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Rebels with Causes
Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Paine, and two modern revolutions
18 January 2008

He was born and educated in England but became an American citizen and patriot. He was an egalitarian moralist and left-wing political radical. He was involved in the political and revolutionary currents of his time, almost always on the side of reason and universal freedom. He made his living as a brilliant political essayist, pamphleteer, and controversialist and often quarreled in print and elsewhere with former comrades in arms. He wrote a best-selling critique of religion in defense of rationalism as the basis for political, social, and moral life. He was to some Americans a national treasure. He was to others an obnoxious pest. I’m talking about Tom Paine. With an appropriate change of tense, I might be talking about Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens’s Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography is not, in fact, his latest book. (Who can keep up?) Though just out on this side of the pond, it was published a year ago in Britain, well before the blockbuster God Is Not Great. It’s striking that the cover of the British edition sports William Blake’s Albion’s Angel (the frontispiece to the poet’s America: A Prophecy), while the American edition features a Wilde-like photo of Hitchens. Some will complain that the American cover is shameless commercial hype. Of course it is—we’re in America, after all—but sometimes commercial hype gets it right: had Hitchens been plying his trade in Paine’s time and in his stead, he might have been the one to write the pamphlet that would help spark the most important political revolution in human history, and he’d consider Blake, who conversed with biblical prophets, something of a nut. There are other, more scholarly, biographies and studies of Thomas Paine; but there is, to my knowledge, no account of Paine by an author whose heart and mind are so close to Paine’s and who possesses such Paine-like rhetorical and polemical skills. In this wonderful book, Hitchens depicts the ups and downs of Paine’s life, private and political, and brilliantly shows that the choice for revolution is never easy or free of moral ambiguity.

It’s not possible for an American to refer respectfully to most of the Founders by a nickname. (Tom Jefferson?) But we feel perfectly comfortable referring to Benjamin Franklin as Ben and to Thomas Paine as Tom. Why? Because Franklin and Paine were the closest of the Founders to our contemporary egalitarian selves. They had nothing of aristocracy or privilege about them: both were indentured and wayward youths, both rose to success and political fame from relative poverty and obscurity, both had worked with their hands for a living, both lacked formal higher education and were autodidacts. Tom and Ben knew each other, if not well, then well enough for Franklin to have been the catalyst for Paine’s American and French adventures.

Paine might not have made his way in America if not for the older, wiser, and far more accomplished Franklin, who wrote a perfunctory letter of introduction to Richard Bache (Franklin’s son-in-law) in London in 1774 for the American-to-be. How extraordinary is the story of Franklin and Paine! Doctor Franklin, an egalitarian and freethinking American genius who in France, less than a decade later, would propose marriage to the aristocratic widow of the great Helvétius, sends the egalitarian, freethinking, still-nobody Paine to America, where he sparks the revolution that Franklin worked so hard to prevent and then signs on to at the very last minute. And then the rich and famous Doctor, back from France because Madame Helvétius turned him down, lets Paine display models of metal and wooden single-arch bridges—which, I’ll bet, would have sported lightning rods if they’d ever been built—in his Philadelphia garden.

It was also Franklin who, in 1787, encouraged Paine to seek in France the funding for his bridges that he couldn’t find in America, and once again the Doctor supplied the necessary letters of introduction and recommendation. Paine’s efforts to find funding for the bridges—both in France and England, where he befriended Edmund Burke—came to nothing. But as his engineering efforts petered out, the French Revolution began to unfold, and in 1792 Paine, an enthusiastic supporter, wrote Rights of Man in defense of the Revolution and as a retort to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. (As Hitchens points out, Paine reacted to Burke’s tract with the bitterness of a friend betrayed.) The National Assembly conferred honorary French citizenship on Paine in August of that year, and shortly thereafter he was elected to the National Convention to represent Pas-de-Calais.

Hitchens tells us that modern revolutions eat their children—and the progeny almost included Thomas Paine. Paine wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, his critique of revealed religion and defense of deism, in a rush. He did so, as he tells us in the preface to the second part of that work, because, suspected by the Jacobins for his respect for the rule of law, he thought that his arrest was imminent—as indeed it was. On December 23, 1793, just six hours after finishing the book’s first part, he was arrested on the orders of the Committee of General Security and carted off to Paris’s Luxembourg Prison, where only by a stroke of good luck did he avoid the stroke of the guillotine. The Girondin Paine got out of prison only after Robespierre’s death, and thanks to the exertions on his behalf by the American ambassador, James Monroe.

