"This is no more than a say so of Jonathan Steadfast, who says it because it suits him to say it." An Enemy to Monopolies and Inconsistancies [Thomas Paine], "Jonathan Steadfast and his Book" in the Mercury [Elisha Babcock], 27 September 1804.
"As censure is but awkwardly softened by apology, I shall offer you no apology for this letter." Thomas Paine, Letter to George Washington, 30 July 1796.
The appearance of a recently published collection of unknown writings by Thomas Paine could not be but of some interest and excitement -- certainly on my part and presumably that of other Paine scholars and enthusiasts. When asked by the journal, your reviewer envisioned a brief, and piquant review, perhaps a few paragraphs. No big deal. As it turned out, however, that was not to be. Hazel Burgess' collection took a great deal of effort to sort out and, to my regret, requires some censure and reproach. This collection fails to live up to its claims and will be, I predict, largely dismissed by careful and knowledgeable Paine historians. Fairness to my fellow Paine readers and colleagues and, indeed, to Hazel Burgess necessitates at least a reasonable explanation. And that, dear reader is the manner in which this review grew from three paragraphs into the form presented to you here.1
Before any words of censure, however, it is important to write something positive. By way of disclosure, the author of this review has known and maintained a cordial acquaintanceship of some years with the editor of this collection, Hazel Burgess. While we have not always agreed, to date we've maintained a friendly and collegial relationship. Certainly her DNA research on the purported Paine skull discussed later in this review was and continues to be of great interest to all Paine historians. Second, she gets some things right in this collection. In her editorial notes, Burgess understands that George Chalmers aka Francis Oldys was a paid slanderer and that James Cheetham's biography of Thomas Paine was a hatchet job. Her work also corrects a minor dating error in Philip Foner's 1945 The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. And the collection actually contains some newly published Paine material of genuine scholarly and historical interest. There are, however, two problems. First, a great part of the collection is either already in print, easily obtained. And more problematically, the very small quantity of new Paine material is sandwiched in between a much greater quantity of work that is not of Paine's authorship.2
Certainly where absolute proof is not available, questions of historical accuracy necessarily reduce to matters of opinion. Readers of this review will not be left in doubt as to mine. The work reviewed here, however, generally presents itself as unqualified fact and lacks, in my view, the kind of scholarly circumspection found in more valuable and lasting historical studies. The cover, for example, claims that the works in this compendium have "not been seen, either publicly or privately, in over 200 years." Burgess' editorial notes go on about her "path to significant discoveries," the "sweet satisfaction" of seeing "what nobody else has seen in over 200 years," and her "discovery" that the extant Paine canon is incomplete. All very moving if the claims hold up. But what if they don't?3
The first three items in Burgess' collection, for example, were all in print at the time she compiled her collection. She writes that the New York Historical Society had already published them at the turn of the last century and claims to be doing a service by reprinting them in this collection for the first time in over a hundred years. She does not write, however, that the 1898 collection is available -- by my count -- in at least 154 libraries in America and the UK. It is also available in a good quality hardcopy edition that has been in print since 2007. The same work is available, moreover, in a free digitized and fully searchable edition on Google Books. Burgess makes no mention of the contemporary editions -- hardcopy or digital -- so she was either unaware or omitted to mention them. From the outset, then, Burgess' bibliographical claims relative to these works appear thin at best and, as we shall see, there are other problems with this "revelatory collection."4
Throughout her editorial comments, Burgess evinces a certain vindictive or condemnatory prejudice against Paine's character that may cause puzzlement on the part of discerning readers. She acknowledges some of his accomplishments, but misses no chance to belittle his character. Why, for example, does Burgess indulge in the sniping comment at p. 30 that there was "little in the treasury but sufficient for Paine to draw immediately on his salary," as if Paine's payment were not authorized by vote of the Pennsylvania Assembly?5
In a later chapter, she calls Paine a "turncoat who was definite in his opinion this way or that."6 Or there is her stunning allegation, as we will see later, that Paine was no abolitionist or enemy of slavery, but himself a slave-holder. Reader's unfamiliar with Burgess' background will be at a loss to understand her rancor, but a brief look at the editor's own history may help to clarify her agenda.
