Thomas Paine and the Promise of America Summary

Harvey J. Kaye

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America

Historian Harvey J. Kaye believes Thomas Paine has not been treated well by Americans during the past two centuries. Though many can quote snippets from his famous political tracts, those who adhere to a conservative ideology have attacked him for his radical ideas about democracy and his advocacy of revolution to bring about social change. In Thomas Paine and the Promise of America Kaye demonstrates that, despite efforts to curb his influence by conservatives of virtually every generation since the 1790's, Paine has been a spiritual father to most of America's liberal movements.

After providing a brief sketch of Paine's career, Kaye focuses on ways his reputation was shaped, initially by men like John Adams who despised him, then later by those inspired by his ideas about true democracy. Kaye numbers among the latter group several early feminists and abolitionists, members of the Transcendental movement including Ralph Waldo Emerson, writers such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, and a number of politicians including Abraham Lincoln. In the twentieth century Republican Theodore Roosevelt vilified him; Democrat Woodrow Wilson borrowed from him without acknowledgment; and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt celebrated him, citing his work to rally Americans during World War II. Ironically, Kaye notes, the last president to speak of Paine openly was the conservative Ronald Reagan, who used Paine's words to call for a new beginning in America in 1980.

Kaye argues that, while conservatives may quote Paine to suit their purposes, the real inheritors of Paine's ideology are America's liberals. Making his own position clear, Kaye provides a thumbnail sketch of American political history from 1776 to 2005 by celebrating the liberal tradition in American politics, exhibited by various organizations and political parties that focused on the importance of the individual whose rights as a citizen were the foundation of Paine's political philosophy. While Kaye can be tendentious at times, his engaging prose style and his ability to weave in hundreds of sources without bogging down his narrative combine to make this an enlightening and thought provoking study of one of America's Founding Fathers.