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Re: Paine in the the . . .


Jay, your post on Tom Paine offers me an essentially irresistible opportunity to note that I’ve got a book on Paine and Edmund Burke coming out later this year. It’s partly about their direct debate over the French Revolution — they knew each other, exchanged letters, disagreed vehemently. Paine’s book Rights of Man was a direct response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (and not in a shy way, the full title of the original first volume was Rights of Man, Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution) and Burke’s Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs was in turn a response to Paine. But it’s also about the larger disagreement between them, which becomes evident when you lay out the complex worldviews they expressed throughout their careers and break them down thematically — as I try to do. They help you see right to the core of what became in time the left/right divide in Anglo-American politics, and so (although both the Left and the Right have of course changed in important ways over time) they shed a bright light on our own politics too because the core of that disagreement remains. It’s a division within modern liberalism, between a progressive and conservative liberalism, and Burke and Paine not only embodied that division but also understood it very clearly. The nature of that original debate (and especially the character of that conservative liberalism, which offers an alternative path to liberal institutions and ideals than the enlightenment radicalism we are so often saddled with) are not nearly well enough known today.

There’s a whole lot to like about Paine, and his role in the American Revolution was undeniably important (even if his understanding of what the revolution was about was far from universally shared among the Founders), but he also offers a window into what’s wrong with modern liberal politics. The left/right divide is not as simple as you might imagine.

Anyway, end of advertisement — but what kind of author would I be if I didn’t jump at that bait? Coming in the fall . . .


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