J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 06, 2012

The Paine of Mitt Romney

In his victory speech after the Florida Republican primary, Mitt Romney said:
Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses. In another era of American crisis, Thomas Paine is reported to have said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way!
We might ask how Romney and his speechwriters can reconcile their accusations that President Barack Obama has launched so many harmful programs with this claim that he’s “chosen to follow.” But consistency and accuracy have never been Romney’s values on the national stage.

Which makes using a spurious quotation quite appropriate. As BuzzFeed reported:
The quote is widely attributed to Paine online, but searching through his works [also easily done online] revealed that the quote doesn't appear in any of them. Fred Shapiro, editor of the authoritative Yale Book of Quotations published by Yale University Press, told BuzzFeed that “the notion that Thomas Paine said this is extremely ridiculous.”

“The diction and tone of ‘lead, follow, or get out of the way’ are, of course, far too modern to have been said by Thomas Paine,” Shapiro said.
Eighteenth-century prose is built on long sentences. Paine could actually be more pithy and direct than many of his contemporaries with his “These are the times that try men’s souls” opening to The American Crisis. That wasn’t his complete sentence, though; it’s just punctuated as such in more recent reprints.

Reading lots of eighteenth-century prose makes the differences between it and more recent writing, even nineteenth-century writing, immediately obvious. (Last week I saw someone tweeting a George Washington quotation that clanged so loud to me that I felt there had to be a mistake. I discovered that most websites attribute those words to George Washington Carver. Not that I’m sure they were his, either.)

As for the words Romney attributed to Paine, BuzzFeed went on to say:
A similar form of the quote—“push, pull, or get out of the way”—can be traced to a proverb dating back to 1909, according to Shapiro, who is the author of a forthcoming book on notable misquotes. And there is a newspaper mention of the quote from 1961, but it’s from the governor of Ohio. According to Paine biographer Craig Nelson, Paine “never said it. George Patton did.” (You can also find the quote attributed to Patton on the Internet).
Romney’s exploitation of Paine’s name raises two questions. First, anyone with the least familiarity with Thomas Paine knows that his radical ideas on politics and religion make a poor match for Romney as a politician. Paine wasn’t just a “Founding Father”; he was a radical on two continents.

Paine scholars like Ken Burchell and Harvey J. Kaye quickly pointed out the incongruity. William Scheick told BuzzFeed that Romney’s misquotation was:
another deplorable example of politicians distorting history to advance themselves and their shadowy supporters. . . . For me, that's the real story here—that Romney and his audience apparently have no clue to what a searing liberal freethinker Paine was.
Lily Kuo at Reuters and John Nichols at The Nation wondered why Romney would quote a radical who favored democratic revolution, social programs, and a breakdown of the church. So did Charlie Pierce at Esquire, with more exasperation.

For me the bigger issue is how Romney and his speechwriters introduced the quotation: “Thomas Paine is reported to have said…” They knew that attribution was dubious. They knew that the Republican frontrunner was probably going to repeat a falsehood, so they added some weasel words as protection. It’s one thing to repeat a lie you honestly believe; it’s another to repeat something that you suspect is a lie but want to exploit anyway. That detail suggests the Romney campaign is running on a pervasive level of dishonesty.

42 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great website but I wish you could leave contemporary politics out of it.

J. L. Bell said...

When contemporary politicians exploit Revolutionary history, that falls under this site's purview.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Bell and his setting the record straight. Contemporary politicians should not get a free pass in their attempts to exploit Revolutionary history. If a politician wants to quote someone from the time period covered by Mr. Bell's post it is not only fair to comment on whether the quote is in fact accurate or not, it is also the responsible thing to do.

John L. Smith said...

I also think there's a strong probability that between now and November, Romney may also invoke the scene of George Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge. Or maybe it was George Washington Carver...? Oh well, doesn't matter. The scene painted in voters' minds is most important.

Tyson said...

And this is partially why, as a registered Republican, I have no clue who I'll be voting for this Fall.

Daud said...

Conversely, contemporary politicians could leave revolutionary history out of it... but would they ever do that?

G. Lovely said...

Gee, I wonder if Mr. Romney will also embrace Paine's proposals in his pamphlet 'Agrarian Justice' for giving each citizen a lump sum of capital at the age of twenty-one drawn from fund created with estate taxes?

Timoteo said...

I guess I missed your blog when you corrected Barack Hussein Obama when he quoted the Declaration of Independence...

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,"

In fact he has done this at least two times and neither time you mentioned it...when contemporary politicians edit Revolutionary text, doesn't that fall under your site's purview?

Or does that only apply to non-liberal contemporary politicians?

Timoteo

J. L. Bell said...

Timoteo, you have zero credibility complaining about modern politics on this site. When was the last time you commented about anything else?

As for Obama’s paraphrasing of the Declaration, it's quite similar to paraphrasings by Presidents Reagan, Eisenhower, and Coolidge. I wonder why it bothers you so much to see this President say the same things as others.

Especially when it's clear that President Obama can quote the Declaration in other speeches when he wants to make it part of his text.

Pacificus said...

I'm not sure who these Paine biographers and scholars are that you mention, Mr. Bell, but I've read enough Paine biographies (in particular John Keane's "Tom Paine: A Political Life" and Eric Foner's "Tom Paine and Revolutionary America", as well as the short bios Gordon Wood has on Paine) and all his major works and most of his shorter works and publications, to know that claiming that Paine was a "searing liberal freethinker" is not correct and is not 100% truthful, assuming they mean "liberal" in the modern political sense. I've seen way too many Democratic and Progressive Liberals try to claim Paine as theirs (and Republicans as well), and quite frankly, it's embarrassing to see because Paine abhorred political parties in the modern sense, as did all his contemporaries (though according to John Keane, Paine ended up siding with Madison's and Jefferson's Republicans and their principles and policies on his return to America after his time in France). In addition, Paine was known to praise principles and policies that tend to fit what would be a much more "libertarian" and even "Conservative" thought today than what is called "liberal" and "progressive" today. Or in other words, Paine praised and wrote about principles that tend to span the political spectrum of today, with Paine's principles tending to slide more to the "right," more so than the left, if you will, if Libertarian thought can be said to be "right" of political center. Sure, Liberals like to claim Paine as theirs in pulling his support for a form of progressive taxation for monarchical and hereditary aristocratic England, where the gap between the rich and the poor was extremely large, especially since the aristocracy, including the king, owned all the land and did not have to work to make a living. And he also recommended such a tax system for England because at that time there was regressive taxation, where the poor had to pay consumption taxes that the rich could exempt themselves from and the rich, who controlled the Lords, which was the pillar that protected property in the words of Edmond Burke, could place low tax rates on property taxes, which the poor didn’t have to pay because they couldn’t own property due to the fact that it was all owned by the crown and aristocracy, and because they were too poor and bound by consumption taxes. But Paine never once in his works said America (let alone any other nation) should institute such a system. Indeed, his very words in "Rights of Man" seem to contradict his tax system for England, something which I've noticed of Paine:

"Excess and inequality of taxation, however disguised in the means, never fail to appear in their effects."

