Thomas Paine and the Promise of America A History & Biography

Harvey J. Kaye

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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The revolutionary spirit that runs throughout American history, and whose founding father and greatest advocate was Thomas Paine, is fiercely traced in Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Showing how Paine turned Americans into radicals—and how we have remained radicals at heart ever since—Harvey J. Kaye presents the nation's democratic story with it, subtlety, and, above all, passion.

Paine was one of the most remarkable political writers of the modern world and the greatest radical of a radical age. Through writings life Common Sense—and phrases such as "The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth." "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," and "These are the times that try men's souls"—he not only turned America's colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war, but also, as Kaye demonstrates, articulated an American identity charged with exceptional purpose and promise.

Beginning with Paine's life and ideas and following their vigorous influence through to our own day, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America reveals how, while the powers that be repeatedly sought to suppress, defame, and, most recently, co-opt Paine's memory, generations of radical and liberal Americans turned to Paine for inspiration as they endeavored to expand American freedom, equality, and democracy.


Praise for Thomas Paine and the Promise of America

"Harvey J. Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America is the newest entry in the founders' sweepstakes, making a spirited argument that Paine merits a place on the Mall or Tidal Basin as the only authentically radical voice, the only unblinkered democrat, the only patriotic prophet whose vision remains relevant and resonant for our time . . . Writing with passion of a defense attorney whose client has been wrongfully sentenced to obscurity . . . Kaye contends that Paine, alone among the founding generation, saw to the very heart of the American promise embodied in the principles of 1776 . . . Kaye provides the most comprehensive assessment yet of Paine's controversial reputation . . . Kaye hears his voice more clearly and unambiguously than I do, a clarity of conviction that I envy."—Joseph Ellis, The New York Times Books Review

This book is not primarily a biography. Rather, Harey J. Kaye provides a detailed, decade-by-decade analysis of the legacy of Thomas Paine from the 1790s to the presidential election of 2004."—John P. Kaminski, Journal of American History

"Must reading for today's aspiring democratic rebels and radicals."—Katrina Vanden Heuvel, The Nation

"Harvey J. Kaye provides a new assessment of the man and his ideas in a highly successful attempt to place Paine back in the context of his times and relate him to the politics of today . . . Thomas Paine and the Promise of America is a book to read and reread. It is a call to action, a wake-up call to Americans, liberal and conservative, to reacquaint themselves with the voice of an outspoken champion of liberty and to reassess the direction of our own immediate political future."—Mary Garrett, The Advocate

"Most moving and memorable."—Josh Ozersky, Newsday

"This book is not primarily a biography. Rather, Harvey J. Kaye provides a detailed, decade-by-decade analysis of the legacy of Thomas Paine from the 1790s to the presidential election of 2004."—John P. Kaminski, Journal of American History

"There is a passion running through these pages that make it an irresistible read for history buffs. It outlines Paine's life and ideas and shows the influence he has had ever since 1774 when he came to America. As the author gets into the heart and mind of Paine, he also shows the birth of a nation and of the great experiment of democracy."—Jean Peerenboom, Green Bay Press-Gazette

"[An] interesting and readable book . . . Kaye comes well prepared to his task, having produced numerous works on the history of radicalism and citizenship . . . This important work should be read by all audiences."—J. C. Arndt, James Madison University, Choice

"I couldn't put the thing down! The story of Thomas Paine—then and now, for the man and his ideas are very much alive today—stirs the heart, moves the mind and routs the demon of despair. The best political book of the year!"—Bill Moyers

"If the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark time, we shall require an age of reason. Harvey Kaye's lucid work helps create the free citizen's memorial to Thomas Paine, who is still shamefully unacknowledged by the democratic republic that he lived and died to bring about."—Christopher Hitchens

"In this fascinating study, Harvey Kaye rediscovers Thomas Paine's central place in an American radical tradition stretching from the Revolution to the present, and reminds us how Paine's words still resonate in American society today."—Eric Foner, Columbia University

"For two centuries, Americans have fought for possession of Tom Paine's soul at least as vigorously as our ancestors fought over his literal bones. Harvey Kaye tells the tale well, and a revelatory tale it is. Along the way, he demonstrates how much, in this time that tries men's and women's souls, the resurrection of Paine could still do for America's flagging radical imagination."—Todd Gitlin, author of The Intellectuals and the Flag

"Thomas Paine has at last found a worthy defender in Harvey Kaye, a gifted historian whose account of Paine is nearly as lively and feisty as its subject. Readers of all political persuasions will find this book of compelling interest, and will find it much harder henceforth to deny Paine's importance—not only in his own time, but in the entire sweep of American history."—Wilfred M. McClay, author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America

"Kaye offers a masterful and eloquent study of the man he reestablishes as the key figure in the American Revolution and the radical politics that followed it. Focusing on close readings of Paine's major writings, Kaye devotes the first half of the book to Paine's role in the seething fervor for American liberty and independence and his influence on the French Revolution. In Common Sense (1763), which sold 150,000 copies in just a few months, Paine advocated self-government and democracy in the colonies, accused the British of corruption and tyranny, and urged 'Americans' to rebel. He championed representative democracy and argued that government should act for the public good. Paine's contributions were not limited to his own time; Kaye traces Paine's influence on American rebels and reformers from William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs in the second half of his book. In 1980, Ronald Reagan quoted him—'We have it in our power to begin the world over again'—in his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention. As historian Kaye points out, Paine—'the greatest radical of a radical age'—would have been surprised to learn that conservatives, whose values he opposed, had used his words in their cause."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Harvey J. Kaye

  • Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. An award-winning author and editor, his numerous books include Are We Good Citizens? and The American Radical.

  • Harvey J. Kaye