Thomas Paine, so celebrated and so despised as he traveled through the critical events of his time, has long appealed to biographers. Paine was present at the creation both of the United States and of the French Republic. His eloquence, in the pamphlet Common Sense, propelled the American colonists toward independence. A little later, when the American army faced collapse, he rallied support for it in the series of articles that began with the ever memorable “These are the times that try men’s souls.” After independence was won he moved on to France and poured out a torrent of words in defense of the revolution there. Wherever he found oppression he took it upon himself to attack it. In a famous, if perhaps apocryphal, conversation, when Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said to him, “Where liberty is, there is my country,” Paine appropriately replied, “Where liberty is not, there is mine.”
Paine’s dedication to freedom inevitably landed him in trouble, not simply with the regimes he opposed but with the rebels he supported. He could not stop with pointing out that the emperor had no clothes, he had to show up nakedness everywhere. It was not simply George III or Louis XVI who needed replacing but the British and French governments themselves and finally the church of Christ, both Catholic and Protestant. If he had said what he had to say with less eloquence, he might have gone unscathed, but Paine was a genius with words, putting home truths in language that is still moving. People in charge of things, whether revolutionary or reactionary, whether priests or politicians, correctly perceived him as threatening and took what steps they could to disgrace him. How successful they were may be suggested by the sobriquet fastened on him by Theodore Roosevelt, of “a filthy little atheist.”
The first biographies reflected the controversies in which Paine had engaged, but in the past century he has earned the admiration of scholars in a series of serious, if still partisan, studies, first by Moncure Daniel Conway, who edited his works, and more recently by David Freeman Hawke and Eric Foner. Now comes Sir Alfred Ayer, the philosopher of logical positivism, in a critical biography that assesses Paine’s writings, not as works of partisan rhetoric but as prescriptions for society and government.
It is a curious match. Although Ayer and Paine share a certain bent for épater le bourgeois, Ayer is an acknowledged master of cold reason, while Paine is the enragé, the master of effective polemic. The outcome is a strange book, a narrative of Paine’s life combined with a summary and analysis of his principal writings: Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. The biographical sections are derived largely from Conway’s biography, published in 1892. Conway, Ayer assures us, is “still the best and most thorough of Paine’s biographers,” a judgment about which some historians may have reservations. But no matter. What makes a book by Ayer worthwhile must be his analysis of Paine’s ideas. Granted that Paine’s ideas were made formidable not by their originality but by his gift for language, we look for an analysis that will weigh the language, truth, and logic of them.
We are not disappointed in the sense that Ayer takes Paine seriously, nor does he fail to offer his own views in response to Paine’s. The first-person singular appears with the regularity that one has come to expect from philosophers talking about history. What disappoints is the lack of rigor in the logician’s treatment of ideas and the subjective, not to say capricious, character of some of the judgments he passes on them.
Since the idea of a contractual basis for government lies at the center of Paine’s political philosophy, Ayer begins with a delineation of the role of contract for those he calls “the precursors,” namely Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. We may be warned of what is to come by the statement: “Notoriously, Locke was concerned to vindicate the glorious Whig Revolution of 1688.” Notoriously perhaps, but since Peter Laslett’s study, published in 1956, it has been known that Locke actually wrote his treatise at the time of the exclusion crisis nearly a decade before the Revolution.* It is more disconcerting to find Locke as contrasted with Hobbes allegedly attaching far more importance to property than to life, in saying that “the great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” Ayer seems to have forgotten (as, to be sure, Locke himself occasionally did) the definition of property with which Locke prefaced this statement. The words immediately preceding it were: “Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general name of Property.” The source of all property for Locke was the indisputable possession of one’s own body, a possession that became meaningless without life and liberty.
In elaborating the differences between Hobbes and Locke, Ayer goes on to point out that Locke, like Paine after him, made a distinction between society and government. In Locke’s view the two were the product of different, sequential transactions: the one in which a society (a commonwealth) came into existence out of the state of nature, the other in which that society chose and contracted with governors. Although Ayer discounts the distinction as “less important than he [Paine] seems to consider it,” it was crucial to most of the constitutional reasoning of the American Revolution. The American colonists did not, for the most part, think that the Declaration of Independence dissolved the social contract, thereby reducing them to a state of nature. Neither did Locke think that the overthrow of a government, the breaking of society’s contract with government, destroyed the society hitherto governed under that contract: “He that will with any clearness speak of the Dissolution of Government, ought, in the first place to distinguish between the Dissolution of Society, and the Dissolution of the Government.”
Neither Locke nor Paine wished to contemplate the anarchy that would follow if the bonds of society depended on submission to government, as would be implied if the social contract and the contract between society and its government were one and the same. It was essential to their way of thinking that a society be considered capable of acting apart from government, in order to create and to limit government. Ayer, in his discussion of Locke, acknowledges on page 22 that Locke and Paine both insisted on “the distinction between society and government which is obliterated in Hobbes.” But on page 80 Locke has joined Hobbes in believing that government and society are inseparable, because “the same act brought them both into existence.” And twelve pages later Locke has been completely reversed to a belief in “society as the creature of government.”
Since Ayer apparently believes that Locke had a large influence on Paine and on both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, such confusion gives one pause. But in spite of his attention to “precursors,” Ayer does not really make much use of them as a clue to the meaning of the writings he analyzes. Instead, he assesses eighteenth-century statements as though they had been uttered today and measures their validity against his own views of the probable effect of their application.