Paine writes so many things in "Rights of Man" and in other writings to praise equality before the law that he contradicts himself as soon as he suggests a progressive tax system for England. Indeed, Paine, during the revolutionary war in America proposed to levy a selective tax in Pennsylvania on Tories, so as to help fund the Continental Army. But then in 1793, Paine says the following in his address to the French National Assembly:

“"[h]e that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."

Cont...

Pacificus said...

Is levying a tax or a certain tax rate on certain portions of society based on some outward appearances guarding every one’s liberty and rights in addition to one’s own liberty and rights so the precedent doesn’t extend back to the oneself, as called for by Paine in the previous quote? I think logic and reason says no. If we don’t want to be taxed at a higher percentage rate that others or be the only portion of society that has a certain tax levied on us, then we should be levying them on others, because what we do to others sets a precedent that can reach back to us. Paine also praised a unicameral legislature in Common Sense, but then lauded a bicameral legislature when living in France, if I’m not mistaken in my remembrance of his writings.

But enough of Paine's contradictions of his own beliefs.

Foner’s chapter seven of his aforementioned book seem to indicate to me, as I would agree, that the readers of Paine's writings should not to jump to conclusions in thinking that Paine approved of the systems he recommended for certain countries in his writings to be used in every other nation, much less in America, where all of the reforms he sought in England and France had already been accomplished. There’s just simply no proof of this. The only exception might be the system outlined in Agrarian Justice, which I can’t remember if he called for this system world wide or only in France (its been a while since I have read it). The rights he championed were universal, but he never really said anything about the systems he suggested being universal. It seems to me

Foner writes:

“But the cause of this wretchedness [of the poor in England] was political, not economic: the existence of poverty implied that ‘something must be wrong in the system of government.’ Paine singled out oppressive taxation as the primary cause of poverty in Europe-another example of the destructive effects of excessive and unjust government. While he outlined a pioneering and far-reaching program of social welfare measures in The Rights of Man (measures which he never suggested needed to be applied in America), his primary remedy for economic injustices was the establishment of republican government.”

“Having made it clear that he was addressing himself to the laboring population, Paine asserted for the first time that to do away with poverty in Europe, [EUROPE, mind you] more was required than a simple transition to republican government.”

“Despite this solicitude for rights of property, the roots of the radical movement of the 1790s [in England] lay in economic and social grievances far deeper than existed in contemporary America.”

“It is symptomatic of the difference between America and British society at the end of the eighteenth century that Paine’s political ideas were commonplace in the former but outlawed in the latter. In America, the political demands of Paineite radicals hard largely been achieved by the 1790s and the social inequalities that inspired the English radical movement simply did not exist on the same scale (at least within white society). The ‘social chapter’ of The Rights of Man attracted virtually no comment in contemporary America; most Americans seemed to agree with Paine that it was not relevant to the New World.”

(Foner, Tom Paine And Revolutionary America, pg. 93-94, 218, 226, 232-33.)

Pacificus said...

Cont...


Indeed, it seems Paine recommended the English and the French mimic the American Revolution and its reforms, not the other way around, as some might like to believe.

Over the years, it has been subsequent American and other reformers of other nationalities that have sought reforms like Paine suggested for England and France, but nowhere did Paine recommend these reforms for other nations except those he wrote them for, for their specific conditions and circumstances. It has always been partisan reformers that have claimed Paine and tried to introduce his systems for other countries into America as if America’s current situations came/come even close to matching those of monarchical and aristocratic England or utterly devastated, revolutionary and then dictatorial France. To say that Paine is a “searing liberal freethinker” in the modern political and partisan sense of the term “liberal” is just simply not true and a thing that can’t be proved by Paine’s writings in and of themself. It requires a partisan reformer to take his ideas and apply them to America. Paine simply did not do so himself.

As for myself and my own beliefs concerning progressive and selective taxation, as well as social welfare programs in America, if the American people want to begin the social welfare programs designed for England and France by Paine, and want to design other social welfare programs as well, fine, so be it; I personally prefer to have no compulsion in the matter of forcing others to take care of others or be nice to others, and I feel teaching Americans to do so and letting them implement it in their own lives of their own accord without force of law is just and equal, the true notion of liberty. But if social welfare is what Americans want, then so be it. I don’t agree with it, and feel it makes mankind dependent on whoever is taken care of everything for him with little effort on his/her part. I believe in personal self-reliance as much as possible. Perhaps having a mix of both is the best, compromising route, like having a safety net like Social Security but reformed. But if these social welfare programs must be, establish them lawfully by amending the Constitution so that Congress has official authority instead of usurped authority to design and implement such programs and keep them going. And also require that everyone pay into the welfare systems according to their own individual and respective property and wealth, by everyone paying the same tax rate instead of this progressive nonsense. Both progressive and regressive taxation put the burden of taxation on one portion of society, which is unequal and unjust in nature. We all benefit from society in the protection of our rights, lives, liberty and property, so let us all pay into it as equally as possible, by every one paying the same tax rate.

You can read more of my views on progressive and selective taxation on my blog, “Liberty, Justice, and Equality Before the Law,” particularly by consulting the following link:
http://kumozarusan.blogspot.com/2011/02/legalized-monetary-discrimination.html

I love Paine and his writings and his political and philosophical principles, but there are a few things I disagree with him on and with those who champion his reforms for England and France and try to implement them here in America, namely the social welfare programs and progressive (and selective) taxation, in addition to some of his religious views in “The Age of Reason” (after all, I am a member of and firm believer in the LDS Church, so its only natural).

