In the spring of 1791 Jefferson had hailed the first part of Rights of Man. Then serving as secretary of state, he saw in it an antidote to the rise of antirepublican sentiments expressed in writings like Discourses on Davila, a series of newspaper essays penned anonymously by Vice President John Adams warning against the dangers of democratic politics and praising aristocratic governments.
In the next chapter, Kaye adds:
Outfitted with Paine's arguments, Republican newspaperman attacked the Fderalists for their "monarchical and aristocratic" ambitions and pretensions.
When Paine was attacked by British conservatives not as a liberal or a democrat, but as a staymaker (it was actually his father who helped make women's undergarments and dresses), Kaye points out that the Aurora - one of the more prominent of the pro-Jefferson anti-Federalist newspapers of the day - published a commentary in December 1792 that said:
It is well enough in England to run down the rights of man [speaking of Paine's book], because the author of those inimitable pamphlets was a staymaker; but in the United States all such proscriptions of certain classes of citizens, or occupations, should be avoided; for liberty will never be safe or durable in a republic till every citizen thinks it as much his duty to take care of the state, as to take care of his family, and until an indifference to any public question shall be considered a public offence.
After treating the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary eras with extraordinary insight and detail, Kaye shows how Paine's influence continued in America. He chronicles the rise of the "workingmen's movement" through the latter part of the 1700s and early 1800s, leading to the creation in the mid-1830s of the National Trades' Union. "However, the Panic of 1837 devastated the economy and, with it, workers' capacities to organize," Kaye writes. "Still, the worker's ideals and aspirations did not die but persisted in the initiatives of a generation of democratic intellectuals who would continue to draw upon Paine's arguments."
By the 1840s, the battles between progressive Democrats citing Paine and conservative Whigs were heating up all over again. A group inspired in part by Paine, the Young Americans, were split in 1845 by debates over Manifest Destiny, but, Kaye notes, "The group's original Painite vision lived on, however, in the labors of the nation's greatest democratic writers, Melville and Whiteman. ...to both, Paine was democracy's first champion."
From here, Kaye carries us through the whole arc of the 1800s, up to and through the Wilson administration, Eugene Debs, through the Great Depression, the presidency of FDR, through WWII, and into the Vietnam conflict. At each step along the way, he finds the inspiration of Thomas Paine in the forward progress of Americans who believe in the deepest and most profound principles of democracy and liberty.
For example, from the Vietnam era:
SDS members of the early 1960s proudly conceived of themselves as renewing America's revolutionary heritage, with Paine standing at the heart of it. [Todd] Gitlin [SDS President] would recount of a November 1965 antiwar rally: "Carl Oglesby [then president of SDS] stole the show ... by treating the war as the product of an imperial history ... But Oglesby, the son of an Akron Rubber worker, also self-consciously invoked 'our dead revolutionaries' Jefferson and Paine against Lyndon Johnson and [national security adviser] McGeorge Bundy. He romantically sumoned up a once-democratic America against the 'colossus of ... our American corporate system.'"Even many years later, SDS veterans would have recourse to Paine when recollecting their early activist days and what they were about. In his own memoir, Tom Hayden would write, "The goal of the sixties was, in a sense, the completion of the vision of the early revolutionaries and the abolitionists, for Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass wanted even more than the Bill of Rights or Emancipation Proclamation. True Democrats, they wanted the fulfillment of the American promise."
Bringing us to the present moment, Kaye points out that modern conservatives are undertaking a massive and well-funded effort to re-write history, characterizing anti-democratic men from the Revolutionary Era as Adams and Hamilton as true champions of democracy, and trying to recast the firebrand revolutionary and liberal Thomas Paine as a conservative. As noted early in the book, they even are stealing lines from Paine, such as Reagan's quoting a Paine line from Common Sense that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
But Kaye won't let them get away with it:
For all their citations of Paine and his lines, conservatives do not - and truly cannot - embrace him and his arguments. Bolstered by capital, firmly in command of the Republican Party, and politically ascendant for a generation, they have initiated and instituted policies and programs that fundamentally contradict Paine's own vision and commitments. They have subordinated the Republic - the res publica, the commonwealth, the public good - to the marketplace and private advantage. They have furthered the interests of corporations and the rich over those of working people, their families, unions, and communities and overseen a concentration of wealth and power that, recalling the Gilded Age, has corrupted and enervated American democratic life and politics. And they have carried on culture wars that have divided the nation and undermined the wall separating church and state. Moreover, they have pursued domestic and foreign policies that have made the nation both less free and less secure politically, economically, environmentally, and militarily. Even as they have spoken of advancing freedom and empowering citizens, they have sought to discharge or at least constrain America's democratic impulse and aspiration. In fact, while poaching lines from Paine, they and their favorite intellectuals have disclosed their real ambitions and affections by once again declaring the "end of history" and promoting the lives of Founders like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who n decided contrast to Paine scorned democracy and feared "the people."
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America is not only one of the finest biographies of this great Founder ever written, it is also one of the best histories of the United States of America in print.