When we turn to the academic study of Political Science, we encounter some Dylan-Reagan-like differences in regard to Paine’s legacy. In one of his earlier works, the influential Charles E. Merriam (1899, 402) proclaimed that « Paine cannot be classed as a great political thinker… in fact all the great features of his system (works) had been marked out before and better by others. Paine was not a philosopher, but an agitator. » While this view remains dominant in the discipline of Political Science, it raises several problems. First, Merriam assumes wrongly that one cannot be both an agitator and a philosopher. This betrays Merriam’s outdated view that to be a philosopher or a political scientist of note, one must pursue a perfectly neutral, value-free, objective enquiry — which, of course, is impossible. Second, Merriam’s view reflects the common bias among political theorists for originality rather than being widely read and understood. While one can certainly trace Paine’s ideas on government to earlier and often obscure works in political theory, Paine drew these ideas together and presented them in a way that made them widely accessible. In many respects, Paine freed these ideas from the narrow bounds of elite, academic scribblers. He brought these ideas to life for the world. A more accurate assessment might note the Paine may not be an original political thinker, but his influence was indeed great. Third, Merriam was concerned exclusively with Paine’s thinking on domestic politics. Like most commentators on Paine, Merriam ignores Paine’s substantial and original thinking on global politics. Yet in this increasingly globalized world, Paine’s ideas on international politics stand among his most significant.

Paine’s thinking on global politics is appreciated by a widening circle of scholars. Sir Michael Howard, a historian, noted that Paine’s Rights of Man was the single most forceful and original text on liberal internationalism. In his Trevelyn Lectures at Cambridge, Howard (1978, 29) asserted, every liberal "who has written about foreign policy since has been able to provide little more than an echo of Paine’s original philippic." Scott Gates, Torbjorn Knutsen, and Jonathan Moses (1996, 6) noted how Paine "delivered one of the clearest (and most consequential) formulations of the claim that a state founded on democratic principles… must also be, fundamentally, against war." Elsewhere, I argued that Paine is the most "faithful representative of the Enlightenment for students of International Relations" (Walker 2000, 51) and that Paine’s revolutionary liberalism distinguishes his thinking from the more widely cited Immanuel Kant (Walker, 2008). Indeed, Paine’s optimistic faith in reason and progress, his critique of the war-proneness of authoritarian regimes, his belief that trade can foster peace, his emphasis on universal human rights, his willingness to intervene military to promote these rights, and most importantly his promise of a peace between democratic states stand as the most comprehensive and coherent Enlightenment statement on global politics. Most recently, Robert Lamb (2014) challenged some elements of Paine’s commitment to liberal military intervention. These works are representative of the growing interest in Paine’s thought in the field of International Relations.

In this essay I will further explore Paine’s revolutionary liberalism in the study of International Relations, with a special focus on the inter-democratic peace, peace through trade, reducing military spending by democracies, and liberal interventionism to promote democracy, which he frequently referred to as ‘descents.’ I will then turn to the tensions presented by Paine’s persistent advocacy for a descent on England and his advocacy for small militaries. I argue that Paine’s vision for active interventionism is not inconsistent with small militaries. Unlike recent liberal interventions, Paine envisioned descents to be small and targeting states ripe for revolution.

Liberal Internationalism and Paine

In the study of IR, liberal internationalism can take on a myriad of forms. However, all liberals share ideas that the world can progress toward a more peaceful world. Robert Keohane (2002 : 45) noted how « liberalism believes in at least the possibility of cumulative progress, whereas realism assumes that history is not progressive. » Several factors can lead to a more peaceful and progressive world, according to liberalism. These include democracy, promoting free trade, limiting military spending, and arguably intervening to spread democracy by toppling authoritarian states. Paine was the first to integrate these factors into a coherent vision of liberal internationalism. We will explore each of these factors before turning to the tension between an interventionist foreign policy and small militaries.

The Democratic Peace

In the field of International Relations, Immanuel Kant is considered the father of the democratic peace. Few studies on the topic will omit the iconic passage from Kant’s Perpetual Peace : "the consent of the citizens is required to decide whether or not war is to be declared, it is very natural that they will have great hesitation in embarking on so dangerous an enterprise. For this would mean calling down on themselves all the miseries of war" (Kant 1795, 100). Yet Paine’s ideas of how republics (i.e. democracies)(2) will promote peace preceded Kant’s. In Common Sense, nearly twenty years prior to Kant’s Perpetual Peace, Paine (1776 : 80) pointed out that the republics of the world tended to be peaceful : « Holland and Swisserland are without wars, foreign or domestic. » According to Paine ([1776: 95), this peace results from the democratic tendency to « negotiate the mistake » rather than letting regal pride swell « into a rupture with foreign powers. » Paine was most emphatic on the democratic peace in Rights of Man. Four years prior to the very obscure publication of Kant’s Perpetual Peace, Paine (1791, 47) noted that « The right of war and peace is in the nation. Where else should it reside, but in those who are to pay the expense. » While the importance of democratic governance to peace is central to liberal internationalism, Paine’s analysis is more nuanced and rests on firmer empirical grounds than does Kant’s.