J. L. Bell said...

I’m puzzled, Pacificus, by your remark, “I'm not sure who these Paine biographers and scholars are that you mention.” I named Ken Burchell, Harvey J. Kaye, Craig Nelson, and William Scheick. Google any of those names, and you’ll find their writings about Thomas Paine.

The terms “liberal” and “conservative” have contested definitions today. Both wings of the American political spectrum inherit elements and ideals from the American founding, and both wings share some ideals with libertarianism. Furthermore, since Paine’s issues aren’t our issues, no one can claim sure or exclusive knowledge of how he would have responded to today’s political questions.

But we do know that on the eighteenth-century spectrum Paine was a radical, opposed to the social and economic system he grew up under in Britain and to what he saw as its remnants in America. We know he sought out places undergoing political change. We know that he expressed some of his most radical ideas in the area of religion, which alone would make Paine anathema to many of today’s American conservatives.

Paine wasn’t just a political philosopher but also a polemicist, office-holder, and organizer. And in those areas we know his methods. He sought to broaden political participation and to expand the powers of government. He wasn’t above using the power of the press to goad crowds into attacking his rivals. Any working politician knows that implementing ideals involves setting priorities and making compromises, and the practical application of ideas are as important in understanding a person’s politics as the abstract ideas themselves.

You appear to take certain statements as expressing Paine’s core beliefs while dismissing others as based only on particular national circumstances. Thus, you seem to conclude that Paine supported an equal-tax system even as you acknowledge that in America, Britain, and France he suggested using tax policies for political or social change.

I think you’re entitled to your interpretation, but other Paine historians and fans (and so far all the historians of Paine I've encountered also seem to be fans) see a more progressive figure.

Anonymous said...

Nor, did he famously quote, "God blank America."

But, which is worse? To mis-quote a Patriot or follow a traitor.

Maybe the next President can get God to bless America again ....

J. L. Bell said...

Anonymous, your comment doesn’t make enough sense to follow. You have to tell us who “he” refers to, and throwing around terms like “traitor” is unhelpful.

I don’t think any President “can get God to bless America again”; your approach suggests the President determines God’s actions, which reverses all the conceptions I’ve heard of.

As I’m sure you know, President Obama routinely ends his formal speeches, such as last month’s State of the Union address (P.D.F. download), with “may God bless the United States of America.”

Pacificus said...

"I’m puzzled, Pacificus, by your remark, “I'm not sure who these Paine biographers and scholars are that you mention.” I named Ken Burchell, Harvey J. Kaye, Craig Nelson, and William Scheick. Google any of those names, and you’ll find their writings about Thomas Paine."

What I meant was that I've never heard of them before, and I was puzzled why you named them instead of or not in addition to individuals like Keane and Foner, particularly Keane, who's been labeled Paine's most thorough biography by Gordon Wood. These are big names, but perhaps I'm not familiar with the field of history to know those you listed. I usually try to vet the historians I read by checking their names with other historians for reputation, and these I've never heard of, that's all. But, I'm not a professional historian, so that's probably why.

"You appear to take certain statements as expressing Paine’s core beliefs while dismissing others as based only on particular national circumstances. Thus, you seem to conclude that Paine supported an equal-tax system even as you acknowledge that in America, Britain, and France he suggested using tax policies for political or social change."

No, no; no such intention...unless of course his statements can indeed be reasonably seen to refer to generalities and other statements be reasonably seen to refer to certain systems based on national circumstances. This is only natural. Take, for example, the statement, "the rights of man." Paine wrote "Rights of Man" the tract in response to an English tract criticizing the French Revolution, done by Burke. He wrote it for the world in mind when he spoke of rights and the best system that would secure those rights, a republican form of government like that of the US, yet with the social systems laid out in the tract, it can be reasonably inferred that he had only England in mind. Back to my example; each time he used the phrase "the rights of man," he wasn't talking only about the British man, though he was writing primarily to and about England in the tract; rather, he was talking about all mankind. Yet when he devised his social program based on progressive taxation for England, it was with England and English circumstances in mind, and nowhere does he say such a system is intended for elsewhere, especially in America, which he says already respected the rights of man and achieved the reforms he was interested in. So in a way, yes I do take what Paine said and apply it generally to mankind, while at other times I take his statements and apply them solely to certain national circumstances. But I only do this where this can reasonably be done and indeed has been done, using the language and words of Paine.

Cont...

Pacificus said...

I also take Paine's words and see contradictions in them; and then I take those same words and apply them to how I would like to see things happen, even sometimes in contradiction to what Paine said, specifically concerning progressive taxation. I apply them further than Paine himself applies them, in certain cases, like his words on excessive and unequal taxation. I take his words and apply them in the reverse of how he applied them in regressive taxation. Perhaps I could do better at explaining I am taking Paine's words and applying them further than he did, or even in ways opposite he did, according to my own ideals. But I never claim Paine himself favored an equal tax rate system. But I do. And I believe his own words could be used to favor it, by applying them further than even Paine applied them. Perhaps I could do better at explaining this in my own tract I wrote on this issue.

I never claimed Paine used taxation to accomplish social change in America; I'm not aware of him doing so. Is there proof of this? He did of course do so in Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice though, as even Foner admits. But the only system that could be reasonably said to be applied by Paine to other nations is his system in Agrarian Justice, which he wrote in response to the world-wide acceptance and implementation of the private property system, denying new borns their natural inheritance. And in this tract, Paine did favor an equal tax rate system, especially one where all would receive benefits from it, even those who didn't need the benefits, namely the rich land owners. So in one tract, he's calling for an unequal tax system for England, while in another tract he's writing to France, but possibly the world as well, of a an equal rate tax system with equal benefits to all, while at another earlier time, he favored a tax levied solely on Tories. What seems somewhat likely to me, as a hypothesis, is that Paine changed his mind over time concerning taxation and using it for social change. But then again, perhaps not. He did change his mind on other issues as well over time, though. I guess we'll never know for sure. So, from what I've learned of my studies of Paine, he was not entirely consistent, or rather, he seemed to change his mind often.

