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Tom Paine's America

Tom Paine's America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic

Seth Cotlar
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Tom Paine's America
    Book Description:

    Tom Paine's Americaexplores the vibrant, transatlantic traffic in people, ideas, and texts that profoundly shaped American political debate in the 1790s. In 1789, when the Federal Constitution was ratified, "democracy" was a controversial term that very few Americans used to describe their new political system. That changed when the French Revolution-and the wave of democratic radicalism that it touched off around the Atlantic World-inspired a growing number of Americans to imagine and advocate for a wide range of political and social reforms that they proudly called "democratic."

    One of the figureheads of this new international movement was Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense. Although Paine spent the 1790s in Europe, his increasingly radical political writings from that decade were wildly popular in America. A cohort of democratic printers, newspaper editors, and booksellers stoked the fires of American politics by importing a flood of information and ideas from revolutionary Europe. Inspired by what they were learning from their contemporaries around the world, the evolving democratic opposition in America pushed their fellow citizens to consider a wide range of radical ideas regarding racial equality, economic justice, cosmopolitan conceptions of citizenship, and the construction of more literally democratic polities.

    In Europe such ideas quickly fell victim to a counter-Revolutionary backlash that defined Painite democracy as dangerous Jacobinism, and the story was much the same in America's late 1790s. The Democratic Party that won the national election of 1800 was, ironically, the beneficiary of this backlash; for they were able to position themselves as the advocates of a more moderate, safe vision of democracy that differentiated itself from the supposedly aristocratic Federalists to their right and the dangerously democratic Painite Jacobins to their left.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3106-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In the fall of 1802 America’s taverns, coffee houses, and newspapers buzzed with the news that Thomas Paine was sailing back across the Atlantic after his fifteen-year sojourn in revolutionary Europe. In Philadelphia, James Perhouse, a British merchant who was friends with the city’s leading Federalists, followed Paine’s story closely, even recording in his diary the newspaper accounts of that notorious Jacobin and infidel’s departure from Europe. Perhouse traveled to Baltimore so he could be there when Paine’s ship arrived, and he described the scene in a letter to his brother:

    News came, that the Ship London . . ....

  5. 1 Imagining a Nation of Politicians Political Printers and the Reader-Citizens of the 1790s
    (pp. 13-48)

    Virtually every European traveler in 1790’ s America was struck by two unusual features of the new nation’s culture: Americans were obsessive newspaper readers, and politics was all they wanted to talk about. From our twenty-first-century vantage point, such a state of affairs might look idyllic, but most eighteenth-century visitors were more annoyed than impressed by what the English aristocrat John Davis disdainfully referred to as the “loquacious imbecility” with which “the American talks of his government.”¹ The transplanted Frenchman Moreau de Saint-Méry, for example, found it infuriating that his American servants would “drop whatever [they were] doing to talk...

  6. 2 The Politics of Popular Cosmopolitanism
    (pp. 49-81)

    On 12 May 1796, middling lawyer and self-described democrat Tunis Wortman delivered a strikingly erudite speech to the mechanics and artisans of New York’s Tammany Society.¹ His thirty-one pageOration on the Influence of Social Institutions Upon Human Morals and Happinessinvoked almost every major European intellectual figure of his day: Joseph Priestley, “the acute and penetrating” William Godwin, Thomas Reid, John Jebb, Erasmus Darwin, William Paley, the “celebrated and unfortunate” British radical Joseph Gerrald, the transplanted American Joel Barlow, and, of course, Thomas Paine.² Wortman’s assumption that the tailors, printers, and shoemakers in his audience would nod with recognition...

  7. 3 Can a Citizen of the World Be a Citizen of the United States? The Reaction against Popular Cosmopolitanism
    (pp. 82-114)

    Until 1794 popular cosmopolitanism had drawn little critical attention in America’s public prints, but that quickly changed once the French Revolution took its turn toward mass violence and mainstream American support for the French cooled. Using events in France as their justification, American Federalists developed an increasingly coherent critique of popular cosmopolitanism. Deriding the “citizen of the world” as an unnatural and undesirable identity for the good American to adopt, Federalists recast previously uncontroversial practices as suspicious and even dangerous. They countered the idealized figure of the politically engaged, internationally minded artisan, mechanic, or farmer with its deviant mirror image...

  8. 4 Conceptualizing Equality in a Commercial Society Democratic Visions of Economic Justice
    (pp. 115-160)

    Delaware’s Robert Coram had a score to settle with the man he sarcastically referred to as “Doctor Blackstone.” In the middle of his 1791 treatise advocating a publicly funded system of universal education, Coram—a self-educated, thirty-year-old librarian, newspaper editor, amateur inventor, Revolutionary War veteran, anti-slavery activist, and schoolteacher from the small port town of Wilmington—devoted a thirty-page chapter (nearly one-third of the entire pamphlet) to a refutation of Sir William Blackstone’s theory of property. He began his attack with a long excerpt from Blackstone’sCommentaries on the Laws of England(1765–69) in which “the Doctor” admitted that...

  9. 5 “The General Will Is Always Good . . . But by What Sign Shall We Know It?” Debating the Role of the Public in a Representative Democracy
    (pp. 161-210)

    The general will is always good . . . but by what sign shall we know it?”¹ This question’s radical Enlightenment utopianism rings rather hollow for contemporary observers. Since 1797, the year in which the man who referred to himself as Citizen Richard Lee, first asked this question in his Philadelphia magazine, such appeals to the general will have rarely evoked visions of a more democratic future. Dictators from Napoleon to Pinochet have claimed to act on behalf of the general will, just as less insidious but equally cynical modern politicians have defended their every decision as the will of...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 211-214)

    In 1802 Thomas Paine returned to an America governed by a party that proudly embraced the name of “Democrat.” Paine expected a hero’s welcome upon his return. But as he was denied service in one Baltimore tavern after another, received in a curt and formal manner at the White House by his former ally Thomas Jefferson, and publicly humiliated in town after town as he traveled up the eastern seaboard, Paine slowly came to realize that he and his American admirers were perceived as an embarrassment by party leaders. In-deed, from the day Jefferson took office, the nation’s most powerful...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 215-250)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-264)
  13. Index
    (pp. 265-269)