Arguments from Absence

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I cannot remember how or why I came across it in graduate school, but I consider David Hackett Fischer’s extraordinary “Historians’ Fallacies” one of my most fortunate acquisitions. I like to think that the spectacle of Fischer skewering the giants of his profession had a salutary impact on my own writing; to the degree that it didn’t, time and the black hole to which dissertations are, with good reason, consigned in university libraries has allowed me to draw a discreet curtain over youthful indiscretion. Since that time, I have often thought that all writers of dissertations should be frog-marched through Fischer’s text, to raise their awareness about the kinds of intellectual errors that even good scholars can fall into.

One of those errors is the wish to compose a smooth narrative that accounts for all disparate, recalcitrant facts. It’s an error fraught with much more peril than students are generally trained to expect. After reading Harvey J. Kaye’s much-lauded

*Reviewed by Stephen Cox in Liberty (December 2005), available at http: / / libertyunbound.com/ archive/2005_12/ cox- triumphs.html.

“Thomas Paine and the Promise of America,” I’m tempted to think we should extend a careful study of Fischer to full professors as well.

Paine’s importance as a historical figure rests primarily upon his pamphlet “Common Sense,” which can legitimately be described as having moved the majority of American colonists in 1776 from favoring reconciliation with Britain to favoring independence. Secondarily, his fame rests on “The Age of Reason” (1794, 1796), a deist attack on biblical inconsistencies that upholds rationalist conceptions of God. Between these two works, Paine wrote the serial “The American Crisis” (1776-1783) while serving in Washington’s army, numerous tracts on taxation and public policy during the first years of the new nation, and “The Rights of Man” (1787), a reply to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. Paine even found time to serve in the revolutionary Assembly in France, before being jailed and marked for death when he opposed Louis XVI’s execution.

Kaye’s aim is two-fold. His first goal is to recount the basic facts of Paine’s life for a general readership. His second, more controversial goal, is to reclaim Paine for the modern Left, to

redress the “theft” of Paine by conservatives and libertarians. The book breaks into two parts, corresponding to its two major aims. The first half is a quick biography of Paine; the second, a chronicle of his rise and fall and rise in American intellectual history.

Most of what appears in the biographical chapters has been seen before. Kaye is not breaking new biographical ground so much as synthesizing materials from other modern historians, primarily JQhn Keane (“Tom Paine: A Political Life”), as well as various contemporary or near- contemporary lives of Paine. The standard for narratives such as Kaye creates is (first) readability and (second) plausible reconsiderations of old facts. Kaye is a brisk, competent stylist, blessedly free of jargon. He combines his sources in a mostly productive manner. Because his book is in large measure a history of histories of Paine, he usefully clears away many canards about him, such as alcoholism and atheism, by tracing them to their sources among his less scrupulous political adversaries. Kaye’s text will stand comfortably alongside other works of “Founder Lit” as pleasant and informative for the general reader.

Where he sticks to the known facts of Paine’s life, Kaye does well. However, when he attempts to reconsider elements of Paine’s life by speculating about what influenced him, Kaye’s larger ambitions lead to the kind of errors that Fischer exhaustively

Kaye’s controversial goal is to reclaim Paine for the modern Left.

 

errors that have worse effects in histories written for the general reader than in histories written for specialists, since the general audience

is more likely to accept them as facts. While rooting out slanders against Paine, Kaye plants his own new seeds of misinterpretation. Nearly always, his misreadings stem from his political commitments, and thus fall into Fischer’s category of “fallacies of reduction” or errors made when a prior social or philosophical position

leads a writer to hasty conclusions. Kaye reports, for example, that Paine said he took little interest in politics as a young man in London. Immediately after this, Kaye suggests that “the contradictions he encountered in the capital – the rich getting richer and proud talk of English liberties even as working people and the poor suffered destitution and state violence – apparently made deep impressions” (p. 24).

Where to begin with this account of Paine’s intellectual development?

Let’s start with that phrase “state violence.” Kaye never explains what he means by this. What could it refer to, in the context of the period? Paine’s London days, roughly 1756-1758 in the passage under consideration, were not a time of extreme or unusual unrest. If Kaye is referring to the standard public exactions of justice in the city, those practices (public hangings, for instance) had continued for well over 100 years. Indeed, such events were frequently cause for public celebration and well attended by the masses. No evidence is offered that Paine’s reaction would have been any different from that of his contemporaries.

What of the claim that the “rich” were “getting richer”? It sounds plausible. Yet again, no supporting evidence is advanced. And what does it mean to say that “the poor suffered destitution,” apart from claiming that the poor were poor? I am not suggest- ing that London in 1756 was a particularly good place to be poor, or that there weren’t many poor people living there; what I am suggesting is that the treatment of the poor in the city had not varied substantially in decades and there was nothing unusual or even strange about the poverty one encountered there in 1756.