I Hope that helps explain my position.

J. L. Bell said...

I cited four Paine scholars whom I’d seen comment on Mitt Romney’s spurious quotation. To my knowledge, Eric Foner and John Keane haven’t done so, so I had no reason to mention them.

I’m glad we agree that you’re selecting from Paine’s voluminous words to support your own political ideas. I just don’t think that one can do that and complain if another Paine researcher interprets his words and actions as showing he was “a searing liberal freethinker” or “a radical who favored democratic revolution, social programs, and a breakdown of the church.”

Trying to draw boundaries in Paine’s political thinking, to say that he advocated certain ideals for one country and not another, seems particularly odd given (a) the natural-rights ethos he championed, and (b) his international activity. He was among the most active of America’s Revolutionaries in exporting it as an example to the rest of mankind.

Todd Gardner said...

Unforunately, too many politicians see history as a tool to borrow from and use for self gain and quick sound bites. It's easy to do with an uneducated populace that is prime for manipulation. Real statesmen, on the othet hand, study history to learn from and plan for the future. Most of the founding fathers and many in the general population of the 18th and 19th centuries were far better read in history than any of our politicians and populace today. Such is an unfortunate commentary on many of our contemporary leaders who seem to want office for personal gain, ego and fame as opposed to self sacrifice, humility and service. Moreover, the "reality" driven general population seems satisfied with short snipets of minutae. God help us.

Pacificus said...

1.) There’s a strong difference between using Paine’s words to further one’s own political beliefs, especially where his words can be stretched further than he took them, and using his words to say he was “this type of person” or “that type of person,” especially to place modern day descriptive adjectives on the person you are quoting. I said I do the former, which I see no problem with; I do, as a more libertarian thinker, and Liberals and Conservatives and do so as well, taking their words and applying them to a particular policy or principle. Anyone, no matter their political beliefs, can reasonably do this. But when someone takes Paine’s words and starts using partisan descriptors to put him under a specific political label, like he’s a liberal progressive, or a communist or socialist, or a conservative republican, or a libertarian, etc. Saying he’s a radical is beyond dispute, and that’s not necessarily a partisan descriptor. That’s why I kind of asked, what do these biographers mean when they say “searing liberal free thinker.” Do they mean he’s liberal in today’s sense of the partisan word, or do they mean he’s liberal in the classical, more Lockean, 17th-18th century sense of the word? Obviously he was a Lockean believer in natural rights and natural law. That’s why I ask. I don’t see it as possible to say Paine is a Democrat or Republican, or he’s a flaming liberal or a stuffed-shirt conservative, in the partisan senses of those words today, etc. You can, but it turns me off immediately, especially if you’re a historian writing a historical piece of work or using your authority as a historian to do so. But that’s just me. I prefer facts from historians, not ideology.


2.) Again, I never claimed he advocated certain ideals for one country and not another. His ideals, particularly his notion of rights, span the entire globe, if not further; but the systems he proposes for establishing those rights or securing them, or in particular, instituting reform might differ according to nation. As already stated, the poverty of monarchical and hereditary aristocratic England and Europe was non-existent in America, both in Paine’s time and I’d personally add even today. The rights and ideals he advocated were already pretty much in existent in America, as was the system of government he espoused, viz a republican form. Thus, of course the systems he advocates for one nation to help secure those rights and fight the poverty of the nation will be different from other nations, because the circumstances of each nation is different. Such a system as proposed for England was simply not necessary for America, as Foner claims, given America’s egalitarianism and plethora or land and materials. So, yes a boundary can be drawn between rights and ideals, which are global, and systems of reform, which will be based on national circumstances. That’s what I’m arguing. Perhaps I was not clear enough in that. The one thing that was consistent with Paine is that no matter where he was, he advocated a republican form of government based off that of the US; that was his minimum standard. But to say that Paine was a flaming liberal progressive, in today’s modern partisan standards because he happened to support a progressive tax system to help fight off the rampant, extreme poverty caused by an oppressive and unjust system of government, and subsequently taxation of one nation is just untenable, but it’s something I’ve heard liberal progressives of today say, just as Romney and Republicans have tried to claim Paine as theirs because he supported a free, competitive market system of commerce and economy, and it’s something that bothers me. It would be like calling Adam Smith a Marxist or Karl Marx a Smithian Capitalist because both he and Marx advocated, or at least condoned a progressive tax system. There’s just too much difference between the two to be able to do that. One matching criterion doesn’t make something representative of a whole.

J. L. Bell said...

Pacificus, you objected to William Scheick’s phrase “searing liberal freethinker” only because you assumed that he was saying that Paine would have been a liberal in today’s political spectrum. Now you acknowledge that assumption isn’t necessarily valid.

An assumption is a weak foundation for declaring that Scheick “is not correct and is not 100% truthful.” Contrary to your latest comment, you didn’t ask what Scheick meant—you assumed and then criticized him based on that assumption.

Now you’re complaining about “when someone takes Paine’s words and starts using partisan descriptors to put him under a specific political label” without pointing to any examples. But here’s one. At first you wrote, “Paine was known to praise principles and policies that tend to fit what would be a much more ‘libertarian’ and even ‘Conservative’ thought today than what is called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ today.” How is that not "using partisan descriptors to put him under a specific political label” in today's politics?

I can’t help but think you were looking for something to object to in order to find a platform for your own ideas and your link.

I also disagree on the value of studying figures like Paine to discover what “kind of people” they were. “Kind of people” doesn't mean applying party labels. Trying to figure out what Paine would have thought about today’s political controversies has limited value; not only does he no longer have a vote, but everyone’s thinking is shaped by specific knowledge, circumstances, experiences, and alliances.

Rather, I see value in studying how Paine as a personality acted and reacted within his world. How did he respond to people in power, and how did he respond to having power himself? Where did he view force as valid? What role did he think faith in the unproven should play in public life? Where did he see the limits of a democracy's power over individuals? Saying he supported an American-style republic seems a bit vague since there were a lot of arguments, including many Paine was involved in, over what an American-style republic should be.

Pacificus said...

