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67 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Third Leg of the American Revolution: Edmund Burke vs. Thomas Paine, December 5, 2013
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This review is from: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Kindle Edition)
Author Yuval Levin sets out a lofty goal of explaining the right / left, conservative / liberal, Red State / Blue State political paradigm in the USA and other democracies:

Why, then, is there a left and a right in our politics? This book hopes to offer the beginning of an answer to that question. That beginning is both historical and philosophical, and so this book is, too.

The starting point of the book is the American Revolution, which had a dual nature.

It was partly a CONSERVATIVE revolution designed to strengthen property rights. The American Colonists wanted King George out of their hair so that they could settle the Trans-Appalachian West (which King George had forbidden the American Colonists to enter) and to trade with all of Europe, not just the British empire. Thus, American Conservatives may fairly claim to have inspired the American Revolution on the basis of wanting to assert their title of ownership over their land and to assert their right to trade with whoever they wanted to. George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were chief among this group.

Its other nature was as a Populist Revolt. Many of America's intellectuals saw the Revolution as a door to replacing the British Monarchy with representative, elected government. Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, and Patrick Henry took this view. Modern-day Liberals stake their claim to the Revolution on that basis.

From the time of our independence in 1783 until our first period of unification following the War of 1812, these Conservative and Liberal factions fought ferociously to assert their dominance, nearly wrecking the fledgling United States on the shoals of early civil war.

The Conservatives organized themselves as the Federalist Party, while the Liberals organized themselves first as the Anti-Federalists, which morphed into the Republican-Democratic Party. The Federalists' aim was to use the newfound power of the National Government to promote the interests of the northern commercial states. The Republican-Democrats' aim was to assert the rights of the agricultural Southern States to defy the numerically superior North. The Red State / Blue State war was on!

This was a turbulent time of Shay's Rebellion, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, The Quasi War with France, the Embargo Act, the "XYZ Affair," Jefferson's attempted purge of the Supreme Court, Marbury vs. Madison, the 1812 War with Britain, and the Hartford Convention.

The traditional protagonists in these struggles are Conservative Federalists Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington vs. Liberal Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson. Both factions eventually obtained most of what they wanted. The Conservatives got their strong national government dedicated to protecting property rights, while the Liberals got their democratic "power to the people" government that mattered to them. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson straddled enough of both sides to keep the United States from flying apart. This formative period ended in the 1820s when "The Era of Good Feeling" submerged the two original legs of our revolutionary stool into a love seat.

However, author Yuval Levin points out that there was a THIRD leg of this stool personified by Thomas Paine, who would be called a "Social Democrat" in today's politics. Paine believed that the Earth and everything on it belonged to Mankind in common, and that private property should therefore be taxed to provide relief to the landless poor. The modern-day Democratic Party follows his ideas of taxing private property to fund social welfare programs. The book ties in today's political parties with the three original factions of the American Revolution:

Federalist Party (Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton) + Democratic-Republicans (Thomas Jefferson) = Modern Republicans who are aligned with the capitalist interests of big-city industry and commerce and small-town farming.

Thomas Paine = Modern Democrats who are aligned with the interests of the less affluent laborers and farmers of marginal land.

The book brings Englishman Edmund Burke into the story as the establishment capitalist protagonist who knew Thomas Paine and debated him at length about the true nature of the American Revolution and the French Revolution that soon followed it. These are indeed the same sorts of debates that we have in the modern day Republican vs. Democratic parties.

The writing is lucid and brings Paine and Burke to life as human beings. It is laced with the immortal words of Thomas Paine:

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value."

My only complaint is that perhaps the book doesn't "set the table" in giving a lay reader enough historical background to fully understand the positions of Burke and Paine. If you're a lay reader you may profit by reading about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the leaders of the Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans. It also helps to know about the French Revolution, which became the knife edge that split American Conservatives and Liberals into warring factions soon after our own revolution.

That minor criticism aside, Levin has accomplished what he said he'd do at the beginning of the book when he promised to show us the origins of the right / left divide.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 5, 2013 12:39:13 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 5, 2013 1:12:17 PM PST
Historical context is everything.

A person would be entirely clueless about Paine's position if they didn't know this historical context: the Commons (as it relates to the Charter of the Forest, common law, the rights of Englishmen, and pre-Lockean land rights) and land enclosures (privatizing the benefits of public resources while externalizing the costs); populations being pushed from their homes and communities in the countryside and forced into concentrated cities where they experienced desperation and rampant disease; growing rates of unemployment, homelessness and poverty; protests and the formation of the first labor unions in London; starvation and food riots while the poor were being hung for simple crimes like stealing a loaf of bread; massive numbers of the destitute being imprisoned, put in workhouses and sold into indentured servitude; et cetera. All of that was what was the background to what was going on when Paine came of age.

