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Contest Essay

War, Peace, and Commerce in the Ideology of Tom Paine


First Prize ($2,500)

No person figures more prominently in the ideology of early American foreign relations than Tom Paine.[1] According to Felix Gilbert, “For a long time” after the publication of Common Sense in January 1776, “every utterance on foreign policy starts with Paine’s words and echoes his thoughts.” Michael Howard asserts that, after the publication of Rights of Man in 1791-92, “virtually every liberal or socialist who has written about foreign policy since then has been able to provide little more than an echo” to Paine’s philippic on revolutionary internationalism and the domestic sources of foreign policy and war. Paine shaped not only the elite ideology that diplomatic historians have traditionally examined; he wrote The Crisis, Common Sense, and Rights of Man—the latter two arguably the most momentous publications of the age—primarily to influence the way ordinary people thought about international relations and war.[2] Considering his significance, it is surprising that Paine’s views on international relations have not been more thoroughly explored by his biographers and historians concerned with early American ideology.[3]

Isaac Kramnick describes Paine as a “vintage liberal,” what we might more commonly call a classical liberal. Paine envisioned a self-ordering, commercial society consisting of largely self-interested individuals. Government’s role was to merely preside over these clashing interests; it held little positive role in promoting virtue. Paine attributes social order not primarily to government but to the “mutual and reciprocal interest” of individuals in society. Government was the enemy of order, not its guarantor; “riots and tumults” did not proceed from the want of a government. Instead, “government itself was the generating cause; instead of consolidating society, it divided it; it deprived it of its natural cohesion, and engendered discontents and disorders, which otherwise would not have existed.”[4] He claimed that during the American Revolution “there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defense, to employ its attention to establishing new governments; yet during this interval, order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe.” In this spontaneous order, virtue was highly desirable, but not necessary for civil peace. The danger to order came not from individuals bereft of virtue, but from excessive governmental power. Because liberal governments would have minimal coercive power, it was not crucial that their politicians be virtuous.[5]

Paine’s enthusiasm for international trade surfaces in his first significant essay, Common Sense, where he asserts that “because it is in the interest of all Europe to have America a free port,” a foreign policy based on commerce would secure her “the peace and friendship” of the continent. Independence would allow America to break free from mercantilistic restrictions and “shake hands with the world—live at peace with the world—and trade to any market” that would have her. Paine saw little contradiction between virtue and commerce; each supported the other. Commerce itself was virtuous because it was mutually beneficial and contributed to the wealth of nations. Increased wealth in a liberal republic would help protect it from internal counterrevolution and strengthen its defenses against the predations of despotic powers.[6]

Commerce would not only strengthen liberal republics internally, it would also serve their interests by transforming the international milieu. International trade would “temper the human mind,” help peoples “to know and understand each other,” and have a “civilizing effect” on all who participated in it. Commerce would encourage peace by drawing the world together into mutual dependency; the greater the amount of international trade, the lesser the likelihood of war. Because consumer goods “cannot be procured by war so cheaply or so commodiously as by commerce,” liberal republics would avoid war because “war never can be in the interest of a trading nation.” Commerce was a “pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other.” Contrary to mercantilist doctrine, Paine insisted that any lessening of commerce through war harms every nation involved regardless of where the reduction occurs, for when governments make war, “the attack is made upon the common stock of commerce, and the consequence is the same as if each had attacked his own.” Its salutary effects were potentially tremendous, because “if commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.”[7]

The foundation of Paine’s thinking on international relations was his belief that humankind could be grouped into two distinct classes. The first entity, which Paine labeled “society,” consisted of the “productive classes,” which included laborers, farmers, artisans, small merchants, and manufacturers not holding government-chartered monopolies. The second entity, which he labeled “the state,” consisted of what he referred to as the “plundering classes,” those who used state power to live off the productive classes through high taxation. This minority included government officials, standing armies, blue-water navies, aristocrats, established clergy, and holders of government-chartered monopolies. The dynamic of history was the conflict between these “two classes of men in the nation, those who pay taxes, and those who receive and live upon them”: the struggle for supremacy between society and state.[8]

In Paine’s view, most warfare was essentially this conflict writ large. In part, war was an attempt by the plundering classes to increase revenue through the conquest of territories containing exploitable productive classes. In addition, it was an attempt by the plundering classes to distract their own productive classes from the abuses of government, for war served to “prevent people from looking into the defects and abuses of government.” Government encouraged national chauvinism because “it will have no excuse for its enormous revenue and taxation, except it can prove that, somewhere or another, it has enemies.” Most importantly, war was an attempt by the plundering classes to increase taxation in the territories already under their control by creating a crisis in which national humiliation or annihilation might result from resistance to tax increases. Paine asserted that “war is the common harvest of all those who participate in the division and expenditure of public money, in all countries. It is the art of conquering at home: the object of it is an increase of revenue; and as revenue cannot be increased without taxes, a pretense must be made for expenditures.” In other words, “Taxes were not raised to carry on wars, wars were raised to carry on taxes”: The plundering classes who live on taxation promote war to raise revenue.[9]