Mr. Bell wrote: "At first you wrote, 'Paine was known to praise principles and policies that tend to fit what would be a much more ‘libertarian’ and even ‘Conservative’ thought today than what is called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ today.' How is that not 'using partisan descriptors to put him under a specific political label' in today's politics?"

It's not what you indicate because there's a difference between saying Paine is a "searing liberal freethinker," putting the man himself under partisan descriptors, and saying his PRINCIPLES and IDEALS tend to match modern day "libertarian thought," etc. Can you see the difference? One's talking about the man himself and the other's talking about his principles, ignoring the man; and moreover, I'm not a historian (just an interested individual in Paine and American Revolution history, and almost always I enjoy your posts and find them informative), therefore, I'm not subject to my own criticism of historians being partisan in their historical works.

And if a historian is going to be partisan in his/her historical works or posts, he/she better have some good persuasive evidence to back his/her claim. And I saw no such proof coming from the biographers and historians quote by you, just a flat out statement as if it were fact. This brings us to our next topic:

You also wrote: "Now you’re complaining about 'when someone takes Paine’s words and starts using partisan descriptors to put him under a specific political label' without pointing to any examples."

No one's complaining; I'm merely conversing with you, expressing my concerns with the post. I feel I’ve been very civil.
But, in answer to your question, here's 3 examples, one from you, it seems, and the others from Mr. Scheick and Ms. Kuo:

1.) "Romney’s exploitation of Paine’s name raises two questions. First, anyone with the least familiarity with Thomas Paine knows that his radical ideas on politics and religion make a poor match for Romney as a politician."

2.) "William Scheick told BuzzFeed that Romney’s misquotation was:
another deplorable example of politicians distorting history to advance themselves and their shadowy supporters. . . . For me, that's the real story here—that Romney and his audience apparently have no clue to what a searing liberal freethinker Paine was. 3.)Lily Kuo at Reuters and John Nichols at The Nation wondered why Romney would quote a radical who favored democratic revolution, social programs, and a breakdown of the church."

Tell me, am I interpreting these wrong, in seeing all three of you historians claiming Romney shouldn't be citing Paine because he's a religious, conservative Republican and Paine fits more under a liberal, secular, Democratic Progressive banner? If so, then I apologize and will let the matter drop.

Pacificus said...

You yourself never give reasoning for your claim that Romney and Paine don't match, other than you seem to indicate their politics and religion don’t match. But where’s the proof in that? How is that so? How do you know that is the case? You merely stated they don't without giving evidence; and the reasons Ms. Kuo and Mr. Scheick seemed to give were not justified with examples as to how Romney doesn't match well with Paine, “who favored democratic revolution and social programs,” and who was a "searing liberal freethinker." How does Romney not favor democratic revolutions and social programs and how instead does Paine favor these where Romney doesn’t? Where's the evidence? They give none; they just say that's how it is, they never say why or how. That's why I'm not too trusting of them, thus far. They offer no proof to their audience, as neither do you, Mr. Bell, with all due respect. And furthermore, as a side note, it seems you and they don't understand "Mormonism" well enough to think Paine and Romney don't match together well on religious beliefs, as if they are dire opposites. I'm actually working on a tract (off and on) comparing and contrasting Paine's religious beliefs, as expressed in The Age of Reason and his personal correspondence concerning that tract, with the doctrines and teachings of Mormonism, and quite frankly, there's quite a bit of Mormonism and Paine’s Deism have in common, religiously, and even politically. As you already know, Paine wasn't an atheist. He was Deistic, true, but not your typical Deist either, at least according to what I have read. And Mormonism and Deism have quite a bit in common (indeed, there is much Mormonism has in common with other world religions as well), especially Paine's Deism, even though there are some stark differences as well. Some examples of things in common are the role of nature in proving the existence of God, and that God and science do not contradict each other, but rather God uses science to accomplish his aims, only in Mormon belief he uses scientific laws that man himself does not quite comprehend as of yet, hence they are seen as “miracles.” Both Paine and Mormonism had issues with the Bible and its many translations, though Mormons believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, whereas Paine does not. Mormonism lauds the freedom of religion that Paine lauded as well and that Paine wished to see present in the United States (during his time, many states still had establishments of religion, all religions tolerated, true, but some form of religion was established instead of no establishment of religion whatsoever). You would do well to read what Mormonism via the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, as well as general conference talks and other talks by Mormon leaders past and present have to say on the Constitution, the American Revolution, Liberty and rights, and so on. There's a pretty decent book out there called "Just and Holy Principles: Latter-Day Saint Readings on America and the Constitution," by Ralph C. Hancock. The copy I have hasn’t been edited the best, but the substance is there. You also might be interested in Joseph Smith's 1844 presidential campaign platform and what it has to say about America, the American Revolution, the Constitution, and rights and liberty. Another goo Mormon book to keep in mind while reading “The Age of Reason” is James E. Talmage’s “Articles of Faith,” as well as “The Great Apostasy.” Talmage addresses all the issues Paine has with the Bible.

Pacificus said...

I've been following your blog for quite a while now, and I've seen posts before, like this one, that tend to take a partisan, somewhat left leaning swing on things, so that is the reasoning behind the assumption I made. The reason I put in there that it was an assumption was a hint to get you to clarify what exactly Scheick meant by "liberal?" I thought my "indirect question" would be easily understood, but my mistake. Perhaps I should have asked flat out, "what does he mean by 'searing liberal freethinker'?" Does he mean what it sounds like, that Paine was a liberal Democrat/Progressive type that believed in things that conservative Republican Romney wouldn't accept? That how I interpret it, but I fully admit, my interpretation could be wrong, so that's why I brought it up.

No I didn’t seek a problem or confrontation just so I could post my link and my views. I saw the problem I had with your post first, explained it, then at the end, I threw in some of my beliefs and link as a related note. Please give me a little more credit than that, Mr. Bell.

And finally, I’m not sure where exactly you think I said my initial assumption on Scheick’s words was not valid. I don’t seem to find such an admission. It’s been a good discussion, but shall we call it a day, eh?

J. L. Bell said...

Pacificus, you write: “there's a difference between saying Paine is a 'searing liberal freethinker,' putting the man himself under partisan descriptors, and saying his PRINCIPLES and IDEALS tend to match modern day 'libertarian thought,' etc. Can you see the difference?”

