Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution, seeks to rewrite the libertarian concept of a Thomas Paine who laid the foundations of modern democracy, but at times comes across as a polemic against a straw man of woke-liberal historians. The scholarship is deep but often one-sided. For example, when Clarke argues that Paine has been falsely painted as a devotee of Locke, he notes how the form of liberalism ascribed to Paine is “another twentieth-century invention” and thus something Paine would have “never heard of”.[2] Clarke continues the same line of reasoning, dispelling the myth that Paine was the mastermind and provocateur of either the American or the French revolutions.

            Clark retains the opinion that Paine maintained a “negative critique was of little help in constructing and sustaining actual democracies”.[3] Paine is presented as a promoter of ideas and not a source of philosophical concepts.[4] It is not an argument against Paine either supporting or disseminating ideas of “modernization” or the “industrialization” of society, rather, “the seeds of resistance; those seeds were already native in both soils, and regularly flowered on both sides of the Atlantic for reasons that Paine only partly appreciated”.[5] The presentist views of historians, including John Keane, seem to especially vex Clark, who maintains that the language of Paine presented by Keane did not exist before the 1820s.[6]

            Clarke presents Paine as an Anglican theist. While Paine was a denier of revelations, he was also not an atheist and held to the concept of natural law and judgement. As a “negative” thinker, Paine was a polemical nemesis of “the English world of king, nobles, and bishops”.[7] As Clark concludes that Paine maintained a “negative critique was of little help in constructing and sustaining actual democracies”[8], the result is a Paine that was not an early advocate of “liberalism” or “radicalism” but the figurehead of ideas that would be ascribed to him and which would develop well after Paine’s death.[9]

            Kidd refers to Clark as the “veteran enfant terrible of English historical writing”.[10] Whilst the author openly displays bias against Clark, referring to him as “a High Tory, Anglo-Catholic Little Englander” who remains “all petted lip, provocation and attention-seeking”, Kidd admits that “[t]here is no denying Clark’s erudition, and the first third or so of this book is ingenious and enthralling”. In the analysis, it becomes difficult not to agree with Kidd’s position that Clark “treats history polemically, delivering an unvarying sequence of penalty kicks against the supposed assumptions of radical historiography. But he is often shooting at an open, undefended goal”[11]. This aspect of the book is a little disappointing, as is the continuous reinforcement of ideas already presented. At some point, Clark takes things well beyond being thorough.

            Clark believes that Paine is derived through a widely held concept of English political culture and a product of the times. He says that “[t]he idea that natural rights are a universal language, I contend is extremely doubtful,… It’s made problematic once you look historically at the alleged foundation of that interpretation.”[12] Arguing that Paine, born in 1730 and having died in 1809, is a mouthpiece of the political zeitgeist, Clarke presents an alternative perspective of both the works and the author. Such an analysis of Paine is incredibly detailed, but at times seems to hammer the point after it has already been well made. Moreover, in not presenting the positions of many historians that Clark is opposing against their names, it becomes difficult to match some of the claims.

            Thomas Paine produced a pamphlet taken to be the foundation of the radical revolutionary spirit of the time.[13] Clark, though, notes that common sense fails to “consistently echo any established radical vocabulary” and that Paine may not be integrated with any major historiographical school of the American founding.[14] In the analysis, rather than finding a radical Republican, we end up reading the book with a perspective of a desperately British journalist who has managed to fail to keep abreast of the news. In this perspective of Paine, Clark demonstrates how multiple guffaws, such as calling France a “military dictatorship”, undermined the authority and credibility ascribed to such a revolutionary hero.[15]

            Paine has been held to be the father of American democracy.[16] Yet, Clark’s work demystifies many aspects of Thomas Paine, rewriting the historiography about this historical figure in a way that leaves the reader wondering rather than with answers. While Clark makes many good points, it becomes clear that the position taken, while equally undermining much of the existing scholarship around Paine, cannot be completely verified. While others have attacked Paine from the perspective of his views on religion, Clark’s reinterpretation of Paine’s role in the American and French revolutions makes compelling reading, while avoiding certain topics other than to demonstrate Paine’s Englishness.[17]