In contrast to the plundering classes, war harms the productive classes because they “must all pay towards the expense” and gain none of the benefits. Successful wars of conquest do not lessen taxes; on the contrary, society is “taxed to pay for the charge of making them, and has not the same been the case in every war?” The plundering classes may “fatten on the folly of one country and the spoils of another; and, between their plunder and their prey, may go home rich. But the case is very different with the laboring farmer, the working tradesman, and the necessitous poor in England, the sweat of whose brow goes day after day to feed, in prodigality and sloth,” the army that “plunders” the productive classes on all sides of international conflicts.[10]

Paine, therefore, saw war as a system of exploitation. The “predatory classes” used state power to live off the “productive classes,” the multitudes who labor at the base of the social pyramid. States were wedded to “a continual system of war and extortion.”[11] The plundering classes’ thirst for taxation meant that perpetual war was the fate of societies dominated by the state.

Though he opposed warfare calculated to benefit the interests of states, Paine sanctioned warfare intended to liberate societies from the domination of states he considered oppressive. It was necessary, for instance, for society to protect itself from the predations of invading states or invasive colonial restrictions. Also acceptable were civil wars in which societies attempt to free themselves from oppressive rulers; that is why Rights of Man was directed toward the British masses, and that is why that manifesto occasioned the British government to successfully try and convict Paine in absentia for treason.[12]

Although he advocated civil wars of national liberation against despotic governments, he felt that it would be immoral for liberal republics to intervene into such conflicts. While a prominent figure in French politics, Paine usually opposed the nation’s expansionist warfare. Writing to Danton, he lamented that because France’s foreign policy paid “so little attention to moral principles” it served to “injure the character of the Revolution and discourage the progress of liberty all over the world.” France had missed a chance to spread liberalism through moral example. “Had this Revolution been conducted consistently with its principles,” Paine wrote Jefferson in 1793, “there was once a good prospect of extending liberty throughout the greatest part of Europe; but now I relinquish that hope. Should the enemy by venturing into France put themselves again in a condition of being captured, the hope will revive; but this is a risk that I do not wish to see tried, lest it should fail.” If the defense of liberalism inspired the nations of invading states to overthrow their rulers and institute liberal republics, that was to be applauded, but wars of conquest generally were not.[13]

Such warfare was also ultimately unnecessary, for the productive classes would eventually recognize their interests and become courageous enough (in part by reading Rights of Man, which Paine, with his usual modesty, thought “could take the place of all the books in the world”) to overthrow despotic states and institute liberal republics. America’s revolution was not merely a separation from England; it was a “new era for politics,” a “new method of thinking.” America had “made a stand, not for herself only, but for the world, and looked beyond the advantages she herself could receive.” The cause of America was “in great measure the cause of all mankind,” and its significance would affect “the principles of all lovers of mankind” and posterity until “the end of time.” It was the beginning of the end for the old regimes, for the American Revolution began a new world order that by 1789 had extended to France and would travel from there to England and then outward from this North Atlantic core. Once liberal republics had been introduced to the world, “all attempts to oppose their progress will in the end be fruitless.”[14]

Accordingly, Paine envisioned his new world order as arising not through aggressive warfare on the part of liberal republics, but rather from the attraction that he believed liberalism held for ordinary people. The liberal idea was supposedly more powerful than arms, for an idea “will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fail; it is neither the Rhine, the Channel, nor the ocean that can arrest its progress: it will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.” Having conquered, liberal societies would trade freely, lower taxes, negotiate arms-control, and organize a European congress to resolve international conflicts. Relations between the Great Powers would transform from “war and mercantilism” into “peace and commerce.” It would be a kind of secular millennium.[15]

Despite his general hostility to state power, in his later career Paine grew impatient with the gradual, idealistic approach toward bringing about his millennial visions. Beginning with France’s invasion of Belgium and the Dutch alliance of 1795 and continuing until 1802, Paine argued for a “descent on England” from the Dutch coastline. He proposed an invasion force of one thousand gunboats, each armed with one hundred men and a single cannon. True to his hatred of taxation, he claimed that the force could be equipped solely through voluntary donations. The hope was that such an invasion would spark a popular uprising against what Paine believed to be a despotic government. His plan, of course, was never attempted. He was also rather impatient regarding his hopes for the rest of the world. Assuming that his writings would lead to the establishment of a liberal republic in England, he proposed that a redeemed England could combine with France, Holland, and the United States into a irresistible confederation. They could “propose” a limitation of all fleets in Europe to one-tenth their present size, thus assuring a reduction in taxes. They could then “propose” to Spain that its possessions be opened to free trade and “command the Algernine piracy to cease.” All of this was advanced as a nonviolent expedient until the triumph of liberal ideas, but it does contain more than a whiff of grape.[16]