One of Paine’s best quips (it’s not all that good) in Rights of Man is the little pun that he inserted in his account of the French nobility’s having become despised for its imbecility, thanks to the inevitable result of the principle of heredity. Such, says Paine, is “the general character of aristocracy, or what are called the Nobles, or Nobility, or rather No-ability, in all countries.” Hitchens seems to prefer another Paine quip to the same effect—that the idea of hereditary legislators is as absurd as the idea of hereditary mathematicians—but Paine most likely didn’t coin this one himself, since Franklin used it to describe the House of Lords in his Journal of Negotiations in London, written while aboard ship to America in March 1775. On equality and the hereditary principle, Franklin, Paine, and Hitchens are three peas in a pod.

The American promise of freedom and democracy was the light of life for Paine. As Hitchens tells the story, when Paine was fired from the editorship of the Pennsylvania Magazine, “he was now in every sense ‘free’ to unmask his batteries, and to produce the largest achievement in the history of pamphleteering. Of Common Sense it can be said, without any risk of cliché, that it was a catalyst that altered the course of history.” For Paine, says Hitchens, “the New World of ‘the United States of America’ . . . was an actual and concrete achievement; not an imaginary Utopia but a home for liberty and the conscious first stage of a world revolution.” Hitchens is here right on the money: in the later Rights of Man, Paine refers over and over again to America’s shining example.

Hitchens thinks the same of America. He dedicates his volume to Jalaal Talabani, the “first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.” We all know that it was America that liberated Iraq with an eye to the spread of democracy in the least democratic part of the globe; and we all know that Hitchens, to the apoplectic consternation of his former comrades on the left, supported the project and still does, although its outcome is still, alas, in some doubt. Like Paine, Hitchens thinks that America can be—indeed, has a duty to be—a force for the spread of freedom around the world.

It’s clear that Hitchens loves Paine because he lived for equality, democracy, and freedom of thought and conscience, and because he hadn’t the least respect for social position or established political power. But Hitchens loves Paine for another, more hard-edged, reason. Paine was, despite his Quaker father, willing to fight and shed blood for what he believed was right—so willing that Paine said of Christian meekness that “it is assassinating the dignity of forbearance and sinking man into a spaniel.”

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

Hitchens invokes these stirring opening lines of The American Crisis, written by Paine after Washington’s retreat in New Jersey (in which Paine took part), to chide “pacifists and anti-warriors” who are willing to avoid trouble in their own times and thus postpone it for posterity to suffer. As Paine argued again and again, a living generation can’t tell the generations to come what to do. But Paine argued as well that we have a moral duty not to pawn our responsibilities off on our kids. Hitchens surely invites us to conclude that if Paine were alive today, he’d agree that America fighting for liberty—against an obscurantist and fanatical foe that hates liberty and means us harm—is the America that behaves responsibly to its children and to the children of the world.

It’s thus a tad surprising that this book, part of a series entitled Books That Shook the World, is on Rights of Man and The Age of Reason and not on Common Sense and The American Crisis. It’s the American Revolution that still shakes the world for the good, as Hitchens makes perfectly clear. Paine’s beloved French Revolution, on the other hand, which he defends in Rights of Man, descended into the blood-soaked Terror. The grotesque repression of the Vendée insurrection arguably became the model of future revolutionary genocide, and the whole sorry mess then collapsed into military despotism and imperialism.

Paine wrote Rights of Man before the Revolution turned sour and before it turned on him. So he could declare at the end of the treatise: “Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England and to all Europe, as is produced by the two Revolutions of America and France. By the former, freedom has a national champion in the Western world; and by the latter, in Europe. When another nation shall join France, despotism and bad government will scarcely dare to appear. . . . The insulted German and the enslaved Spaniard, the Russ and the Pole, are beginning to think. The present age will hereafter merit to be called the Age of reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world.”

No mention here of apples and snakes and the Fall and the divine flood to come. A year after writing this conclusion to Rights of Man, however, in the preface to the second part of The Age of Reason, Paine explained the circumstances that made him rush the first part of that treatise:

The just and humane principles of the revolution, which philosophy had first diffused, had been departed from. The idea, always dangerous to society as it is derogatory to the Almighty, that priests could forgive sins, though it seemed to exist no longer, had blunted the feelings of humanity, and callously prepared men for the commission of all crimes. The intolerant spirit of church persecution had transformed itself into politics; the tribunals, stiled revolutionary, supplied the place of an inquisition, and the guillotine of the stake. I saw many of my most intimate friends destroyed; others daily carried to prison; and I had reason to believe, and also intimations given to me, that the same danger was approaching myself.