Before Paine was a revolutionary, he was a civil servant of the British government seeking gradualist reform within the system. Understanding the historical context that made Paine a revolutionary would also help one understand why Burke transformed from a moderate progressive who supported revolution to a reactionary conservative who opposed revolution. It wasn't necessarily inevitable that these people would become who they became. Paine was no more inherently a revolutionary than Burke was inherently a reactionary. They were products of their times and of specific environments, especially large rigid class divisions with Paine coming from the working class and Burke coming from the upper class.

When Paine was growing up and becoming and adult in England, the government wasn't open to being reformed. If it had, Paine might have lived a long contented life as a civil servant. The British government only took reform seriously after it was humbled from its loss during the American Revolution. It is unfair and unreasonable to compare Paine's response to a reform-resistant pre-revolutionary British government and Burke's response to a reform-accepting post-revolutionary British government.

Unfortunately, Levin apparently (from what I can tell by my reading of his book so far) doesn't discuss this historical context and doesn't give evidence that he understands it.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 5, 2013 3:32:17 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 5, 2013 3:45:20 PM PST
Benjamin, that's exactly the way I felt too. Levin kept the book tightly focused on its one primary topic, but that tight focus precluded bringing in much background text to the discussion.

The book is ideal as a text for a course on the comparitive ideology of the American vs. French Revolutions (it's actually much more lucidly written that the typical academic text, and thus appeals to a lay audience too.)

The book did reinforce my knowledge of just how CONSERVATIVE was our American Revolution. Thomas Payne was no flaming socialist, but his very mild (for the time) ideas of taxing wealth and redistributing it amongst the poor must have seemed looney to the land-hungry and money-hungry Americans (and I'm not saying there's anything at all wrong with being land-hungry or money-hungry when you've just been awarded title to a million square miles of some of the best land on Earth, as the American Colonists obtained with independence!)

Payne was very much out of temper with the Conservative, ultra-capitalist amibitions of both the Federalists and Jefferson's Republicans. If I remember correctly he died in poverty and obscurity. But his words surely fired the hearts of American Partriots when it mattered most! Like many revolutionaries he flamed brightly when it came time to rally the people to arms, but then faded away in the Conservative period of governance that frequently follows revolutions. but times did change over the centuries in the direction he favored. Today he'd be considered to be neither revolutionary nor conservative, but right smack dab in the middle of centrist politics.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 5, 2013 5:27:30 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 5, 2013 5:28:15 PM PST
"The book is ideal as a text for a course on the comparitive ideology of the American vs. French Revolutions (it's actually much more lucidly written that the typical academic text, and thus appeals to a lay audience too.)"

I was thinking that this book would be make a decent introductory text. If you knew very little about both Burke and Paine, you would learn some important history from this book. Optimally, this book should be read with some other books about the Revolutionary Era, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, and the Enlightenment.

My sense of criticism comes from disappointed expectations. I'm very interested in these historical figures and that particular period. I've been waiting for this book to come out since earlier this year. I had built up expectations about a comparison of Burke and Paine. I've read many books about Paine and many books that discuss Burke, but I've never read a book that focused primarily on these two.

I can't blame the author for his failing to live up to my expectations. His purpose in writing this book was obviously different than my hopes in reading it. I'm still glad I read it and that it was written. I'll never begrudge anyone who introduces more people to these issues.

"The book did reinforce my knowledge of just how CONSERVATIVE was our American Revolution."

I would argue that it also had a strong radical streak beyond Paine. It originated as a more localized class war that began with the War of Regulation. The lower classes started the fighting over power in the colonies, but it was later co-opted by the more conservative-minded colonial elite. So, a distinction needs to be made between how it began and what it became.

There are many useful books that discuss the radicalism and/or liberalism (along with the populism) of the American Revolution. Offhand, here are some books that come to mind:

The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America
by Barbara Clark Smith

Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution
by Benjamin L. Carp

Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns
by Andreas Kalyvas

Whose American Revolution Was It?: Historians Interpret the Founding
Alfred F. Young and Gregory Nobles

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
by Woody Holton

Taming Democracy: "The People," the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution
by Terry Bouton

Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation
by Alfred F. Young, Ray Raphael, and Gary Nash

American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People
by T.H. Breen

The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage)
by Gordon S. Wood

The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution
by Thomas P. Slaughter

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 5, 2013 6:23:04 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 5, 2013 6:23:19 PM PST
Thank you so much for compiling this list! It is EXACTLY what I'm looking for to complete my education on the American Revolution.