No, I don't see a worthwhile difference between “liberal” as a “partisan descriptor” and the labels you used, which I must remind you included “Conservative” as well as “libertarian.“ And no, I don't see enough of a qualitative difference between saying that Paine was a “liberal freethinker” and saying that the ideas he expressed were either "liberal" or "libertarian" or anything else. A political writer is identified with the ideas he writes. A political actor is identified with the programs he supports and puts into practice.

You write, “No one's complaining.” But at first you wrote, “I've seen way too many Democratic and Progressive Liberals try to claim Paine as theirs…" How is that not a complaint? Writing that you see a lot of people trying to claim Paine would be an observation. Writing "way too many" is a complaint. Now you're back-pedaling, but you'd be better off acknowledging the plain meaning of your original comment.

You write, "I’m not sure where exactly you think I said my initial assumption on Scheick’s words was not valid." Your comment immediately preceding my observation included the question, "Do they [sic] mean he’s liberal in today’s sense of the partisan word, or do they mean he’s liberal in the classical, more Lockean, 17th-18th century sense of the word?" At first you assumed that Scheick must have meant the first. Later you acknowledged he could have meant the second, meaning that initial assumption was invalid.

Yes, if you were actually trying to ask what Scheick meant, you would have been best off posing a question instead of stating an assumption. And you would have been best off addressing that question to the person who made the statement. But I don't think your initial comment was really a question.

J. L. Bell said...

You now write, Pacificus, “am I interpreting these wrong, in seeing all three of you historians claiming Romney shouldn't be citing Paine because he's a religious, conservative Republican and Paine fits more under a liberal, secular, Democratic Progressive banner?"

My principal point was that Romney shouldn't cite Paine based on a falsehood which he and his staff knew was unreliable.

Please note that that's the first time I've used the word "shouldn't" or "should" on this page. Almost all the uses of those words here appear in your comments, not in the statements you're characterizing. (Scheick’s use of "deplorable" was also judgmental language, of course.)

Note also that the posting didn't identify Lily Kuo as a historian, and my later comment didn't list her among the four Paine scholars cited in it. You seek a distinction between historians and others—I don't see the value of that distinction, and even more so if it's applied inconsistently.

I wrote that Romney’s use of Paine "raises…questions," "makes a poor match," and produces an "incongruity." Not that he "shouldn't" do so—only that it looks odd to people who know more about Thomas Paine than that he was one of those guys back in the American Revolution.

I cited three Paine scholars and three journalists who had already expressed the same general thought, so I'm not alone in my view. (At this point, that's six more writers than have been named expressing an opinion that Paine is a good match for Romney's brand of conservativism.)

You say you haven't seen evidence for that incongruity, but I suspect you know perfectly well what it is.
1) Romney has been a major official within his church, and is seeking the votes of religious conservatives. Paine became notorious in the early republic for his writings against organized religion.
2) Romney's economic program would raise the tax burden on the poor and lower it on the rich. Paine wrote in favor of progressive taxation.
3) Romney's fiscal plans require cutting funding for social programs. Paine favored welfare programs to protect the poor.
4) Romney is the son of a major chief executive and governor. Paine had a lifelong distrust of the establishment and the elite. Whether or not he was right in that attitude, Paine did not look favorably on the eighteenth-century equivalents of Romney.

Paine, Romney, Obama, and most other American politicians share ideals of liberty and equality. Those alone aren't enough to make Paine a good match for Romney.

It doesn't surprise me that you're trying to reconcile Paine's writings with your church's teachings, but I think that says more about your faith than about Paine.

Timoteo said...

I hadn't realized you were blogging during the Reagan, Eisenhower and Coolidge administrations.

Four wrongs don't make a right.

And how do you know I haven't commented on your other blogs? Did the Founding Father's use the same nom de plume for everything they wrote in protest?

J. L. Bell said...

Again, Timoteo, the question is why you chose to complain about President Obama sometimes quoting phrases from the Declaration as if other Presidents hadn’t done the same thing.

The answer, of course, is that deceptive political media told you that was the outrage of the week, and you were too conditioned to consider the accuracy of that accusation before repeating it.

Apparently you wish folks to believe that you're now going to complain just as vociferously about Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Reagan. I'm skeptical, so you'll have to send us the link.

As for whether you've commented under other names but use "Timoteo" only to grouse about politics, that seems like something only a dishonest coward would do. So I guess it's plausible.

Pacificus said...

"No, I don't see a worthwhile difference between “liberal” as a “partisan descriptor” and the labels you used, which I must remind you included “Conservative” as well as “libertarian.“ And no, I don't see enough of a qualitative difference between saying that Paine was a “liberal freethinker” and saying that the ideas he expressed were either "liberal" or "libertarian" or anything else. A political writer is identified with the ideas he writes. A political actor is identified with the programs he supports and puts into practice."

Then you're not reading deep enough. The difference lies in saying his principles and ideals match up with current principles espoused by libertarians and conservatives, as well as with liberals of today, while not claiming he is Libertarian, Conservative, or Liberal, as opposed to making a blanket statement that he is a Liberal just because he happens to meet 2 requirements of Liberal Progressive thinkers today (namely he once supported progressive taxation for one nation and taxation for social programs). My principles and ideals don't put me under a partisan label, mainly because my principles happen to span the political spectrum, and thus I can't be put under one solid partisan label, but also because I choose not to put myself under one partisan label-thus I am registered as independent. But you can say that some of my principles and ideals match with those of Libertarians, Democrats, and Republicans, or fall under those labels. The difference lies between saying Paine espoused principles and ideals that could be deemed Libertarian, Liberal, and Conservative, maybe even all at once, and saying he was Liberal because he happened to hold some ideals in common with Liberals. But the fact that you don't see a "worthwhile difference" still admits you see a difference.

As for the difference between complaining and expressing a concerning, that's purely semantics. It seems to me you seem a bit touchy for some reason, and thus your touchiness rubs off on your interpretation of my or other people's comments, or rather, you read things into them that aren't actually there or intended to be there-that's the problem with written correspondence v. verbal, face to face correspondence. You see my posts as complaining while I see them as expressing concerns or issues I see in the original post, which I've seen done before, yes "way too many" times, and which bother me, but which I do not see myself as complaining about, but instead expressing concern about. Yes, there is a semantic difference between the two, in my mind. But I won't play the semantics game...though I am quite good at it; it was part of my professional training after all. I don't see myself as complaining, you do, enough said.