Well, perhaps it was the priests’ example that turned revolutionaries into murderous inquisitors. But that dodges the argument that Burke made in his famous critique of the Revolution: that rationalism, with its universalistic “rights of man,” has an enthusiasm of its own that springs from an abstracting lack of concern for the densely complicated facts of any existing political landscape. And so the rationalists unleash unintended consequences—unintended by them but not unforeseeable by the likes of Burke—that in turn unleash murderous passions and despotism.

Burke’s long pamphlet has never been for me a fully convincing or enjoyable read. His defense of the principle of heredity and his interpretation of the Glorious Revolution—that by it “the English nation did at that time most solemnly renounce and abdicate [a right to elect their kings] for themselves and for all their posterity forever”—seem to me patently absurd, as they did to Paine. And Burke’s unrelenting snobbery, anticommercialism, and anti-Semitism are hard to take.

Hitchens doesn’t hide his revulsion at all this. Even so, he is as fair to Burke as he is to Paine. He is careful to remind us that Burke was a Whig, not a Tory, and that he supported the American cause and stood up for justice in Ireland and India. And he agrees with Conor Cruise O’Brien that Burke’s extremism in Reflections on the Revolution in France was intended to curry favor with the Tories, thereby to enlist their support for the Catholics of Ireland, who were caught between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, many radical English supporters of the French Revolution were also anti-Catholic; and on the other hand, the Tory opponents of the Revolution were suspicious of the Catholics because Paine and other English radicals advocated an Irish rebellion (as well as an invasion by France) as a catalyst for revolution in England.

But more important than all this, Hitchens asserts that for all Burke’s nonsense about the Glorious Revolution and the English constitution, he got the French Revolution absolutely right. The list of Burke’s accurate predictions really is astounding: constitutional incompetence and instability; the despotic power of the Paris street; financial incompetence and runaway inflation; famine; trouble with the peasants squeezed by new landowners; trouble with peasants loyal to their priests; trouble with the traditional provinces chopped up by an absurdly abstract system of representation; the threat to property in general by the confiscation of the property of the Church; and, of course, instability in the army and the rise of a military dictator.

It’s the last prediction that catches Hitchens’s eye. Of it he says that he “does not know of a more chillingly accurate forecast, with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg’s famous warning to Lenin in 1918 that Bolshevik methods would lead, first to the dictatorship of one party, and then to a dictatorship of that party’s central committee, and finally to absolute rule by one member of that central committee.” We are compelled to wonder, says Hitchens, if Paine ever remembered Burke’s prophecy of a Napoleon “during the long and arduous and frustrating decade in which he lived through the unfolding of Burke’s predictions.”

Reading Burke could induce one to blame Paine for his hopelessly naive shortsightedness. Hitchens makes this harder than one might think, and therein lies an impressive feature of this book. First, he makes a good case that, despite Paine’s commitment to universal human rights, he wasn’t all that radical a radical. Paine liked Adam Smith, commerce, and free enterprise, approved of private property, distrusted government, and would not, says Hitchens, have been a socialist. He predicted rightly that modern commercial republics would not make war on one another. He foresaw the modern welfare state. And Paine worried as well about the Revolution’s “becoming a full-blown instatement of atheism,” which is why, says Hitchens, he wrote The Age of Reason at once to attack Christianity and to defend deism. Paine was a sincere believer in nature’s God as well as in freedom of conscience.

Second, Hitchens makes clear that during his stint in the National Convention, Paine had the American constitutional experience constantly in mind, even when he miscalculated in practice or in principle, as with his preference for unicameralism (a preference that he shared with Franklin, by the way). To Marat’s consternation and at great risk to his own health, Paine opposed the execution of Louis XVI on the grounds that “he that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his own enemy from repression; for if he violate this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Paine respected the rule of law, came to support the independence of the judiciary, and so opposed Danton’s proposal for “scrapping the existing judiciary and replacing it with a system of, in effect, ‘people’s courts.’” When he realized that his support in Rights of Man for biennial elections of the National Assembly had contributed to the hotheaded legislative assault on the judiciary, he regretted his mistake. And perhaps most important for Hitchens, Paine staunchly preferred the American separation of church and state to the French Revolution’s nationalization of religion and the Church.