Because Paine’s Common Sense was instrumental in precipitating the Declaration of Independence, Ayer begins with some comments on the famous preamble to that document. The assertion that “all men are created equal” is obviously fair game for demolition. He is willing to waive (but states) what is evidently his own view (and perhaps the only one open to a logical positivist), that “there is no good reason to believe that men are created at all,” and goes on to point out that the claim to original equality is “manifestly false” on the face of it. Fair enough. It is not hard to agree that “men and women enter the world with very different genetic endowments.” Jefferson must have known as much, so what could he have meant?
Ayer does not search Jefferson’s other writings to see what he might have meant. He does not consider the contemporary argument, started by Buffon and entered into vigorously by Jefferson, over separate creations and the equality or inequality of the different races occupying different continents. Nor does he consider the earlier demands of the colonists to be treated as the equals of the English. He does not weigh the arguments of Harrington (often reiterated in the 1770s and 1780s) for economic equality as the necessary condition for republican government. He does not refer to Locke’s characterization of the state of nature as a state of equality “without Subordination or Subjection.” He does not even turn to the echoes of these ideas in Paine’s Common Sense. Instead, he gives us his unsupported opinion that Jefferson was making “a plea for equality of opportunity.”
From here he is led back to “more radical theorists, Tom Paine among them,” who later argued against the inequities produced by inheritance, from here to the fruition of such theories in England after the Second World War, and thence finally to the presumed failure of the theories in the United States because in America “the spirit of charity has had to contend with the legacy of the Puritan belief that material poverty is a mark of God’s disfavour.” It might be interesting to apply mathematical logic to this last statement. But leaving aside spirits and legacies and the extent of American charity or lack thereof, one needs only scant knowledge of what Puritans actually had to say about both charity and poverty to recognize that Ayer’s knowledge of that subject is less than rudimentary.
The book goes on as it begins. Ayer gives us fair summaries of Paine’s writings, but his reactions to what Paine or any other historical figure said are less the product of the logic for which Ayer is rightly renowned than of random and often uninformed speculation about social or political consequences. As Paine, in The Rights of Man, defends the new French constitution against the British, Ayer weights the various provisions against his own views of what would be optimal. The provision for a more rational system of representation than that obtaining at the time in Britain he readily admits as desirable, but on the other hand holding elections for representatives as often as every two years “would surely lead, among other disadvantages, to a surfeit of electioneering” (a view, incidentally, which the Whig oligarchy of the eighteenth century heartily endorsed). The separation of the executive from the legislature that Paine argues for is subject to a similar objection, because “American politicians, operating under a system which was closer to satisfying Paine’s criteria, were notoriously more corrupt throughout the nineteenth century than members of the British House of Commons.” Really?
Ayer has not felt it necessary to determine whether biennial elections actually caused more electioneering where they existed (as in the United States) than septennial elections did in Britain (the citizens of Westminster could have told him something about electioneering under septennial elections); and the corruption of American politicians is sufficiently demonstrated for him by notoriety. But when Paine fails to distinguish the judiciary from the executive and to affirm the need for the judiciary’s independence, Ayer gives us a more detailed account of the dangers flowing from the American president’s power to appoint Supreme Court justices. In this case the author has extended the factual basis of his judgment, but scarcely by intensive research. For his discovery of the not very arcane fact that popular opposition induced Roosevelt to drop the attempt to pack the Court in the 1930s, Ayer tells us “I owe thanks to Professor Ronald Dworkin for this information.”
What can one say of such a book? About Thomas Paine’s life and opinions it tells us nothing that is not more readily available elsewhere. About Ayer’s reflections on various subjects suggested by his reading of Paine it tells us a great deal: Ayer on freedom of thought and speech, the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs, cigarette smoking, the Nuremberg trials, the House of Lords, the police, the welfare state, retributive punishment, euthanasia, Christianity, deism. We may find the relevance of these excursions dubious and the author’s familiarity with eighteenth-century history and thought deficient. And yet when all is said and done, the confrontation of a sharp twentieth-century mind with a passionate eighteenth-century one commands attention. It is perhaps unfair to confront Paine with arguments from events that he could not have foreseen, but in some matters the twentieth century can meet the eighteenth on common ground.
When Paine attacks Christianity in favor of deism, Ayer can forcefully argue that “the problem of evil is just as much a problem for deists as it is for Christians, at least so long as the deists believe, as Paine did, that their Supreme Being is wholly benevolent as well as all-powerful.” Acknowledging that “a case could be made for saying that the world would have been better off without Christianity,” Ayer, unencumbered by any religious belief at all, can fairly indict as unwarranted Paine’s assertion that Christianity “has never done any good at all.”
Ayer’s judgments, if often uninformed, are nonetheless trenchant. He never condescends to his subject. He meets Paine as an intellectual equal, giving no quarter and taking none, agreeing as often as he disagrees but never resorting to reductionism or ridicule. Even while chastising Paine for not thinking as Ayer does, he clearly admires Paine, and the reader winds up admiring his admiration. A strange book, yes, an exasperating book, but not a dull book.
April 13, 1989
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1960, 1964), pp. 45–66. Laslett’s arguments were first advanced in The Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. XII (1956), pp. 40–55. ↩