In addition to arguing why democracies would be more peaceful, Paine also pointed to why authoritarian monarchies would be more prone to war. First, in his classic attack on the ineptitudes of hereditary leadership, Paine warned that monarchs would be incompetent when managing foreign policy. In Common Sense, Paine (1776, 69,79) argued that « The state of a king shuts him from the world… yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly. » At an early age, heirs to the throne have their minds « poisoned by importance. » When they ultimately rise to power, monarchs are among « the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominion. » Second, in authoritarian states, Paine reasoned, monarchs could shift the costs of war to the multitude while keeping benefits to themselves and to a narrow band of cronies. Paine (1791, 47) noted how « 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 in revenue ; and as revenue cannot be increased without taxes, a pretence must be made for expenditures…. taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes. » According to Paine’s view, as states became more democratic, leaders’abilities to privatize or funnel the benefits of war contracts to their cronies would become more difficult. In Prospects on the Rubicon, Paine (1787, 10) warned that in wars a « few men have enriched themselves by jobs and contracts, and the groaning multitude bore the burden » (1787a : 10). Since the already-privileged will benefit from war, these privileged few will lead the unwitting multitudes into needless wars. Wars would not occur, Paine (1791 : 3) claimed, if the people were « enlightened enough not to be made the dupes of courts. » One aspect of Paine’s argument has been rigorously explored and largely upheld by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (2003 ; 2008). These studies examine how a growing electorate changes foreign policy decision-makers’incentives along the lines discussed by Paine, but without acknowledging the origins of these ideas.

The most novel aspect of Paine’s discussion of democracy and peace rests in his belief that democracies may not be more peaceful than other types of regimes, but democracies would be peaceful with other democracies. A democratic France would not find itself at peace until neighboring states were also democratic, war-mongering monarchs would upset the peace. In his dedication to Lafayette in Rights of Man, Part II, Paine (1792, 115) claimed that only « When France shall be surrounded with revolutions, she will be in peace and safety. » Here we have the earliest statement of the inter-democratic peace, the most robust finding in the study of International Relations. Paine’s prediction that relations between democratic states would be peaceful has been cited as the closest « we have to an empirical law in international relations » (Levy 1988, 662). Simply put, we have witnessed no outright wars between established democratic states. Democratic governance has been a force for peace in the world just a Paine predicted it would be.

Free Trade and Peace

Free trade would further the prospects of peace, especially among democratic states. Free individuals in democratic societies would seek out commerce out of their own self-interest. Paine was certainly not the first to advocate the advantages of free trade and its impact on peace. His works, however, helped popularize the connections. For Paine, trade will lead to peace in two distinct but reinforcing ways. First, trade will help familiarize nations with one another thereby reducing the prejudices that may give rise to conflicts. In Rights of Man, Paine (1792, 172) noted how « In all my writings, where the matter would permit, I have been a friend of commerce, because I have been a friend to its effects. It is a pacific system, operating to cordialize mankind, by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other….If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable, it would extirpate the system of war. » Commerce, Paine continued, is « the greatest approach towards universal civilization. » By working to 'cordialize' mankind, Paine saw how interaction and experience would foster learning, understanding, and respect between different nations. Economic interaction would work to acquaint nations with one another and reduce the crass misunderstandings that might lead them to conflict.

A second way in which Paine saw trade as fostering peace is through functional interdependence. Much like a free trade economist, Paine was quick to point out the positive sum game of free trade : « Two merchants of different nations trading together will both become rich » and « There can be no such thing as a nation flourishing alone in commerce… » (1792, 175 ; 173). With their interests deeply rooted in maintaining free trade, merchants would seek to avoid war and its ruinous effects on trade. In short, rational individuals and states would not want to jeopardize the benefits of trade by waging war.

