Review of the Book:
Six New Letters of Thomas Paine
With an Introduction by Harry H. Clark
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
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.