Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: “Common Sense, Rights of Man, and other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine”

This book includes the entirety of Paine’s “Common Sense” and “Rights of Man”. It also includes selections from his series “The Crises” and the pamphlets “The Age of Reason” and “Agrarian Justice”.

There is a forward by Jack Fruchtman Jr. and an Introduction by Sidney Hook. These attempt to illustrate the importance of Paine’s writings in about 25 pages. It notes that Paine is one America’s Founding Fathers on account of having written “Common Sense” and “The Crises”. Paine wrote the “Rights of Man” in response to Burke’s pamphlet against the French Revolution. “The Age of Reason” was written when Paine expected to be executed in the Reign of Terror. It includes his thoughts on religion, which later led to his being regarded as an atheist. “Agrarian Justice” was written somewhat later. It seems to have been included more to add flavor than on account of its influence, as neither introduction refers to it.

From my perspective this book is more important as a collection of important historical documents than as a source of governing ideas for our times. Historically Paine was one of the more important popularizers of republican thought in the late 1700s. “Common Sense” helped to make the American Revolution a success. “The Crises” helped Washington maintain the morale of his troops. “Rights of Man” is one of the most important defenses of the French Revolution and includes the seeds of ideas that were and are tremendously important. “The Age of Reason” presents the case for the Deism that was so popular with the great figures of the Enlightenment.

“Agrarian Justice” seems to be of limited historical interest, but I would hope that by including it certain of those on the political right would be induced not to abuse his name. In it Paine advocates for a minimum income and property taxes that are distributed to the entire population that can own land.

Overall, this book is a must read for anyone with an interest in the thinking of European Republican thinking of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There are interesting complexities, such as the claim that republics (and democracies) are actually, not merely theoretically, incapable of using illegitimate force. He assumes that all constitutions must be written down. He describes England as being ruled by an absolute monarch because of the theoretical powers of the monarch while Revolutionary France.

These complexities mean there are few, if any, simple modern applications of Paine’s thinking.