One of Paine’s more sustained discussions of how trade might come to foster peace can be found in his Compact Maritime for the Protection of Neutral Commerce, and Securing the Liberty of the Seas (1801). Here Paine seeks to establish an international organization of enlightened nations — flying the rainbow flag no less (3). By ensuring freedom of the seas in times of war, this association would safeguard the benefits of trade for neutral states and could possibly work to resolve disputes between belligerent states. Paine’s vision of a strong, sanctioning international organization promoting free trade and conflict resolution has often been seen as a precursor to the League of Nations and the United Nations. This, however, is less compelling than the widely recognized finding that trade does indeed dampen conflict between two states, much as Paine predicted (Russett and Oneal, 2000 ; Gartzke 2008).

Democratic Defense and Limiting Military Spending

A third pillar in Paine’s international thought involves massive reductions in military spending. In the wake of revolution, democratic states would devote far less to military spending and would actively seek out arms control agreements with other democratic states. While Paine’s views on war were likely shaped by his Quaker roots, he was no pacifist. In an early pamphlet on defensive war, Paine (1775) admitted that he would happily lay down his weapons, « but unless the whole will (do likewise), the matter ends, and I take up my musket and thank heaven He has put it in my power. » If « the peaceful part of mankind » neglected the means of self-defense, Paine warned, they « will be continually overrun by the vile… » While Paine saw a place for military preparedness, it was a very limited place and one that was stunningly novel for his time.

In Paine’s view, large military outlays will harm domestic society and may come to agitate or threaten one’s neighbors. Paine’s solution was to design a defense that would be both inexpensive and effective. Democratic nations composed of free, enlightened citizens provided Paine with just such a force. On land, this meant a reliance on a civilian militia rather than a standing army. At sea, there would be a reliance on small gunboats rather than a large, expensive blue-water navy with ships of the line that might come to threaten other states. Gunboats and the militia would compose the core of Paine’s limited, democratic defense.

During the American Revolution, Paine remarked that the most effective fighting was waged by the citizen militia defending their home territories. "Here, Government, the army, and the people, are mutually and reciprocally one. In other wars, kings may lose their thrones, and their dominions ; but here, the loss must fall on the majesty of the multitude, and the property they are contending to save. Every man being sensible of this, he goes to the field, or pays his portion of the charge, as the sovereign of his own possessions ; and when he is conquered a monarch falls"(1782, 216). Unlike mercenaries and conscripts, Paine’s democratic militia fight for their independence and property — the closer to home, the more effective their fighting. Democratic militia would have unique incentives when fighting to defend their homeland. Later Paine (1787, 32) estimated that as a general rule the militia in a democratic nation would be "twice the value" of an army fighting under a monarchy. Much of this advantage rested in the advantage of defense enjoyed by militia soldiers.

The militia system ensured that republics would take up large scale arms only in extreme cases of national defense. Paine (1776 : 124) noted that republican governments would not be "insulting the world with (their) fleets and armies, nor ravaging the globe for plunder." Since plunder and conquest no longer paid, militia men would have no interest in straying far from their homes in pursuit of gains. With the advantage resting so firmly in favor of defense, there would be few incentives and very little capability for a republic to engage in distant wars against other republics. The militia would become a formidable fighting force only when invaded. "If they are made war upon, their country invaded, or their existence at stake," Paine (1777 : 189) argued, it is the militia’s "duty to defend and preserve themselves, but in every other cause, is war inglorious and detestable." In Paine’s view, the citizen army was an effective fighting force only in defense of their immediate surroundings.

Paine argued that democratic states like the U.S. could defend itself against the Royal Navy with an extremely small fleet. He estimated that a naval force one-twentieth the size of England’s would suffice since "our whole force would be employed on our coast"(1776 : 106). Again, the advantages — both strategic and fiscal — rested in defense. Paine called for the creation of a democratic, inexpensive, and highly effective navy that would use small gun-boats. Compared to conventional ships-of-the-line, these boats were simple and light. Powered by fifty oars and flat-bottomed, they resembled more a large canoe than a warship. Pointing from the bows of these sixty-foot craft would be one large, twenty-four or thirty-six pound cannon. Paine argued that such cannon would be far more accurate and effective than those shot from the heights of a ship of the line. The design of the boat allowed for rapid deployment and mobility in all conditions. "It will be found," Paine contended, "that half a dozen gun-boats carrying twenty-four pounders, will do it more effectually than can be done by any other method"(1807 : 1072).

Paine also celebrated the fact that the gun-boat could not be deployed abroad. Paine noted how "ships and gun-boats are for different services. Ships are for distant expeditions ; gun-boats for home defense"(1817 : 1075). Gun-boats would not be crewed by full-time marines, but by a civilian coast guard. These coast-guards would work much like the citizen militia and be called up in the event of an invasion, or for occasional training. Another positive feature of gun-boats is found in their relatively small price tag. These craft could be built at a fraction of the cost incurred by traditional coastal fortification and fully-commissioned ships. And when not in use, gun-boats could be "sheltered and preserved from the weather"(1807 : 1075). This would both extend the life of these boats and save in upkeep and repairs.