I dabble in writing historical articles from time to time, and have written about the American Revolution, but my knowledge is far from complete.

Thanks again for putting this list together.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 6, 2013 12:52:14 PM PST
I was looking through my personal library last night. Some more books about the American Revolution that might be of interest are:

Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the Lower Sort during the American Revolution, For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s, Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought In the Early American Republic, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, Atlantic Cousins: Benjamin Franklin and His Visionary Friends, Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord, A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (New Press People's History), and The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution.

If you want to understand why the American Revolution began in North Carolina among the backcountry lower class, here are three books that cover this issue:

A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713, Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina, and Farming Dissenters: The Regulator Movement in Piedmont North Carolina.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 6, 2013 1:02:20 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 6, 2013 1:03:26 PM PST
Thanks again, this is an extremely comprehensive reading list. It looks interesting too. I noticed one of books has to do with the early Populist movements. I've written about the LATER populist movements in the 1880's and 1890's but did not know about their predecessors.

Your library looks to be as comprehensive as a major university library.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 6, 2013 1:30:53 PM PST
As I mentioned, some of the earlier history seems necessary in understanding the deeper shifts of previous centuries that led up to the revolutionary era.

If you wanted to learn more about the Charter of the Forest, I came across the topic in The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. The three books on the Enlightenment that I've enjoyed are A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, and Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment.

Related to Levin's book, I'd also add The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin which includes a good analysis of Burke. Another book I've been meaning to read is Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism which supposedly offers a more nuanced view of his influence.

Part of the problem I have with Levin's book is that I'm not sure how useful it is to place Burke in the position opposite of Paine in American politics. Burke wasn't an American nor did he want to be. He didn't express values or a vision that we modern Americans would consider as American. He was in favor of monarchy, aristocracy, rigid social hierarchies, a large anti-democratic government, etc. Even American conservatives wouldn't find his preferred society very desirable. In using Burke as the father of conservatism, American conservatives have been awkwardly forced to very carefully pick and choose the few nuggets of thought that can be forced into the American worldview while pretending the rest of Burke's writings didn't exist or are irrelevant.

Most American conservatives would find Paine more appealing than Burke. Paine's vision of America is the America we now live in. It is what we know. It is what we praise as being worthy. Few if any Americans would want to go back to a time before America fulfilled Paine's hope. Both American liberalism and conservatism more come from the likes of Paine than from Burke. Paine was an American. He defined what it meant to be an American. Burke will always be a foreigner, representing the British Empire our ancestors fought against. There is no way of getting around that.

I think it would be of more value to see American conservatism in terms of American culture, rather than harking back to an older unAmerican British culture. For example, I think a decent case is made for a genuinely American conservatism in The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution. What makes that portrayal of conservatism worthy in an American sense is the author's focus on John Dickinson. I would just consider him a moderate in the Mid-Atlantic Quaker tradition, but I understand why the author used him as an example of conservatism. In that book, without John Dickinson, it is hard to see what is worthy about this vision of American conservatism. Dickinson was a truly moral and principled man, the only founding father who inherited slaves and then freed them.

Dickinson would make a more interesting contrast to Paine. They were the two most influential American pamphlateers during the revolutionary era and among the most influential writers in the world at that time. Both were raised with Quaker values, but neither was a Quaker as an adult. Part of the reason for this is that neither had views in line with Quaker pacifism, although Dickinson was as close to pacifism as one can be without being one. Also, both lived in the Mid-Atlantic colonies which had a very specific culture of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. The Quakers preached tolerance, and along with other Quaker traditions formed the strains of moderate conservatism and moderate liberalism (that in particular define the Midwest). It was this Mid-Atlantic world that set the stage for some of the most radical thinking at that time, including the radicalness of moderation during revolutionary fervor.

I suspect the reason Dickinson and Paine were so influential as writers was because of their Quaker upbringings. Quakers taught a plain speech style that would have more spoken to the common person. Also, Quakers taught a love of truth and had one of the most radical histories among the colonists. Quakers lived as they preached and what they preached at that time challenged the status quo. Along with German Pietists and French Huguenots in the Quaker colony, this was the birthplace of the abolition movement and also a Quaker-style feminism such as the use of gender neutral language (as Dickinson used).