John Burgess, the husband of the collection's editor, is one of a great number of persons who have labored under the illusion -- occasionally the delusion, no doubt -- that they are direct descendants of Thomas Paine. The difficulty with that proposition is, of course, that Paine had no offspring. While many base their claim on a common historical confusion between our revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine and another man of the same name, John Burgess' claim is of another sort. 7 He claims to descend through a bastard offspring of Paine by the wife of one of Paine's closest friends, the French publisher and editor Nicolas de Bonneville. The rumor began historically with the slanderous attack-biography written by James Cheetham, published the year after Paine's 1809 death. Cheetham waited until Paine's decease because he knew very well that Paine would sue him -- Paine had threatened it. As events transpired, Cheetham was sued anyway. Madame Bonneville successfully sued Cheetham in a Federalist court so hostile to Paine that the judge defamed him from the bench. The allegation of bastardy was so utterly unfounded and baseless that Madame Bonneville was nevertheless awarded damages. The salient point here is that in order to fit the model of her husband as a "descendant" of Paine, Paine needs to be something of a scoundrel or at least a rascal.
This whole story took a macabre and startling turn when a skull appeared in a 1988 Sydney, Australia antiques auction; a skull reputed to be the noggin of Thomas Paine. The Burgesses hastened to Sidney and managed to purchase the relic from the sympathetic dealer, impressed with Mr. Burgess' claims of consanguinity. This moment might be said to mark the beginning of Mrs. Burgess' career as a Paine enthusiast, albeit a somewhat hostile one. She set out to prove her husband's relationship by comparison of his mitochondrial DNA to that of the skull. Surprise -- there proved to be no demonstrable relationship, but Burgess' career as a Paine-skeptic was launched, of which the collection here is the latest and most visible so far.8
Perhaps it is that same enthusiasm to believe the worst that led her to the greatest blunders in this very flawed work of bibliography. The single longest work in the collection -- 75 pages of about 200 pages total -- is an unsigned 1791 pamphlet entitled Reflections on the Present State of the British Nation by British Common Sense.10 Burgess' claim that this work should be accepted into what she calls the "Paine canon" will be rejected by historians and thoughtful readers for at three obvious reasons. First, the author of this work favored titled distinctions and wrote that when the present financial crisis ended, then "may we, with safety, return to ceremony, and the etiquette of distinction, rank, and title."11 The writings of Thomas Paine both before and after this work flatly condemned titles and inherited distinctions and there exists no writing of Paine's that condones aristocracy. Second, the writer claimed to be a British citizen and spoke of "our own market, or home consumption," whereas Paine spoke as an American or "citizen of the world," neither as a British subject in the works before and after the date of the work in question nor in any work subsequent to the American Revolution.12 This Paine candidate also made prominent and repetitious use of the phrase "Godlike Reason," a combination of words that appears nowhere else in Paine's printed works. Nor does the adjective "godlike" itself appear in any other Paine work. And yet the faux-Paine used it four times on a single page, the repetition itself uncharacteristic of Paine's simple, declarative style. In fact, Paine rarely if ever used any adjective with the word "reason."13 Burgess' candidate is, moreover, prolix in the extreme -- single sentences run over a hundred words!14 Paine was a master of the simple declarative sentence and a short, sparkling, aphoristic style of Plain English. And again, can anyone but Mrs. Burgess believe that the Thomas Paine who wrote this
Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man?15
and who himself bore arms against the King of England later regretted his action and opined that "reason abhors dissention?"16 Reason is the fountainhead of dissent. Was Paine, as Burgess' writer further claimed, "but little known?"17 Not at all: Paine was already heralded in his own name on two continents, received, corresponded or boarded with the likes of Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, Thomas Walker, the painter John Trumbull (with whom he lived for a good part of the time) and William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (Prime Minister in 1783, Home Secretary in 1794, Lord President of the Council later again in 1801 to 1805, and Prime Minister again in1807 to 1809). Historian David Freeman Hawke noted that Paine's friend and United States Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson thought him known and respected enough to serve as de facto American representative to the British government for two years after the recall of John Adams.18 Paine "but little known?" This might perhaps describe him in another dimension of time or on another planet, but not the one in which Paine lived and worked. Burgess claims all this and more with the single longest "discovery" in her rewrite of the Paine canon.
