Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 4, 2009

A Fourth of July in Paine

Filed under: Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:33 am

I am hoping the title of this post is only a pun. Here in America’s sixth freest state, the Fourth is something of a free-fire zone, and my boys and I are not immune to the charms of “blowing stuff up” (as Owen likes to put it). We almost always attend a public fireworks show in Weston, MO (my parents’ place of residence), where the big stuff is detonated literally on the other side of a high school football field from the place you sit. It’s all pretty awesome, until someone gets hurt, so wish us luck.

The Paine of the title refers to what appears to be the new, inadvertent Common-Place tradition of celebrating American Independence by bringing up perhaps the only true revolutionary among the front-line Founders, Thomas Paine. (One of the things I like about Paine is that he was far too dodgy a character to ever have the term “Founding Father” comfortably applied to him. Paternal he was not.) A little bit less than a year ago, I did a a post about unwelcome interventions in presidential elections that included a discussion and the text of Paine’s infamous open letter dissing George Washington. Now I see that the just-released July issue of Common-Place proper features a most welcome forum on Paine. In addition to an article by the great J.M. (Jason) Opal of McGill University, the forum includes two other articles from presenters at the conference on Paine that immediate past C-P editor Ed Gray and I attended in Milan last October: Matteo Battistini out of University of Bologna and Nathalie Caron, coeditor of one of France’s leading scholarly journals on American history and culture, the Revue française d’études américaines.The whole forum is well worth the time of any reader who wants something more substantive than Founder-worship and gunpowder for their Fourth of July delectation.

The Paine forum also seems like the opportune moment to foist upon the nets my own contribution to the Milan conference, entitled “Thomas Paine and the U.S. Election of 1796: In which it is discovered that George Washington was more popular than Jesus”. Some of this material will doubtless end up in the book I am writing on that first contested presidential election, but given space considerations and the high time-benefit ratio that would be involved in making a full journal article of this piece, I am going to present it here in only slightly revised form, just enough to fill a couple of gaps and make it flow better in written form. There are footnotes, but light by my standards, and just to take advantage of the digital medium, I have included a couple of primary sources in the .pdf. My hope is that readers in the comfort of their own web-surfing spots will get more out of it than I suspect the room full of Italian undergraduates did in Milan that day.

Readers should feel free to comment on my article or the Paine forum more generally in this post’s comment thread.
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5 Comments »

  1. 1. Thank you for posting on a subject other than the Alaskan Anger Bear.

    2. As a foil to your argument about Tom Paine, George Washington, and Jesus, you might glance at Jay Smith’s article “Tom Paine and the AGE OF REASON’s Attack on the Bible,” which appeared in THE HISTORIAN, Vol 58 (1996), No. 4.

    3. In the “sauce for the goose” department, it may be worth noting that while Federalist newspaper editors tried to read Paine out of the American political nation, Paine himself had publically accused Jay and Adams (“the disguised traitors that call themselves federalists,” per the document on p.16) of treason against the republic and crimes against nature. The tendency to define one’s political opponents as cultural deviants wasn’t confined to one particular party in the 1790s.

    4. Finally, and slightly off topic, will your book on the 1796 election address the Congressional debate over Tennessee statehood, insofar as that issue was related to the presidential contest?

    Comment by David Nichols — July 4, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  2. I survived the blowing up of things and back-to-back master’s thesis defenses this morning, and now turn to answering David N.’s excellent comment:

    1. Thanks, that was a conscious decision.

    2. I will look up said article.

    3. True, but the point I wanted to make was about reading out by association. In others, using Paine’s deviance to make the publicly rather moderate Jefferson seem deviant, as with Ayers/Wright and Obama. I am not sure I see the D-Rs doing that in the 1790s: they called Hamilton, Adams, Jay, and such, monarchists and traitors directly. Not that that is any better, just not what I was talking about.

    4. I am working on the Tennessee statehood debate right now, in fact, or will next up. If you have any source tips besides the Annals of Congress and the handful of old TN journal articles I have found, please share.

    Comment by Jeff Pasley — July 7, 2009 @ 1:11 am

  3. On #3, point taken. On #4: Michael Allen’s article “The Federalists and the West,
    1783-1803″ (WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA HISTORICAL MAGAZINE 61 [Oct. 1978]:315-332) places
    the Tennessee statehood debate in the context of Federalist frontier “restrictionism”.
    Andrew Cayton’s articles “‘Separate Interests’ and the Nation-State” (JOURNAL OF
    AMERICAN HISTORY 79 [June 1992]:39-67) and “‘When Shall We Cease to Have Judases?’”
    (in Ronald Hoffman and Peter Albert, eds., LAUNCHING THE EXTENDED REPUBLIC
    [Charlottesville, 1997], 156-189) examine the sources of Tennesseans’ antipathy
    toward the federal government in general and the Washington administration
    specifically. (Five-word summary of both articles: “It’s all about Indian policy.”)
    Also useful on this subject is Chapter 6 of John Finger’s TENNESSEE FRONTIERS
    (Bloomington, 2001).

    Comment by Dave Nichols — July 7, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

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