If there was nothing unusual about it, why should it be “apparent” that it made a deep impression on Paine, except for the reason that it would certainly make a deep impression on a modern liberal in 2005? Why might it not be the case that such experiences in the city hardened Paine to the straits of the poor? It is simply not enough to say that poor people lived in London in 1756, that Paine lived there too, and that therefore his subsequent views must have been shaped by that experience. This is possible, maybe even likely, but absent any evidence, that is the best one can say.

But let’s go a little deeper into the question of evidence, or lack of it. What support does Kaye offer for his characterization of London, a characterization that is actually better suited to Dickens’ Victorian “wen” than to the mid-18th century metropolis? Kaye typically uses omnibus footnotes at the ends of paragraphs, where presumably all the evidence and support for various assertions in the paragraph appear. The paragraph in question cites Caroline Robbins’ magisterial study “The Eighteenth-Century Com- monwealthman” and John Dunn’s influential “Political Thought of John

Theodore Roosevelt famously called Paine “that filthy little atheist. “

 

Locke.” Here, as often in his notes, he merely cites the text as a whole, without providing any citation of a page or passage.

The Dunn citation is presumably meant to buttress the paragraph’s later invocation of John Locke to discuss the ideas of “Real Whigs” (never mind that Whigs of all stripes, as well as Tories, laid claim to Locke). The Robbins citation is more revealing. Robbins brilliantly excavates the mindset of a class of thinkers who, in the late 17th and early 18th century, called upon the Whig party, then in power, to live up to its traditional ideals. The views of these thinkers mesh nicely with those that Paine evolved on his arrival in America in 1774 – yet by 1750, there weren’t many such prominent opposition Whigs around. Indeed, if Paine had looked around him carefully in 1756, he would have seen a largely unified government ruling nearly unopposed over a people not exactly up in arms in the struggle to enlarge their rights. The beginning of popular agitation for extending the franchise and reforming government is more properly located after the accession of George III in 1763.

It may seem that I am putting undue pressure on Kaye’s word “apparently”; yet he resorts to such devices more than once in his biographical chapters. Paine was in London from 1765 to 1768, when Kaye tells us “he could not have failed to notice working peoples’ nascent radicalism.” Why not? Kaye himself notes that these were the years when Paine worked frantically to get himself rein-

An historical figure can truly be said to have arrived when B-17s are named for him.

 

stated as a customs officer after being dismissed in 1765. Perhaps he did have time for political observations amid his vocational struggles, but the burden is on Kaye to prove it, not merely to assert it, especially since Paine’s own words tell us that he wasn’t primarily a political animal at this time.

Additionally, Kaye sometimes uses variations on the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. A particularly clever example appears on page 25, where he mentions that Paine’s first wife Mary died giving birth to a child (stillborn) in 1759: “In the ensuing years Paine would speak little of his losses. Yet he would forever despise regimes that accepted poverty as part of the natural order of things, and he developed a special sympathy for women and the subordination they suffered.” Here Paine’s silence over the death of his wife and child is silently shifted into hatred of poverty and espousal of the cause of women, as if to suggest that the one gave birth to the other. Absence of evidence becomes positive proof.

When he is not speculating in these ways, Kaye does a creditable job of presenting the salient details of Paine’s life to a general readership. He is particularly good at conveying the excitement and radicalism of “Common Sense,” Paine’s most important and influential text. As I’ve said, Kaye’s prose is always readable and clear, and when he is moved (as he is by Paine’s stirring rhetoric in “Common Sense”), he can be compelling. The real meat of his book is in its second half, and it is there that he makes a lasting and solid contribution to Paine scholarship, even as his larger goal of claiming, or reclaiming, Paine for the Left escapes his grasp.

Chapters 5 through 9 tell the story of America’s love-hate-Iove affair with Paine. In Kaye’s hands this is a gripping story. Nevertheless, his urgency to demonstrate that Paine was everywhere in the air that radicals and democrats breathed throughout American history leads him to massage some of his sources and evidence. Had he simply stuck to the facts, his argument would be a great deal more compelling.

Chapter 5 is a useful place to examine the virtues and defects of his approach. The central portion of the chapter traces the efforts of freethinking societies to keep Paine in favorable remembrance during the 19th century, despite the fact that his name had become a byword for “atheism.” By the mid-1790s, New England clergy and Federalists had turned Paine into a whipping boy for the sins of the French Revolution. This trend continued in the first decades of the next century. So it is fascinating to read of the Moral Philanthropists, the Society of Deists, and the Society of Free Enquirers meeting in cities across America to celebrate Paine and “The Age of Reason,” even as the second Great Awakening of
religion surged into being. The tragicomic tale of deists’ attempts to get a
monument to Paine erected in New Rochelle is a vivid part of this picture. So is Kaye’s account of Paine’s influence on leaders of early workingmen’s movements, an important early example of his legacy’s being linked to socioeconomic causes. Chapter 5 also recounts Paine’s importance to Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville, who named the ship from which Billy Budd was impressed The Rights ofMan. Kaye does a good job of showing how nascent abolitionist movements took what they liked from Paine, while avoiding elements of his work that clashed with their religious sensibilities.

