The Aim and Meaning of Constitutions According to Thomas Paine

  • Maurizio Griffo


Very often Thomas Paine has been judged a polemist, a pamphleteer, a popularizer of other’s ideas much more than an original thinker. It is not difficult to enumerate several opinions from these angles. For Crane Brinton, “Paine belongs rather to history of opinion than to the history of thought.” More articulated but not less severe is the judgment of Harry Hayden Clark; in his opinion, “Thomas Paine was neither an original thinker not a creator of literature of high intrinsic value.” The tune does not change if we skip some decades forward in the historiography. For Joyce Appleby, “Paine was not a profound thinker.” Equally terse is Jack Fruchtman who confirms: “Thomas Paine was not a political philosopher.”1


Common Sense Interesting Subject Constitutional Theory French Revolution Legislative Power 
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  1. 1.
    The quotations respectively: Crane Brinton, Paine Thomas, in Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Dumas Malone (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1946), vol. XIV, 165; H. H. Clark, “Thomas Paine’s Relation to Voltaire and Rousseau,” Revue Anglo-Américaine (1932): 305; Joyce Appleby, Introduction to Thomas Paine: Common Sense and Other Writings (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005). Jack Fruchtman, Jr., Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994), 1. Against this interpretation see Gregory Claeys work, which underlines Paine’s originality: “much of his political and social thought was of his own creation.” Thomas Paine. Social and Political Thought (Boston, MA: Unwin Hymen, 1989), 104.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The subject of Paine’s constitutional ideas has not received much attention in the historiography. See J. J. Meng, “The Constitutional Theories of Thomas Paine,” The Review of Politics 8 (1946): 283–306, XXI.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Common Sense. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip Foner (New York: The Citadel Press, 1945), I, 37, 2 vols. [hereafter indicated as CW]). The italics are Paine’s.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    The pamphlet is entitled Four Letters on Interesting Subjects, published originally between May and July of 1776 and now reprinted in Thomas Paine, Common Sense and other Writings, ed. Gordon S. Wood, notes by George W. Boudreau (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), 59–80. The pamphlet is not signed, but Paine’s authorship has been proved by Alfred Owen Aldridge, Thomas Paine’s American Ideology (London-Toronto: Associated University Press, 1984), 219–239.Google Scholar
  5. 13.
    The argument of an aprioristic attitude, very often addressed to Paine, can be summarized in a judgment of Cecelia Kenyon, who wrote that Paine “was a rationalist of the purest type, and his reasoning was abstract, logical, and habitually dichotomous.” Cecelia M. Kenyon, “Where Paine Went Wrong,” published originally in 1951 in “The American Political Science Review” and now reprinted in the volume: Cecelia M. Kenyon, Men of Little Faith: Selected Writings, ed. Stanley Elkins, Eric McKitrick, and Leo Weinstein (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 205.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    One of the first scholars to stress the importance of the clause of revision in Paine’s constitutional thought has been W. A. Dunning, A History of Political Theories from Rousseau to Spencer (New York: MacMillan, 1920), 115.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    Cf. L. Gottschalk, Lafayette Between the American and the French Revolution (1783–1789) (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1950), 374–375. Gottschalk describes these reunions as “an informal seminar of political theory,” 374.Google Scholar
  8. 29.
    On this point cf. Jack Fruchtman Jr., Thomas Paine and the Religion of Nature (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 154.Google Scholar
  9. 30.
    The relationship of Paine’s thought with the thought of Locke has often been underlined by historiographers. See, e.g., Mark Philp, Paine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 60 and Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine. Social and Political Thought (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 104. For a recent and balanced assessment cf. Carinne Lounissi, La pensée politique de Thomas Paine en contexte. Théorie et pratique (Paris: Champion, 2012), 143–170.Google Scholar
  10. 31.
    The active collaboration of Paine in the draft of the constitution, prepared mostly by Condorcet, has been always underlined by the historiography, cf. Moncure Conway, The Life of Thomas Paine (1892), vol. 2 (London: Routledge/Thoemme Press, 1996), 37–38.Google Scholar
  11. 32.
    Plan of a Declaration, CW 2, 560. For the French text of the draft see Michel Verpeaux, Textes constitutionnels révolutionnaires français (Paris: Puf, 1998), 38.Google Scholar
  12. 33.
    For the circumstances of Paine’s narrow escape from the guillotine see his article, published in November 1802, To the Citizens of the United States. Letter III, CW II, 921; see also John. Keane, Tom Paine. A Political Life (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 413–414.Google Scholar
  13. 38.
    A classical assessment of the idea of party in the political culture of the eighteenth century can be found in Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems. A Framework for Analysis, Vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 3–13. It is interesting to observe that in his Farewell Address Washington repeatedly warns his fellow citizens against “the danger of Parties in the State.” The text of the address is in The Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History, 1775–1865, ed. John Grafton (New York: Dover, 2000), 54.Google Scholar

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© Maurizio Griffo 2016

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  • Maurizio Griffo

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