            While Clark gives credit to other historians, noting that “Thomas Paine has plausibly been presented as England’s greatest revolutionary, a pioneer of democracy, and the greatest champion of a natural rights discourse that triumphed in 1776 and 1789”, he then presents a series of structured arguments that undermine the heroic theory of the great man and bring Paine back into a role of mere humanity, as a victim of both circumstance and tragedy.[18] As Clark notes, the loss of many of Paine’s surviving papers in a 19th-century fire leaves many primary-source documents unavailable. Consequently, we are left with speculation both for and against each argument.[19]

Conclusion

As an admirer of the work of Thomas Paine, Clarke’s work has been rather eye-opening. While the author has not completely dispelled all the myths, Clark has definitively presented an alternative view that cannot be ignored. The criticisms against Paine’s arguments extend into claims that Lafayette wrote of some of Paine’s Rights of Man.[20] Unfortunately, Clark can seed doubt about many contemporary views of Paine, but equally ends with a demolition job that relies more on provocation than on evidence. The logical, deductive steps undermine many of the existing theories around Thomas Paine, but don’t have sufficient support to form their own structure. Nevertheless, the book was thoroughly enjoyable, if at times mildly tedious.

References

Best, M. A. (2019). Thomas Paine: Prophet and Martyr of Democracy (Vol. 8). Routledge.

Clark, Jonathan Charles Douglas. (2018). Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution. Oxford University Press.

Diepenbrock, George. (2018). Book Argues Against Anointing Thomas Paine As ‘Patron Saint’ Of Natural Rights Philosophy. The University Of Kansas. https://news.ku.edu/2018/08/21/book-argues-against-anointing-thomas-paine-patron-saint-natural-rights-philosophy

Forsyth, R., & Holmes, D. (2018). The Writeprints of Man: a Stylometric Study of Lafayette’s Hand in Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’. dhq12(1).

Halverson, J. M. (2022). The Art of Ridicule in the Age of Reason: The Anti-Biblical Rhetoric of Thomas Paine (Doctoral dissertation).

Keane, John. (2003). Tom Paine: A political life. Grove Press.

Kidd, Colin. (2018). Thomas Paine By JCD Clark Review – A High Tory On The Radical Hero. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/31/thomas-paine-jcd-clark-review-tory-radical-hero-common-sense-review

Paine, Thomas. (2020). The Thomas Paine Collection: Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Open Road Media.


[1] Clark, J. C. D. (2018). Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution. Oxford University Press.

[2] Ibid. p. 69.

[3] Clark, 2018, p. 77.

[4] Ibid. p. 67.

[5] Ibid. p. 65.

[6] Keane, J. (2003). Tom Paine: A political life. Grove Press.

[7] Ibid. p, 77.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. pp. 7-8, 67, 354-5.

[10] Kidd, Colin. (2018). “Thomas Paine By JCD Clark Review – A High Tory On The Radical Hero”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/31/thomas-paine-jcd-clark-review-tory-radical-hero-common-sense-review

[11] Ibid.

[12] Diepenbrock, George. (2018). Book Argues Against Anointing Thomas Paine As ‘Patron Saint’ Of Natural Rights Philosophy. The University Of Kansas. https://news.ku.edu/2018/08/21/book-argues-against-anointing-thomas-paine-patron-saint-natural-rights-philosophy

[13] Paine, Thomas. (2020). The Thomas Paine Collection: Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Open Road Media.

[14] Clark, 2018, p. 26-7.

[15] Ibid. p. 364.

[16] Best, M. A. (2019). Thomas Paine: Prophet and Martyr of Democracy (Vol. 8). Routledge.

[17] Halverson, J. M. (2022). The Art of Ridicule in the Age of Reason: The Anti-Biblical Rhetoric of Thomas Paine (Doctoral dissertation).

[18] Clark, 2018, p. 14.

[19] Ibid. pp 16-7.

[20] Forsyth, R., & Holmes, D. (2018). The Writeprints of Man: a Stylometric Study of Lafayette’s Hand in Paine’s’ Rights of Man’. dhq12(1).



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