For all of the above she offers -- as near as can be discerned -- the slim justification that Paine "proved to be a turncoat, definite in his opinions this way or that,"19 was proud of his pseudonym "Common Sense"20 and that it was "the name no other would dare assume."21 The first claim is indefensible unless we accept her claim that the work is authentic. Isn't this post hoc ergo proptor hoc? The second claim, on the other hand, is as indisputable as it is trivial. And the latter claim -- central to her argument -- is nonsense. Burgess again offers no proof but her mere "say so." The fact is that other individuals, both in America and England, used the pen name "Common Sense" during Paine's lifetime. Though scarce in America, the determined researcher will find a few and there are a great many non-Paine appearances of the pseudonym in the periodicals of late eighteenth-century England.22
Before closing this unfortunate review, a final word is necessary with respect to Burgess' claims regarding Thomas Paine and slavery. She believes that Paine owned slaves. Burgess made the claim to this writer back in 2005 sotto voce, in high dudgeon as it were, and when asked for proof, declined and cited a forthcoming book that would "reveal all" to a horrifically shocked scholarly community. Behold the book! Wherein Paine is unmasked as an owner of man-flesh. Well … not exactly. With regard a black man named Joe, a hired man of Paine's, Burgess claims that "it is highly likely that Joe had been, in earlier years, Paine's slave."23 Her claim would be a matter of some consequence if she bothered to substantiate it, but consistent with the great part of this work, she omitted to do so. Burgess merely cites the letter of Paine to Kitty Nicholson Few where he inquired after "my favorite Sally Morse, my boy Joe, and my horse Button"24 and a reasonably well-known text on the Quakers and slavery in early Pennsylvania and observes that "it would have been unusual for a Philadelphian in his situation, and of his standing, not to have owned some."24 Burgess then goes through a long speculative ramble based on another letter to an unknown addressee that amounts to zero corroboration for her stunning claim. This is not history. This claim amounts to unsubstantiated calumny on an individual for whom there is adequate evidence to show his detestation of slavery.26Scholars and simply careful readers will again find nothing here to support her accusation.27
In the main body of this collection, there are approximately 139-140 pages of purported Paine text and just over sixty of editorial commentary for a total of 203 pages. By my count, 55% are either highly doubtful or demonstrably spurious and at least another 12% are already in print in more or less contemporary printings such as Foner, Gimbel, the Morris Papers and Kessinger reprints.28 Burgess claims variously the utility of combining the texts in one place or their benefit for context, but what can be the utility of combining them with an even greater load of spurious texts and inflated, indefensible claims? Ironically, one of the most memorable quotes found in one of the few authentic and authentically new works presented in this collection is one wherein Paine ridicules "Jonathan Steadfast" for relying just on his own "say so."29 Admittedly, a great deal of historical controversy -- as noted earlier -- comes down to a "say so." And like Johathan Steadfast, Burgess frequently says so with little more substantiation than that it suits her to say so.
1. From the short bio of the editor provided in the collection: "Hazel Burgess is an Australian researcher with undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the University of Sydney. She has spent many years searching for the truth behind the public face of Thomas Paine." The first sentence is interesting for an omission and the second for its claim. Burgess' degree is in Religious Studies, not history. And her "years searching for the truth behind the public face of Thomas Paine" is precisely the preconceived mindset that colors her work and rather spoils her scholarship, as evidenced by examples presented in this review.
2. For significant new printings of Paine's work, see especially Burgess 191 and 199-202. The single page Connecticut piece on p. 191, while interesting and newly printed, is sandwiched between four letters already reprinted in Gimbel and a work at Burgess 192-8 that was simply not written by Paine. The ratio of meat to bun here is about characteristic of the entire collection.
3. An academic advisor strictly enjoined me in the springtime of my scholarly career that the more elevated the claim, the easier the target and farther the fall.
4. See Silas Deane, The Deane Papers, 1774-1799, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007, ISBN054830744X, 9780548307441. See also http://books.google.com/books?id=fpQ6AAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=editions:STANFORD36105026546619#v=onepage&q=&f=false accessed 11 March 2010 or simply search "Silas Deane Papers" on Google Book.
5. See Burgess, 31-2. As it happens, the purported Paine letter that accompanies her comment is signed "C.S.," and, while it is written well enough to be Paine, there is nothing either in the text itself or, for that matter, Burgess' body of scholarship that should have led her publishers or the reader to accept her "say so" that it was written by Paine. It's interesting to note that the author who signed himself "C.S." used the word "forsooth." Time constraints prevented a search of every extant Paine letter, but the term appears in none of Paine's major works; not once. Even if we ever find that Paine used the word "forsooth, it seems to me that careful scholarship requires that the letter remain in the category of a "possible" Paine work. See Burgess, 35.
