Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Who's Right?

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Who's Right?

Article excerpt

Who's Right? The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left BY YUVAL LEVIN BASIC, 296 PAGES, $27.99

Edmund Burke, a native Dubliner from a religiously mixed marriage, wanted to become a public intellectual, and as part of Samuel Johnson's circle, he came to think of himself "above all as a writer rather than a political thinker." Through the patronage of the great Whig leader the Marquis of Rockingham, he was elected to a seat in the House of Commons in 1765 and for the next three decades would remain a central figure of British politics.

Thomas Paine, from the south of England, was imbued with the "stark moralism" of his father's Quaker faith. His parents could afford only the first five years of grammar school, but the bookish Paine continued to seek "every spare moment to read, especially books of poetry, history, and science."

When his wife and child died in childbirth, he became a tax collector and was soon organizing his fellow officers for better pay and treatment. This "futile effort cost him his job," but armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he started anew in the American colonies. A year later Paine would write Common Sense.

These men came to be regarded as two of the greatest giants of AngloAmerican liberalism, though neither would have been likely to share history's assessment of the other. Burke said of Paine that he was a man with "not even a moderate portion of learning of any kind," and would come to regard him a dangerous rabble-rouser as well as a careless intellect. Paine considered Burke a lackey to the hereditary British nobility who thought of people "as a herd of beings that must be governed by fraud, effigy, and show."

Their quarrel receives erudite, sympathetic, and evenhanded accounting in a new "case study in how ideas move history," The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. The author, Yuval Levin, is editor of National Affairs and a scholar who like his subjects is a combatant in debates over policy.

Following the biographical first chapter, Levin presents the BurkePaine debate thematically, with each of the next six chapters devoted to a big disagreement over a set of foundational concepts: nature and history, justice and order, choice and obligation, reason and prescription, revolution and reform, generations and the living.

The problem of generations deserves particular scrutiny. As Levin points out, "more than just another theme of their dispute, it forms a kind of unifying thread among the themes." The generational problem, I would argue, is ultimately a dispute about the nature of nationhood.

Burke famously saw society as "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." Therefore, to sustain the national community, he believed that "what we owe the future above all is not freedom but rather the accumulated wisdom and work of the past."

Paine has been traditionally viewed as relatively naive about the intergenerational loyalties needed to sustain a nation, and Levin by and large agrees. But Paine's view is richer than commonly admitted: "A nation, though continually existing, is continually in a state of renewal and succession. It is never stationary. Every day produces new births, carries minors forward to maturity, and old persons from the stage. In this ever running flood of generations there is no part superior in authority to another."

According to Levin, Paine believed all generations stand in fundamental equality with one another. …

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