In sum, Paine sought to limit the size and reach of militaries for three reasons. First, he feared that large military outlays might perpetuate certain military values within a larger society and this would prove detrimental to republican values. Paine (1782 : 281) argued that "navies add nothing to the manners and morals of a people. The sequestered life… prevents the opportunities of society, and is apt to occasion a coarseness of ideas." He may have also feared that a large standing army might possibly undermine democratic governance. With vast resources being spent on military institutions, military leaders could gain undue influence in political decisions, and military force could then be used to subvert democratic rule. Yet any subversions of power would be unlikely with a well-poised democratic militia. A democratic militia would defend against all threats to freedom, domestic as well as foreign.

Secondly, Paine was aware of how large militaries may spark spirals of insecurity, arms races, and increase the probability of war. Paine was highly critical of Pitt’s large buildup of British forces during the 1787 crisis with the Dutch. By pursuing such a large and rapid buildup, Paine (1787 : 66) contended, "the sparks of ill will are afresh kindled up between nations, the fair prospects of lasting peace are vanished." Since standing armies could be used to attack as well as to defend, one likely but unintentional consequence was a heightened sense of insecurity in neighboring states. Rather than arousing the suspicions and insecurities of neighboring states — by insulting them with their fleets and armies — Paine thought it wiser and less destabilizing to have a small but potent defensive force.

A final reason why Paine advocated a small militia and gunboats rested in their low costs. One justification for those mind-boggling tables at the end of Rights of Man that challenge even the most devoted admirers of Paine was to show how much money could be saved by limiting military spending. Democracies would not only limit their military spending, they would then reallocate these resources into education and old age pensions as well as cutting tax burdens.

As a practical matter, Paine saw arms control agreements as another way to further ensure small militaries. In his conclusion of Rights of Man, Paine (1792, 222) called for a confederation of the democratic powers that would lead to « a general dismantling of all the navies in Europe, to a certain proportion to be agreed upon. First, that no new ship of war shall be built by any power in Europe… (and) all the navies now in existence shall be put back suppose to one-tenth of their present force. This will save France and England at least two millions sterling annually to each, and their relative force be in the same proportion as now. » In a letter written in 1806 (January 30, Foner II, 1476), Paine reminded Jefferson of his plan and how the « proposal for a mutual reduction of navies was popular in England because I applied it as one of the principle means for reducing taxes. In sum, one of the benefits of democratic governance would be limiting military spending.

Systematic studies of successful arms control agreements and regime type are woefully lacking in the field of International Relations. However, studies of military spending and regime type have identified broad patterns that tend to conform to Paine’s expectations. Despite some obvious anomalies like the United States, democratic states tend to spend less — as a percentage of GDP — on their militaries than do authoritarian regimes (Fordham and Walker 2005 ; Goldsmith 2003). Once again, Paine’s claims regarding military spending find empirical support.

Paine’s Interventionism : Descent to Bring Democracy

Paine was an early and strong advocate of military intervention to spread democracy. In his 1792 dedication of Rights of Man Part II, Paine promised to join the French general Lafayette in "the Spring Campaign" that will "terminate in the extinction of German despotism, and in establishing the freedom of all Germany." Paine’s justification for a military intervention was clear : "When France shall be surrounded with revolutions, she will be in peace and safety."

Paine also openly advocated intervention in England to jumpstart the revolutionary change to democracy. Paine (1798) promised to make a "small patriotic donation" of "five-hundred livres" to help finance a French-led "descent" on England. According to Paine’s account, Bonaparte was to command the descent. "By agreement between him and me," Paine (1804 : 680) later reflected, "I was to accompany him… to give the people of England an opportunity of forming a government for themselves, and thereby bring about peace." Paine never considered this an invasion but rather the effort to help lead the English people away from tyranny.

Paine repeatedly stressed how these military interventions to spread democracy would serve the interests of all. Paine (1798 : 1403) justified the descent on England in the same way he justified Lafayette’s campaign against Prussia :

There will be no lasting peace for France, nor for the world, until the tyranny and corruption of the English government be abolished, and England, like Italy, become a sister Republic… the mass of the people are friends of liberty : tyranny and taxation oppress them, but they deserve to be free. Paine never considered these interventions against monarchial regimes as targeting the people of that nation. These people have been led astray by this false system of government. The task at hand, in Paine’s eyes, was to topple the corrupt government and allow the people to rise and rule. In his letter on the invasion of England (1804), Paine drew the important distinction between a people/nation and a monarchical government : « I hope Bonaparte will remember that this war has not been provoked by the people. It is altogether the act of the (English) Government, without their consent or knowledge. » This distinction between government and society has been echoed during many wars and interventions involving democracies since.