6. Burgess, 146.
7. Back in the 1990's, when the author of this review fielded internet inquiries for the Thomas Paine National Historical Association -- an organization since disgraced and fallen upon hard times -- it seemed like we received an inquiry a week from people honestly convinced they were all "direct descendants" of Thomas Paine.
8. See Hazel Burgess, "An Extended History of the Remains of Thomas Paine," Journal of Radical History, 8:4 (2007), pp. 1-29.
9. Burgess' dissertation for a doctorate in Religious Studies is interesting in this regard, but it is unfortunately sequestered or withheld from public view by the University of Sidney at the request of the student. A letter from Burgess' dissertation supervisor noted, "Students … may request that they not be made public. Few do …" Few, indeed. I don't know of another such instance. The practice flies -- insofar as I understand it -- in the face of both academic tradition and open scholarly inquiry. See Hazel Burgess, "The disownment and reclamation of Thomas Paine: a reappraisal of the "philosophy" of "common sense" (Ph.D thesis, University of Sidney, 2003). The library listing is available at http://opac.library.usyd.edu.au/record=b2654935~S4.
10. See Burgess, 71-146. See also, (anonymous), Reflections on the Present State of the British Nation by British Common Sense (London: James Ridgway, 1791). A second edition was entitled British Common Sense; or, Reflections on the Present State of the British Nation, Recommending a Free, Uninfluenced Representation of the People, on the Grounds of National Utility and National Necessity (London: W. Miller, 1791).
11. See Burgess, 119.
12. Ibid., 77 and 82.
13. Ibid., 79-80. The anonymous author of this work similarly repeats the phrase "wantonly wicked" at pp. 92-3. Another phrase that appears nowhere in any of Paine's other best-known works.
14. Burgess, 77-8.
15. See Thomas Paine, The American Crisis I in Philip Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine (New York: Citadel Press, 1945), 1:56.
16. Burgess, 75.
18. David Freeman Hawke, Paine (New York: Harper & Rowe), 188.
19. Burgess, 146.
20. Burgess, 72.
21. Burgess, 149.
22. SeeThe Port - Folio (1801-1827) 1:15 (April 11, 1801), 113. Burgess offers this item as part of her collection, but it is not Paine simply because it's attitude towards Britain is antithetical to Paine's, its negative attitude toward the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps even transatlantic transit problems. It would not be surprising if Burgess were the only person in the world to believe that Paine authored it, but then … she appears to have an agenda See Burgess, 174. For other examples of non-Paine uses of the pseudonym, see also Philadelphia Repository and Weekly Register (1800-1805) 3:8 (February 19, 1803), 63; Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England), Tuesday, December 3, 1776, Issue 1282; Public Advertiser (London, England), Friday, December 22, 1775, Issue 14422; Sun (London, England), Saturday, April 20, 1793, Issue 174; Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, September 10, 1793, Issue 7572; True Briton (1793) (London, England), Thursday, May 2, 1793, Issue 105. There are many more especially in English periodicals of the period.
23. See Burgess, 61.
24. See Foner, 2:1275.
25. Note that this is the same Thomas Paine of whom she wants the reader to believe earlier -- and at a time of even greater fame for Paine -- that he wrote as one "but little known." See above note 17. See also Burgess, 218, n.195 where she cites the "brief, general account of slaveholding in Pennsylvania at the time," Jean R. Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).
26. See my forthcoming "'The Infernal Traffic in Negroes' -- Thomas Paine and Antislavery," part of a collection in review for 2011.
27. See Burgess, 61-4.
28. See Philip Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine (New York: Citadel Press, 1945); Richard Gimbel, "New Political Writings by Thomas Paine" in The Yale University Library Gazette 30 (1956); Robert Morris, The Papers of Robert Morris, ed. Elizabeth Nuxoll and Mary Gallagher (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1975); and for the Kessinger edition of Deane, see note 4.
29. See the quotation at the head of this review.
[Originally published in The Journal of Radical History of the Thomas Paine Society 10:2 (2010), 28-36]
© Copyright Kenneth W. Burchell 2010, All Rights Reserved.