Given these passages where Kaye uses evidence well, it is painful to read him, in the same chapter, torturing logic and history to aggrandize Paine’s influence and reputation. We learn that Lincoln, born in the same year in which Paine died, “arrived at Gettysburg . . . a revolutionary, and though he made no particular reference to Paine, it seems he too carried Paine’s ideas with him” (119). How could one establish the truth of that assertion? On the next page, we learn that Lincoln read “The Age of Reason,” yet felt threatened by attacks on his own “infidelity” during his 1846 race for Congress. The paragraph concludes by saying that Lincoln “would never join a church, but neither would he ever again speak publicly of deism or Paine. Of course, this does not mean Lincoln stopped thinking about them” (120, italics mine). Unless I missed it, Kaye never shows that Lincoln spoke in public even once about deism or Paine. Be that as it may, Kaye follows

his assertion with another argument from absence: just because Lincoln didn’t mention Paine doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about him.

It gets worse. We learn that though Lincoln never quoted Paine, his famously exact memory “likely could recallĀ· exact lines from ‘Common Sense'” (120). Even if it were true that Lincoln read “Common Sense” (Kaye cites one contemporary biographer who was told by people in Lincoln’s one-time home, New Salem, Illinois, that Lincoln may have read the text), and even if it were true that he could recite vast passages of the work from memory (also never proven), that still wouldn’t prove that his thought was profoundly shaped by Paine. Indeed, Lincoln’s unwillingness to commit his love of Paine to speech or paper suggests that whatever affection he had for him, he managed to control.

We learn that “like Paine,” Lincoln believed in “the liberating power of reason” and “the dignity of free labor” (121). So did Voltaire, Theodore Roosevelt (who famously called Paine “that filthy little atheist”), Ronald Reagan, and Chairman Mao. But that “like Paine” becomes a constant refrain in the second half of the book, marring the otherwise interesting use of historical sources. Kaye often says that such and such a liberal figure, “like Paine,” assaulted the concentration of capital or the mistreatment of women. If anything, such a formulation shows likeness, not influence, and is misleading in a history written for a general audience.

And Kaye doesn’t need to tie Paine to every liberal or radical strand in American history; there are plenty of writers and activists who worshiped him and brought his ideas wholesale into political discourse. Had Kaye stuck just to those persons, his text would be a great deal more convincing. As it is, it is convincing some of the time, and merely plausible the rest.

In chapter 6, Kaye tells the story of Robert Ingersoll, delivering the first Paine birthday address. This freethinking Republican speaker actually offered a $1,000 bounty to Paine’s religious attackers to prove that, as they claimed, he died in mortal terror for his soul. This is fun stuff, and clearly shows an explicit link between Paine and a later political figure of some significance. But on the very next page, Kaye says that Henry George, author of “Progress and Poverty” (1879), “did not cite Paine in the work” but that his “plan to re-create American equality and democratic life descended directly from’Agrarian Justice’ [Paine’s 1786 consideration of class inequality] and clearly reflected Paine’s spirit” (169). Why? According to Keane’s political biography of Paine, “subsequent interpreters of ‘Agrarian Justice’ were wrong . . . to see it as either a reforming … ‘bourgeois liberal’ or a protoso- cialist tract.” Keane goes on to argue that the “anachronistic language of … capitalism or socialism’ obscures Paine’s concern to sketch and defend the democratic-republican principle of citizens’ social rights. Paine favored the preservation of a private-property, market-driven economy” (427). Unlike Keane, Kaye is not only comfortable using the anachronistic language of socialism and capitalism to interpret

Elements of Paine’s thought look right at home among libertarian as well as conservative positions.

 

Paine; he is so comfortable that he sees arguments for Paine as a proto- socialist even where specific evidence is lacking.

Paine fell into deeper and deeper disfavor in the 19th century, largely because of malicious mischaracterizations of his religious views. Kaye gives an excellent account of his rehabilitation, primarily through socialists’ rediscovery and promotion of him in the first half of the 20th century, as well as the direct and repeated public invocation of him by Franklin Roosevelt. Chapter 7, where Kaye accomplishes this task, is the strongest _ in the book. The circumlocutions and arguments from absence that mar otherwise decent passages in earlier chapters largely disappear. It is striking to learn that not only Eugene Debs, Socialist presidential candidate, but also General “Black Jack” Pershing deliberately and positively invoked Paine at key moments of their careers. A historical figure can truly be said to have arrived when B-17s are named for him, and his words “Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily Conquered” appear on the fuselage. Details like this are the kind of things one longs for in a general history.