John Adams famously described the late eighteenth-century as the “Age of Paine.” Does that label apply to the current age? Paine certainly would have embraced the incredible growth of international trade and communication since his time, and the way that capitalism has made international travel and countless other one-time luxuries available to hundreds of millions of ordinary people. He would have celebrated the fall of communism and the Soviet empire, which he would have seen as an opportunity for the United States to more drastically cut military spending, re-orient its military to a non-interventionist posture of primarily continental defense, and commit its foreign affairs to a policy of peace and free trade. Considering current misadventures in Iraq and Yugoslavia, not to mention the stationing of American garrisons all over the world, if we are indeed in an age of Paine, it is alas closer to the Paine of the “descent on England” than the Paine of peace and free trade.


1. In this essay the term “foreign policy ideology” refers to, as Michael Hunt puts it, “sets of beliefs and values, sometimes only poorly and partially articulated, that make international relations intelligible and decision making possible.” Michael H. Hunt, “Ideology,” in Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, ed. Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson (New York, 1991), 194. Broader but similar is Akira Iriye’s definition of the “cultural approach to diplomatic history” as being the examination of international affairs in terms of “dreams, aspirations, and other manifestations of human consciousness.” Akira Iriye, “Culture and International History,” in ibid., 214. See also Bradford Perkins’s discussion of the “prism of cultural values” in Perkins, The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865 (New York, 1993), 9-16. Political scientists are increasingly incorporating such concerns into their work on international relations. See, for instance, Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions, and Political Change, ed. Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane (Ithaca, 1993).

2. Felix Gilbert, To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy (Princeton, 1961), 43; Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (New Brunswick, 1977), 29. Published on 10 January 1776, Common Sense sold one hundred thousand copies in America by March. In a population of only three million, total sales were roughly four hundred thousand copies, the equivalent of over thirty million copies today. Because its style was conducive to public readings in taverns, churches, and other meeting places, surely a larger number heard its message. Its French translation was an immediate sensation in Paris. See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, 1985), 35; and Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, eds., Thomas Paine Reader (New York, 1987), 10.

3. Aspects of Paine’s thought on international relations are discussed in Darrel Abel, “The Significance of the Letter to the Abbe Raynal in the Progress of Thomas Paine’s Thought,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 66 (April 1942): 176-90; A. Owen Aldridge, Thomas Paine’s American Ideology (Newark, 1984), 269-85; Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (Boston, 1989); Gilbert, Farewell Address; David A. Wilson, Paine and Cobbett: The Transatlantic Connection (Kingston, Ontario, 1988); and Arnold Wolfers and Laurence W. Martin, The Anglo-American Tradition in Foreign Affairs (New Haven, 1956), 126-38. On Paine in general see Claeys, Social and Political Thought; Aldridge, American Ideology; idem, Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine (New York, 1959); John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life (Boston, 1995); A. J. Ayer, Thomas Paine (Chicago, 1988); Moncure Conway, The Life of Thomas Paine (1892; reprint, New York, 1969); Eric Foner, Thomas Paine and Revolutionary America (New York, 1967); Jack Fruchtman, Jr., Thomas Paine and the Religion of Nature (Baltimore, 1993); idem, Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (New York, 1994); Isaac Kramnick, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism (Ithaca, 1990), 133-60; and Audrey Williamson, Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times (London, 1973).

4. Kramnick, Republicanism, 154; idem, Thomas Paine Reader, 26. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, in Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols., ed. Philip S. Foner (New York, 1945), 1:359. Foner’s edition is imperfect, yet still the best available. Annotated bibliographies on Paine studies are provided by A. Owen Aldridge, “Thomas Paine: A Survey of Research and Criticism since 1945,” British Studies Monitor 5 (Winter 1975): 3-31; and Jerome Douglas Wilson, “Thomas Paine in America: An Annotated Bibliography 1900-1973,” Bulletin of Bibliography 31 (October - December 1974): 133-51, 180. Eric Foner notes that “from 1776 to the end of his life, the hallmarks of Paine’s political and social outlook remained remarkably constant.” Foner, Revolutionary America, 87.