Hitchens’s Paine was by no means completely blind to the circumstances around him: while serving the American Revolution, he pushed to the left; while serving the French, he for the most part pushed to the right. Hitchens tells us that Burke got things right in the short run about the French Revolution, and that Paine got them right in the more general long run: Paine was right to sense that “the age of chivalry was indeed dead, in that hereditary monarchy was doomed to give way to a democracy based on suffrage rather than property.”

But Hitchens doesn’t leave his evaluation of Paine with this simple distinction between the long and the short runs—and herein lies the most impressive feature of this book. Hitchens doesn’t let us forget that as sensible as Paine was in other respects, he wanted a French-like revolution in England and hoped and worked for a French invasion of England to that end: in 1798, he sent Napoleon an outline of a plan for the invasion, and he put his engineering talents to work designing flat-bottomed boats for it. Paine welcomed “the seizure of power by an armed elite,” Napoleon’s military coup d’état of September 4, 1797, in which the Directory was purged and the two legislative councils were forced to overturn the previous free elections in which constitutional monarchists had done well. Hitchens makes clear that a Napoleonic conquest of England would have been a moral and political catastrophe for England and the cause of liberty. Apparently Paine learned nothing from his stint in Luxembourg Prison.

Hitchens faults Paine for his excessive optimism as the French Revolution was getting under way. But he doesn’t blame optimism for Paine’s later dogged, near-crazy preference for Napoleonic France to England after his French disappointments and near miss with the guillotine. We’re led, rather, to see another factor at work, one common to revolutionaries and reactionaries alike: moral indignation.

Despite his wise advice about not taking Louis’ head, Paine’s moral indignation and its first cousin, anger, got the better of his judgment when it came to England, and they subsequently blinded him to the obvious course of events in France as well. It was only with the coup d’état of Brumaire in 1799 that he finally wised up, and even then not completely, since in 1805 Paine wanted England to lose the war with France. By that time, says Hitchens, Paine had “fallen victim to a gigantic counter-revolution in revolutionary disguise.” Paine’s angry idealism led him to bow to and excuse an obvious tyrant, and thus he wound up serving a revolution that produced not liberty, but military and imperialistic despotism. He was, then, “one of the first to experience the full effect of modern absolutist ideology in all of its early forms.” And as such, Tom Paine was the sad model for what awaited the idealists and revolutionaries of the revolutions to come.

Moreover, Paine apparently couldn’t see that “the long war against France had helped shape a wider . . . British . . . national identity . . . and was also forcing even political radicals to reconsider their patriotism” in the light of the monstrous “exorbitance” of Bonapartism. Paine thus believed, incorrectly, that the English polity he so loathed was as sclerotic as Burke had written—so sclerotic that only Napoleon could cure it. In Britain, Hitchens invites us to reflect, the long-term wait for democracy based on suffrage wasn’t all that long.

Walter Bagehot would confirm the Paine-Hitchens judgment about the inevitable rise in England of democracy based on suffrage in his 1867 The English Constitution. And well before that, Lord Macaulay, describing the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, said that the changes that the revolution “produced in our laws, however, were not more important than the change which it indirectly produced in the public mind. The Whig party had, during seventy years, an almost uninterrupted possession of power. It has always been a fundamental doctrine of that party, that power is a trust for the people, not for their own, but for the public advantage; that, where it is abused by magistrates, even by the highest of all, it may lawfully be withdrawn.”

Macaulay went on to say that from the Glorious Revolution through the reign of George II, “the literature patronized by the English Court and the English ministry . . . was of that kind which courtiers and ministers generally do all in their power to discountenance, and tended to inspire zeal for the liberties of the people rather than respect for the authority of the government.” Through the odd dynamics of party competition, said Macaulay, both Whigs and Tories—including Samuel Johnson, “the most bigoted of Tories and High Churchmen”—wound up being inculcated with “doctrines favorable to public liberty.”

The English had learned the lesson of the earlier civil war and the Interregnum, in which the radicals were moved by bigoted and murderous religious enthusiasm, as Hume showed so clearly. In 1688, as a result, they decided for liberty, as Macaulay says they did, but in a slow, steady way. In the nineteenth century, the most radical democratic movement, Chartism, was at worst just riotous and came to nothing, but suffrage reforms did come that, by the end of the century, put an end to what Hitchens calls “the shame of the rotten boroughs.”

