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Book Review from the Guardian
By Colin Kidd
Colin Kidd is a historian specialising in American and Scottish history, a professor of history at the University of St Andrews
Thomas Paine by JCD Clark review – a High Tory on the radical hero
JCD Clark is the veteran enfant terrible of English historical writing; now in his mid-60s, but still all petted lip, provocation and attention-seeking. A High Tory, Anglo-Catholic Little Englander, he has spent his career assaulting the central categories of the Whig-Liberal and Marxist versions of the English past. Clark identifies several moments of putrefaction in English history, such as EEC membership in 1973 and the Great Reform Act of 1832.His Tory traditionalism reaches back further even than that of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the so-called “Honourable Member for the 18th Century”; for Clark thinks the rot set in earlier still, during the late 17th century, at the not-so-Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the country unforgivably abandoned the divine right of kings for the curdled compromises of parliamentary monarchy. Unsurprisingly, Clark has accumulated a few enemies among historians, and he is extraordinarily lucky that his latest book has fallen into the hands of such an indulgent reviewer.Clark is based at the University of Kansas, but he addresses the reader, in the preface to his new book on the celebrated radical Thomas Paine, from his summer residence at Callaly Castle, Northumberland.
The in-your-face incongruity is almost certainly deliberate. Clark insists we view Paine the right way round, as an 18th-century deist critic of superstition and hereditary privilege. Indeed, he presents him as a semi-detached revolutionary who never quite got to grips with America in the 1770s or France in the 1790s, and whose ideas derived largely from the England of his youth, decades before the age of the Atlantic revolutions.Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737, the son of a Quaker father and Anglican mother. Clark dismisses the notion that Paine’s oppositional outlook owed much, if anything, to Quakerism, or to Protestant dissent more generally. Rather, he insists, Paine was a deist of an Anglican type, a free-thinking Anglican who came to rebel against revealed biblical Christianity, but continued to endorse the existence of God. Such figures were a prominent feature of English culture between the 1690s and 1730s. Denuded of the anachronistic foliage with which he comes garlanded, Clark’s Paine is “a retro-deist, not a proto-socialist”.
Nor was he ever an atheist or a secularist, though his religion veered from the tactical use of scripture in Common Sense (1776) to outright scoffing at the Bible in The Age of Reason (1794). As Clark notes, Paine’s political theory presupposed the existence of a creator. He argued for equality on theological grounds and conceived natural rights as “divine gifts”. Deism, argues Clark, underpinned Paine’s critique of the hereditary principle. He favoured a “moral corrective”, but was no prophet of wholesale “social transformation”.
There is no denying Clark’s erudition, and the first third or so of this book is ingenious and enthralling. He is at his best when he sets Paine’s politics in the peculiar context of the mid-18th century, when the central determinant of English political alignments was whether one took a Whiggish or Tory-Jacobite line on the events of 1688, when James II had been forced to abdicate. Paine, Clark contends, belongs to a culture of partisan dealignment, an age, for example, when Tories and dissident Whigs coalesced under the aegis of Bolingbroke’s ideas of “patriot kingship”. Clark traces various “pathways” by which figures from high church Tory-Jacobite backgrounds – including the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham
and the sceptic Edward Gibbon
– alighted on new idioms with which to express their estrangement from conventional Whiggish norms. Paine was, of course, not a Jacobite, but came under the influence of a disciple of Bolingbroke’s deistical Toryism, and his dislike of kingship took on pronounced anti-Hanoverian hues. Paine’s contribution to the American revolution comes into focus less as a creative contribution to republican ideas than as a rather different brand of anti-monarchical negativity.
Clark’s mission – mischievously parodying the socialist historian EP Thompson
– is to rescue Paine “from the enormous approbation of posterity”. Clark asks us to distinguish clearly the “usable Paines” so freely appropriated by later radical movements from the very different “historic Paine”, whose ideas are more often celebrated than carefully parsed. Much of this is sensible. It is sometimes difficult, however, for readers to distinguish between new insights and stale truisms repackaged as clarifications of points never seriously at issue.
He treats history polemically, delivering an unvarying sequence of penalty kicks against the supposed assumptions of radical historiography. But he is often shooting at an open, undefended goal. Which serious historian thinks Paine was a socialist, a cosmopolitan champion of the Enlightenment, a proponent of women’s emancipation or opponent of slavery? Clark’s is a sawdust revisionism: so many of his targets are straw men and Aunt Sallies.
Eventually the dull, repetitive thud of his sledgehammer becomes tiresome. The fascinating early sections on England apart, this is a laboured project. Something that had the makings of a sprightly and provocative essay, Clark’s natural métier, becomes in extended form a ponderously executed demolition job.
• Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution is published by Oxford University Press. To order a copy for £30 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.