Pacificus said...

"Note also that the posting didn't identify Lily Kuo as a historian, and my later comment didn't list her among the four Paine scholars cited in it. You seek a distinction between historians and others—I don't see the value of that distinction, and even more so if it's applied inconsistently."

I will fully admit here that I didn't read carefully enough to see that Ms. Kuo wasn't a historian, and thus I confused her for a historian, I think because her citation, along with Scheick's came right after the two Paine scholars you mentioned. And you said earlier you cited 4 Paine scholars and now you say you cite 3 Paine scholars and 3 journalists, so you might be able to see my confusion. Thus, I thought too that Kuo and Scheick were also Paine scholars, an honest mistaken on my part, and I apologize for my confusion. Thus, I do not claim to make a distinction between historians and others, other than historians and scholars, who cite their professional status and use their authority to make a statement, are held to a higher expectation to use their authority responsibly. And historians and scholars using their authority as historians and scholars to make blanket statements without any evidence to back up a claim is not as forgivable as a regular joe making that mistake. The difference lies in professional status and education v. lack thereof. That's the only distinction I make between historians, scholars, and others.

"At first you assumed that Scheick must have meant the first. Later you acknowledged he could have meant the second, meaning that initial assumption was invalid."

No, my first assumption, which was meant as an indirect question or hint for you to describe what Scheick meant (if you could) was not made invalid because I admitted there's another possibility of interpretation. It merely means there's two possibilities of interpetation and meaning, and I made what I thought was a reasonable and educated assumption on one of the interpretations. Admitting a possible 2nd interpretation and asking you which one it is doesn't invalidate my first assumption. But, you warn of making assumptions and then you go and make 2 assumptions about me, ignoring your own warning, when you say:

"I can’t help but think you were looking for something to object to in order to find a platform for your own ideas and your link."

"It doesn't surprise me that you're trying to reconcile Paine's writings with your church's teachings, but I think that says more about your faith than about Paine."

I already addressed the former issue, but as to the latter, you don't know what my intentions are for my comparisons of Paine's religious beliefs of the LDS Church, nor did I say why I'm doing it. I merely stated that I'm working on it. So, please kindly don't try to tell me why I'm making certain decisions.

Pacificus said...

And finally, you still haven't answered my questions, first about what Scheick meant when he said "searing liberal freethinker." I also asked you to "Tell me, am I interpreting these wrong, in seeing all three of you historians claiming Romney shouldn't be citing Paine because he's a religious, conservative Republican and Paine fits more under a liberal, secular, Democratic Progressive banner?" What are your answers to these questions? Am I interpreting wrong?

Personally, I agree with anonymous at the beginning of these posts, that you should leave the partisan opinions out of the historical posts. Just state the facts, and if you must put your opinion in there, specify that it's merely your opinion. If you had kept to your primary purpose of the post to show that Romney got the quote wrong and wrongly attributed it to Paine, even when he and his speech writers knew they were wrong, then that would have been a perfectly fine and informative enough post. But adding partisan opinions in there just spoiled it for me.

Your reasons for why Paine and Romney don't go together will have to wait for another day; but suffice it to say, for now, that for someone who "had a lifelong distrust of the establishment and the elite" and who "did not look favorably on the eighteenth-century equivalents of Romney," Paine sure had a lot of friends and correspondence and interaction with people who met the standards of elite back in his day, namely George Washington, Robert Morris, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, not to mention British political and economic elite he often visited and corresponded with.

Vern said...

I'm really mystified by the reaction to a quote that boils down to "time to get tough" attributed to a historical figure most known for talking tough in the time of trial. It seems a harmless platitude so common to political discourse as to need little more than a side note of the kind "You know, technically, Paine never said that." We history buffs can all share a smirk and then move on.

More than his complex political positions, Paine is most known as a pamphleteer, a firebrand, someone who used harsh words to spur action. By injecting the "Paine is reported to have said" Romney was simply trying to evoke a founding father known for tough talk and uncompromising rhetoric (something Romney clearly lacks).

I think maybe in the desire not to let the modern political right "take over the founders" those who lean left have been conditioned to over react. But with a founder like Paine, as complex and hard to map to modern times as he is, I'm having a hard time getting rankled.

Anonymous said...

All criticism of President Obama stems from racism and nothing else. What a bunch of racist, cowards!

John L. Smith said...

To et. al.: I'd received for Christmas the Patrick Henry bio book "Lion of Liberty" by Harlow Giles Unger. I'm making my way through that, but could've used this l-o-n-g disertation galley as reading prep before starting the book. To all critical commentators on John Bell's blog: I know for a fact that he is UNbias to a fault, and will call a quote or story as fact, an untruth/myth, or will say the facts make the question impossible to draw a valid conclusion. He is fastidiously accurate and fair.

J. L. Bell said...

I disagree, Wednesday's Anonymous, that "All criticism of President Obama stems from racism." There are legitimate criticisms of his policies and methods from the right and the left, and on individual issues.

I do think racism is often a contributing factor when the criticism is (a) based on a double standard, applied differently to preceding Presidents, and/or (b) based on falsehoods.

I also think that calling people "cowards" when posting anonymously and untraceably is, well, cowardly.

J. L. Bell said...

Pacificus, you now seem to be basing your argument on the deployment of capital letters: "The difference lies in saying his principles and ideals match up with current principles espoused by libertarians and conservatives, as well as with liberals of today, while not claiming he is Libertarian, Conservative, or Liberal, as opposed to making a blanket statement that he is a Liberal just because he happens to meet 2 requirements of Liberal Progressive thinkers today."

However, the quotation from Michael Scheick that you complained about (to call it "raising a concern" is a distinction without a difference) didn't capitalize "liberal." Your first comment veered between capitalized and uncapitalized labels in an inconsistent way: "much more 'libertarian' and even 'Conservative' thought today than what is called 'liberal' and 'progressive' today."

You can't expect other people to guess what you were thinking but didn't write, much less to adopt your terminology and style sheet.