As regards revolution, it’s thus reasonable to ask if the benefits accruing to those living in some long run are worth the price to be paid by those living in the short. And this question presses harder if the short-runners agree with Hitchens that when they breathe their last, it’s the dustbin and no more. Let’s ask some disenfranchised English atheist in 1798 if he wants to give up all he’s ever going to have—say, 30 more years of life, oppressed, true, but also with access to decent gin and a reasonable sex life—so that some other atheist sod can have the right to vote now rather than in 100 years. As Hitchens helps us see, the answer here is by no means obvious, even though Paine apparently thought it was, and pondering it helps one make a reasoned choice between revolution and egalitarian reform.

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s Rights of Man could not be more opposed on every matter of principle that they address. But these important pamphlets do have one thing in common: they almost never make the reader laugh (the quip about No-ability is certainly no thigh-slapper). In this, they differ from much of what was written by Paine’s sponsor, the wise Doctor Franklin, of whom Jefferson supposedly insisted that he not draft the Declaration of Independence lest it wind up containing a joke. That Jefferson really said this has never been proved, much to my dismay; but anyone who reads old Ben knows that if Jefferson didn’t make the remark, he should have.

Franklin was the funniest writer ever to ply the trade in America. The root of Franklin’s humor was his profound grasp of the human capacity for folly, and his equally profound understanding that the line between reason and that folly is fine indeed. In his Autobiography, Franklin described the moral casuistry that he employed to justify giving up his youthful vegetarianism on the occasion of sniffing some tempting fish being fried: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”

Franklin also thought that the most dangerous human folly sprang from convenient reason combined with an exaggerated love of justice. That’s partly why the egalitarian but pragmatic Franklin was so reluctant to invoke the universal “rights of man.” To him, the notion was too politically impatient and too likely to team up with moral indignation. At the height of the American revolutionary struggle and while he was serving that struggle in Paris, Franklin penned a satire about Americans savagely scalped by Indians that depicted both sides as thinking that the right was on their side. He believed that beneath every human atrocity, no matter how monstrous and apparently inexplicable, could be found somebody getting even. (On this, I recommend also George Orwell’s description of Hitler’s photographed visage, in a brilliant review of Mein Kampf in the New English Weekly of March 21, 1940: “It is a pathetic, doglike face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is there.”)

The egalitarian Franklin died just eight months after the fall of the Bastille and so didn’t see the French Revolution play out. But had he lived for 300 years, as he once told his fellow natural philosopher Joseph Priestly would be possible as science made progress, I suspect that he would have been wary of Paine’s quick talk of the “rights of man”—and would have agreed with Hitchens that Paine was too close to being unhinged by moral indignation and anger and too quick to sacrifice the short-term English (and French) sods to the happiness of the long-term ones. He certainly would have agreed with Hitchens about the later, absolutist revolutions that shook the world and spilled oceans of blood for the next two centuries to come.

Like Hitchens and Paine, Franklin was an egalitarian freethinker with no scruples against free men’s fighting to secure liberty—their own and that of others. As Franklin said in Plain Truth, written in 1746 against Quaker pacifists and others unwilling to arm against French and Spanish privateers threatening Philadelphia: “One sword often keeps another in its scabbard . . . and the way to secure peace is to be prepared for war.” And Franklin was delighted that England won the Seven Years’ War. But like Hitchens and unlike Paine, Franklin was a cautious revolutionary, and after the American Revolution could still regret that the costly war had not been avoided. It’s impossible, of course, to know whether a 300-year-old Franklin would have favored the war in Iraq. He might have. But he definitely would have thought that, as with all matters of war and liberty and revolution, it would not be an easy call.

He certainly would have listened to and taken seriously what Hitchens has had to say about the current conflict. Old Ben would know that for Hitchens, moralist though he may be, one can’t be a true foe of despotism if one’s judgment is deranged by anger and absolutist indignation. Beyond that question, Franklin would like this delightful book because its message is that, of the two modern revolutions that Paine said having a share in was “living to some purpose,” the one that got most things right—with one notable and tragic exception—was the first.

Jerry Weinberger is a professor of political science at Michigan State University. His most recent book, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought, will be reissued in paperback in February 2008.

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