Chapter 8 is not so sensible. It begins with President Reagan’s reference to Paine in his acceptance of the Republican nomination in 1980. For Kaye, this is a gauntlet thrown down, a red cape waved in the corrida. To be fair, Reagan’s citation of “Common Sense” can be taken quite legitimately as an emblem for the revolution that Reagan wished to lead: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” But Kaye insists that Reagan was “hijack[ing]” his hero, and that he was allowed to do so because “so much of the left had apparently lost contact with Paine” (226). What follows is a partisan history of the splintering of the old Left into student activism, radical chic, and “crazy distraction” (244).

The result of the Left’s betrayal of Paine’s memory was that “the nation’s democratic impulse and aspiration survived, but increasingly the right, not the left, would mobilize it. While liberals and radicals failed to offer a progressive alternative to the recurring crises, conservatives gathered force. Funded by corporate interests, libertarians and traditionalists alike pursued grassroots campaigns among increasingly anxious and angry white middle- class and working-class people” (257). Kaye argues that this fractious coalition was inspired and held together by an old FDR democrat who had the temerity to invoke Paine at the key moment when he was poised to take power. What nonsense.

I should admit that as one of the humanities professors whom Kaye compliments for having added Paine to their course syllabi, I probably share many if not most of Kaye’s political sympathies. But in the end, I have to report that I am unpersuaded by his attempt to deny Paine to the Right. Paine was anything but a systematic or consistent thinker; he published for the occasion and is best thought of as a

also General “Black Jack” Pershing deliberately and positively invoked Paine at key moments of their careers. A historical figure can truly be said to have arrived when B-17s are named for him, and his words “Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily Conquered” appear on the fuselage. Details like this are the kind of things one longs for in a gen- eral history.

Chapter 8 is not so sensible. It begins with President Reagan’s refer- ence to Paine in his acceptance of the Republican nomination in 1980. For Kaye, this is a gauntlet thrown down, a red cape waved in the corrida. To be fair, Reagan’s citation of “Common Sense” can be taken quite legitimately as an emblem for the revolution that Reagan wished to lead: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” But Kaye insists that Reagan was “hijack[ing]” his hero, and that he was allowed to do so because “so much of the left had apparently lost contact with Paine” (226). What fol- lows is a partisan history of the splin- tering of the old Left into student acti- vism, radical chic, and “crazy distraction” (244).

The result of the Left’s betrayal of Paine’s memory was that “the nation’s democratic impulse and aspiration sur- vived, but increasingly the right, not the left, would mobilize it. While liber- als and radicals failed to offer a pro- gressive alternative to the recurring cri- ses, conservatives gathered force. Funded by corporate interests, libertar- ians and traditionalists alike pursued grassroots campaigns among increas- ingly anxious and angry white middle- class and working-class people” (257). Kaye argues that this fractious coali- tion was inspired and held together by an old FDR democrat who had the temerity to invoke Paine at the key moment when he was poised to take power. What nonsense.

I should admit that as one of the humanities professors whom Kaye compliments for having added Paine to their course syllabi, I probably share many if not most of Kaye’s political sympathies. But in the end, I have to report that I am unpersuaded by his attempt to deny Paine to the Right. Paine was anything but a systematic or consistent thinker; he published for the occasion and is best thought of as a propagandist or journalist rather than a political philosopher. He cannot be fit entirely into the modern ideologies of either the Left or the Right. His stubborn resistance to concentrated authority in favor of the masses can legitimately appear in efforts by leftists to use him as a stick to beat corporations and in efforts by conservatives or libertarians to deploy him against big government.

The fact is that Paine preferred governments to mirror as closely as possible the views of the masses. For this reason, he wanted large assemblies, frequent elections, and weakened executives. It is not a stretch to see him, then, as an enemy of big government, if by that term we mean a government with many supervening levels that distance power from the people or government that impinges on the individual’s right to liberty and property. Thus Reagan’s use of him, however disconcerting to liberals long accustomed to owning Paine, was not wholly anachronistic. (I always wondered why Reagan never quoted Paine’s claim in “Common Sense” that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”)

We might fruitfully speculate that were Paine alive today, he might find inspiration and a real home among the more radically left-wing elements of the blogosphere, and recant some of the views that give comfort to modern conservatives. But Paine died in 1809. While it is true (I would argue) that many, if not most of Paine’s views sit more comfortably with the contemporary Left, one cannot deny that elements of Paine’s thought look right at home among modern-day libertarian as well as conservative positions in America. To the degree that Kaye’s partisan history tries to erase these possibilities, it does a considerable disservice to the intellectual range and vigor of his hero.

 

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