In the context of Levin's analysis of Burke, another great book to read is Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson. The author explains that Quakers distinguished natural rights from God-given rights, Quakers putting the emphasis on the latter. Burke. for different reasons, was wary of natural rights and instead put emphasis on the rights that came from tradition. Dickinson also favored tradition, arguing that Americans didn't need a new constitution since they already had an English constitution. They didn't need new rights but to defend the rights they already had as Englishmen. So, Dickinson seems like a better American version (i.e., more democratic) of what Burke was defending.

Posted on Dec 6, 2013 2:48:52 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 6, 2013 2:58:38 PM PST
There is an interesting connection between the radicalism of the Mid-Atlantic colonies and North Carolina. Quakers played a significant role in these communities. With North Carolina, Quakers were heavily involved with the government there when the Anglican aristocrats sought to seize power back. The War of Regulation was a fight over the right to self-governance that led to bloody revolt at the Battle of Alamance.

At one time, there were a fair number of Quakers in the Upper South, but eventually local oppression and general unfriendliness drove most of them to join their fellow Quakers in the North. Their tendency toward abolitionism and other radical positions made them increasingly unwelcome. But during the Revolutionary Era, the Quakers were major players in the Upper South.

Since you're so interested in American history of that period, below are some blog posts I wrote. The first discusses Dickinson and Paine among other things. The other two mention Dickinson and Paine in the context of cultures and ideologies.

Something I focus on a lot in my readings and writings is that of regional cultures. The Mid-Atlantic Quakers represent one of these cultures that later spread across the Midwest. I'm a born Midwesterner who spent many years in the South. Most of my family came to America in the Middle Colonies, including Pennsylvania, with many ending up in North Carolina before heading West. This relates to my interest in the Quakers, Dickinson and Paine. I'm a Midwestern moderate at heart, but with strong sympathies for Mid-Atlantic principled radicalism.

I've written about all of this many times:

In the end, I find this kind of regional cultural analysis more compelling than the Great Man theory focus of books such as The Great Debate. The reason why Paine resonates with us Americans in a way that Burke doesn't is because Paine comes from a British culture of Quakerism that became very well established and influential in American society. When Paine arrived, he found a Philadelphia society that already resonated with his own values and worldview. There were also those of Scottish ethnicity like Burke, but they never formed their own regional culture for in America they neither were a majority nor a political elite.

Better books for understanding why American ideologies and social/political traditions developed as they did would be the following (I won't even try to link them all):

Albion's Seed (and other books by David Hackett Fischer), American Nations (and other books by Colin Woodard), The Peopling of British North America (and other books by Bernard Bailyn), Normans and Saxons, Cousins' War, and Crossroads of Empire.

To understand the Northern and Middle Colonies:

The Island at the Center of the World, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, The Trial of Frederick Eberle, From a Far Country, Religion and Profit, Peacable Kingdom Lost, Walking in the Way of Peace, Quakers and the American Family, Town Born, Wandering Souls, Victorian Noncomformity, Making Heretics, Puritans and Adventurers, A Reforming People, Puritanism & Revolution, A Harmony of Spirits, Errands into the Wilderness, Errands into the Metropolis, New England's Generation, A Republic of Mind and Spirit, and the Pennsylvania Associators.

To understand the Southern Colonies and some of the Backcountry:

Wellspring of Liberty, From Ulster to Carolina, The People With No Name, Deer Hunting with Jesus, White People, Indians and Highlanders, Southern Honor, Culture of Honor, No Duty to Retreat, Bluegrass Renaissance, The First Frontier, Kentucke's Frontier, Masters of Small Worlds, Southern Sons, and Black Majority.


The American Jeremiad, and The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America.

To include the British, Canadian, Loyalist and Hessian perspective of the American Revolution:

The Battle of the Fourteenth Colony, Shadow Soldiers of the American Revolution, The Loyal Atlantic, Tory Insurgents, Black Patriots and Loyalists, Choosing Sides, Unnatural Rebellion, Hope Restored, The Loyalists: Revolution Exile Settlement, Soldiers for Sale, A Generous and Merciful Enemy, British Soldiers American War, and The Internal Enemy.

For a broader view:

Revolutions in the Atlantic, Empires of the Atlantic, and At the Crossroads.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 9, 2013 4:09:32 PM PST
WindowPane says:
Thank you for a lucid and fascinating enumeration of ideas and books.


In reply to an earlier post on Dec 15, 2013 5:42:59 PM PST
Ard Fhaidh says:
Hello Mr. Sewell:

There are three books I would recommend for you. Two were written by a highly respected Irish diplomat and historian and one that was recommended to me personally by a respected English historian:

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke

The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800

According to O'Brien, America won its war of Independence because Burke forced King George III to surrender and accept American independence.

The third is:
God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
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