5. Paine, Rights of Man, in Writings, 1:358; Kramnick, Republicanism, 151-60. “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” Some government was necessary for security because of the “failure of moral virtue to govern the world.” Paine, Common Sense, in Writings, 1:4-6. Welfare programs were needed temporarily in Europe, not America, to correct past abuses by powerful states. Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism, 327; Foner, Revolutionary America, 93-94. On the role of the idea of “spontaneous order” in the Scottish Enlightenment see Ronald Hamowy, The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of Spontaneous Order (Carbondale, IL, 1987).

6. Paine, Common Sense, in Writings, 1:20; The American Crisis #3 (1777), ibid., 80; Aldridge, American Ideology, 152; Foner, Revolutionary America, 153, 190; Fruchtman, Religion of Nature, 117.

7. Fruchtman, Religion of Nature, 118; Paine, “Letter to the Abbe Raynal” (1782), in Writings, 2:241; American Crisis #7 (1778), ibid., 1:145; Rights of Man, ibid., 400-410, 449.

8. Paine, Common Sense, in Writings, 1:4-5; “Letter Addressed to the Addressers on the Late Proclamation” (1792), ibid., 2:478.

9. Rights of Man, ibid., 1:449, 248, 283-84 (emphasis in original).

10. American Crisis #7, ibid., 151; American Crisis #12 (1782), ibid., 225; Rights of Man, ibid., 362.

11. Rights of Man, ibid., 361-62.

12. American Crisis #7, ibid., 145; “Epistle to Quakers” (1776), ibid., 2:56-57; Common Sense, ibid., 1:45; American Crisis #5 (1778), ibid., 120. On his trial see Williamson, Thomas Paine, 186-91; and Fruchtman, Apostle of Freedom, 288-91.

13. Paine to Danton, Paris, 6 May 1793, Writings, 2:1337. Paine’s emphasis on morality contrasts sharply with the amoral basis of power politics. For a perceptive discussion of the relationship between power politics and morality in the context of Gilbert and Hutson see Jonathan Dull, “Benjamin Franklin and the Nature of Early American Diplomacy,” International History Review 5 (August 1983): 346-63. Paine to Jefferson, Paris, 20 April 1793, Writings, 2:1331. Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson have noted the close similarities between the thinking of Jefferson and Paine on international affairs. Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1990) 13, 43-44. See also Michael Durey, “Thomas Paine’s Apostles: Radical Emigres and the Triumph of Jeffersonian Republicanism,” William and Mary Quarterly 44 (October 1987): 661-88. Over time Paine became more enthusiastic about wars of conquest. See Paine to General Brune, Dieppe, November 1799, Writings, 2:1403-5.

14. David Powell, Tom Paine: The Greatest Exile (London, 1985), 197; Paine, Common Sense, in Writings, 1:45, 17, 3; Rights of Man, ibid., 398, 354-55. On Paine and “progress” see V. E. Gibbens, “Tom Paine and the Idea of Progress,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 66 (April 1942): 191-204. See also Robert Nisbet’s analysis of Paine’s close friend Condorcet in History of the Idea of Progress (New York, 1980), 122-36.

15. Paine, Agrarian Justice (1795-96), in Writings, 1:622; Rights of Man, ibid., 344, 448, 419; “Letter to the Abbe Raynal,” ibid., 2:262; Paine to Jefferson, New Rochelle, NY, 30 January 1806, ibid., 1477. On Paine and millennialism see J. F. C. Harrison, “Thomas Paine and Millenarian Radicalism,” in Citizen of the World: Essays on Thomas Paine, ed. Ian Dyck (London 1987), 73-85; Fruchtman, “The Revolutionary Millennialism of Thomas Paine,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 13, ed. O. M. Brack, Jr. (Madison, 1984), 65-77; and Stephen Newman, “A Note on Common Sense and Christian Eschatology,” Political Theory 6 (February 1978): 101-8.

16. Paine, Rights of Man, in Writings, 1:419, 448-51; Aldridge, “Thomas Paine’s Plan for a Descent on England,” William and Mary Quarterly 14 (January 1957): 74-84. Looking back from 1804, Paine wrote in the Philadelphia Aurora on the plan submitted to the Directory in 1798 that “Bonaparte was appointed to the command, and by an agreement between him and me, I was to accompany him, as the intention of the expedition was to give the people of England an opportunity of forming a government for themselves, and thereby bring about peace.” “To the People of England on the Invasion of England,” Writings, 2:680. For a guide to the literature on Paine’s reception in England, France, Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Cuba, Hungary, India, and Latin America see Aldridge, “Thomas Paine: A Survey of Research and Criticism since 1945,” 22-25. ”

David Fitzsimons is with the Department of History at the University of Michigan.

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