As to what Scheick meant in the sentence and a half that article quoted, I wonder why you're asking me. I can't read Scheick's mind, just as I can't read yours to figure out what words you meant to capitalize. I can see that the BuzzFeed quotation includes an ellipsis so we know that he had more to say.

I explained my four historical reasons for finding Thomas Paine to be a poor match for Mitt Romney. (There are plenty of other Founders for his speechwriters to choose.) Please note that I explicitly denied that we could extrapolate from Paine’s writing and actions where he would come down on today's political issues or alliances.

J. L. Bell said...

Pacificus said: "I think because her citation, along with Scheick's came right after the two Paine scholars you mentioned. And you said earlier you cited 4 Paine scholars and now you say you cite 3 Paine scholars and 3 journalists, so you might be able to see my confusion."

The confusion arose from not reading carefully. The posting contains the names of four Paine scholars: Nelson, Burchell, Kaye, and Scheick. It then cites three journalists, each identified by their news outlets, with links. Kuo was in the same sentence as another journalist.

Of the four Paine scholars named in the posting, only three addressed the incongruity of Romney's use of Paine. Nelson was cited for identifying the true source of the words Romney used.

That's why I accurately gave the names of four Paine scholars but cited only three who had already expressed opinions like mine. (Again, that's three more scholars than have been cited stating that Paine and Romney make a good match.)

J. L. Bell said...

Pacificus wrote: "you don't know what my intentions are for my comparisons of Paine's religious beliefs of the LDS Church."

Here's what Pacificus had written earlier: "I'm actually working on a tract (off and on) comparing and contrasting Paine's religious beliefs, as expressed in The Age of Reason and his personal correspondence concerning that tract, with the doctrines and teachings of Mormonism, and quite frankly, there's quite a bit of Mormonism and Paine’s Deism have in common, religiously, and even politically."

That sure looks like "trying to reconcile Paine's writings with [Pacificus's] church's teachings." If anyone else disagrees with my interpretation, please comment.

J. L. Bell said...

Vern, when speakers of any sort use a quotation, I think they're invoking the authority of the original speaker. That's why so many quotations end up being grafted onto famous people; the actual thought or expression is only part of the value, and the rest comes from the famous name.

By dropping the name of Thomas Paine into a major speech, Romney and his writers were using the authority derived from the fact that Paine is still a household name tied to the founding period.

Romney could have said, "There's an old saying: 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way.'" He could have said, "Back in the American Revolution, we learned that people had to lead, follow, or get out of the way." No one could have objected to those on historical grounds. The same with: "George Patton said something like, 'Lead, follow, or get out of the way.'"

But Romney and his staff clearly wanted to borrow the authority of a famous individual from the founding era. The quotation was more than a general message about "getting tough"; it was an invocation to historical authority, based on a falsehood. Furthermore, this wasn't a one-time offhand remark but a prepared speech after a primary win that people had expected for days.

Even so, I might not have posted about the remark, or would have written differently, if it weren't obvious that Romney and his staff knew this quotation was dubious. That fit what I see as a pattern in the way Romney is running for office.

Pacificus said...

"Pacificus, you now seem to be basing your argument on the deployment of capital letters:"

Actually, no, there's no such intention with the capital letters; that's just me not editing my posts to cross every "t" and dot every "i", to which meaning is still clear to a reasonable person. Mind you, this is blogspot, and we are discussing using the comment function, not participating in a professional symposium on Paine with other professional historians, therefore I feel no obligation to re-read through everything I wrote just to make sure I'm consistent in my capitalizations. I'm a fast typer, and I make typo mistakes like everyone else, and sometimes I miss them before posting. Nothing more, nothing less. If you see a difference between libertarian and Libertarian or the other words capitalized or uncapitalized inconsistently (to which I fully admit my errors in self-editing), then that's your freedom to do so. As for me being the author, though, I'm telling you now, there's no difference between the two in my writings. The only difference is grammatical, in how the words are used, as either adjectivally or nominally, and whether the indefinite article appears before the word or not (e.g. "he's libertarian" v. "he's a Libertarian"/he's liberal" v. " he's a Liberal," etc. You can easily replace all my caps with non-caps and still get the same meaning, because in neither of my original statements you quoted does the indefinite article appear; thus, I'm using the words adjectivally, with caps typos.

Rather, it seems to me more likely you are trying to divert attention and place emphasis on my written form now instead because you can't find anything in the substance to single out for criticism. I've seen typos in your posts before, so your not immune yourself, as is no one. Thus, I will pay no more attention to this attempt at criticism.

As for Paine scholars, I never claimed Paine and Romney make a good match, nor ever did I make that my dispute that they don't match. I merely commented on how you and the others claim they don't, but fail to give either reasons or evidence backing up the claim, and thus far did I criticize. Therefore, I feel no obligation to provide Paine scholars that indicate Paine and Romney are a good match because I never claimed they were a good match in the first place. Thus, this is a moot issue. But I will have you note that I did mention 3 Paine scholars myself, who I have not heard of making any comments whatsoever about Romney's gaffe and whether Paine and Romney and a good match, politically and religiously, and I wouldn't expect Keane to do so at all, due to his Australian nationality.

J. L. Bell said...

John Fea has kindly linked to this conversation at Patheos.

J. L. Bell said...

I wasn't pointing out typographical errors, Pacificus; I was trying to fathom your argument, and the latest iteration included a frequent use of capital letters that hadn't appeared before. Now you say (at great length) that I should disregard that style and recognize only your distinction between "liberal" as an adjective and "a liberal" as a political label.

However, the quotation that set off your first lengthy complaint was Michael Scheick's statement that Thomas Paine was "a searing liberal freethinker." He used the word "liberal" as an adjective. It was you who decided to complain about people calling Paine "a liberal" even though no one in the posting had done so.

Furthermore, your repeated complaint that people "fail to give evidence or reasons" for their views on Paine is a lie. The original posting listed reasons. Anyone can see them. Just because you've reached a different conclusion doesn't mean those reasons have become invisible.

Your latest comment has thus convinced me that it's been foolish to seek consistency or honest argument from you. In nearly every set of follow-up comments you've claimed that you said something other than what everyone can see you actually wrote, or that other people have not said something that everyone can see they actually did.