29 January 2007

Slater Gives Me Pain To Read About Paine (CS)

As a lowly grad student at NYU, perhaps I shouldn't be accusing a Harvard Ph. D. of crappy scholarship, but Philip Slater's latest blog on Thomas Paine has offended my ever so delicate Historical sensibilities.

Ignoring Slater's mistake that it's Paine's 170th birthday (it'd actually be his 270th), the most absurd posit of Slater's is that Paine was non-violent. Slater doesn't use that exact wording, but he does go out of his way to point out that Paine never killed anyone or ordered anyone to be killed. Really? Paine could be described as a professional revolutionary. He spent little time enjoying the fruits of the American Revolution and was quickly off to write more revolutionary pamphlets in support of the revolution in France. Paine fought with his words and it would be unfortunate for us to assume that he was so naive to think that his revolutionary goals could be achieved without bloodshed. In fact, straight from The Crisis we can read:
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph

Paine was well aware of what price needed to be paid to escape from the monarchies he despised and clearly had no qualms about rhetoric that would push the populace in the direction of this eventual violence. Slater even says that Paine served with and supported Washington's army.

Slater attempts to turn this support of Washington and the country on its head, pointing out that Washington did nothing to get him out of prison in France. But Paine's unhappy turns had little do with being forsaken by American leaders, as Slater suggests. Slater conveniently ignores any possible diplomatic problems in extracting Paine, particularly in influencing a figure like Robespierre. Similarly, in regards to Paine's tribulations upon returning to America, Slater ignores that Paine returned during the Second Great Awakening, a time when his Deist beliefs would not go over well with the public and his politics (and even friendship with Jefferson) would ostracize him from Federalists. It was a highly partisan time where Paine was a pariah to most. Slater also conveniently ignores Paine's Letter to Washington, in which he harshly criticized Washington, Adams, and the structure of the American government (particularly the office of the Executive). This is only one of several angry letters Paine wrote to America that certainly would not have ingratiated him with people of influence.

Slater's biggest complaint seems to be that American Presidents are immortalized with monuments while Paine died in obscurity and is un-honored in America. I suppose Slater decided to forgo a simple Wikipedia search in order to learn that Paine has a bust in NYU's "Pantheon of Heroes" as well as a statue in Morristown, NJ and one in Bordentown, NJ.

By setting up Paine as a non-violent and under appreciated hero, without decent evidence to support his complaints, Slater does more harm than good to Paine's beloved cause. Slater falls right into the typical caricature of the liberal professor railing against money and violence from the ivory tower, actual scholarship be damned. He becomes fodder for Conservative attacks without providing any scholarly footwork for the (thinking) Left to support him.

Paine is honored by the very sustained existence of liberal governments, not only in America and France, but wherever they appear across the Globe. Though he died a pauper's death with few friends by his side, this proliferation of liberal government is a legacy I imagine Paine would prefer far more than dying fat and rich or with a massive likeness carved into a mountain.

P.S. A thousand apologies for that blog post title... but... I was helpless.

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Blogger Old Broad said...

Liberal government is a beautiful concept. Too bad those in charge now laugh at it.

2/02/2007 3:24 PM  
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