Paine’s optimism regarding the ease of a descent on England was shared by many. British Revolutionaries and revolutionary organizations in Paris promoted similar ideas of a descent to topple the corrupt English monarchy. These efforts were pronounced in the so-called ‘British Club,’ originally known as ‘The Friends of the Rights of Man associated at Paris’(Erdman 1986, 226). John Oswald, along with Paine, was a leading figure in this group and characterized the descent on England as « a friendly descent of sixty thousand sans-culottes who will march straight to London, to aid their brothers the sans-culottes of England, to achieve the revolution of Great Britain » (Erdman 1986, 260). Given his stature in Paris, Paine was the one most associated with a possible descent on England. British spy reports frequently cited Paine as the one who would lead such a descent (Erdman 1986, 227 ; Keane 1995).

Paine justified these descents by associating France’s national security with the good of humanity and both depended upon extending democracy to neighboring states. Since monarchy oppressed at home and waged needless wars abroad, these interventions would hasten peace and prosperity among democratic states. Justifications for these descents can be drawn from the very core of Paine’s international political thought. Democratic governance is the only way in which fundamental rights can be safeguarded at the domestic level. Second, democratic regimes will be peaceful with one another. Third, these regimes will engage in free trade, thereby strengthening these peaceful bonds. Fourth, democracies will engage small militaries and will be enlightened members in international society. Finally, powerful monarchical regimes will constantly set about to challenge the peace. As noted above, these factors are integral to Paine’s international thought and provide a clear justification for interventions to bring about democracy and a more peaceful, just world.

These views on Paine’s interventionism in International Relations, elaborated by Walker (2000 ; 2008), have been recently challenged. Robert Lamb (2014 : 645) notes that « Walker’s identification of an aggressive militarism aimed at exporting democracy is unconvincing… (Paine’s) two suggestions for intervention… are both actually conceived and characterized by Paine as defensive rather than offensive military campaigns. » When these words were penned, argues Lamb, Paine « believes the republic to be in real danger at that moment and that he supports the proposed preemptive attack on Austria in order to secure its survival » (emphasis is in the original). Lamb’s argument, however, falls short on both conceptual and empirical grounds.

First, Lamb views the distinctions between offensive and defensive wars and preemptive wars to be unproblematic. Scholars of International Relations have long been leery of such easy distinctions. Some wars can be classified as defensive — such as the Soviet war against Nazi invasion. Others might be called defensive, but they are not. The concerted effort of the Bush Administration to justify the 2003 war against Iraq as defensive is a case in point. In the most general sense, defensive wars are fought to maintain the status quo. However, when a state initiates a war by invasion, this is hardly a defensive war where the initiator is seeking the status quo. Paine did not advocate war to maintain the status quo ; he explicitly advocated war to transform the governments of neighboring states into democracies. Once they were democratic, France could be at peace. Plus, given Paine’s belief in the advantage of defense, as shown above, an attack on the French Republic would be easily repelled. Preemptive wars are even more demanding in definition. To show that Paine was proposing a preemptive war, Lamb must demonstrate that Paine accurately anticipated in imminent attack by outside forces. Yet Lamb provides nothing of the sort. Indeed, in a letter to Danton in 1793 — cited below, Paine downplayed the importance of « combined foreign powers. » Finally, if we think of war with Clausewitz’s famous definition of ‘war as a continuation of politics by other means,’ we are pressed to evaluate Paine’s political objectives in these interventions. Nowhere, so far as I can find, did Paine seek to justify these wars of intervention as means of maintaining the status quo for France. Paine’s objectives in these wars were not to maintain French sovereignty. Instead, Paine’s political goals were clearly and repeatedly stated and can be summarized as revolutionary regime-change.

Paine’s ideas of a descent on England experienced a period of doubt that might have been more thoroughly explored by Lamb. Paine’s initial enthusiasms for French-led interventions temporarily dissipated with the onslaught of violence within the French Revolution. With the rise of the Jacobins, Paine retreated from his optimistic view of spreading democracy across Europe. In an often-quoted letter to Thomas Jefferson of April 20, 1793, Paine confided that « Had this Revolution been conducted consistently with its principles, there was once a good prospect of extending liberty through the greatest part of Europe ; but I now relinquish that hope. » Instead of seeing freedom spread to all the « enlightened countries of Europe » in seven years (1792, 119), as he prophesied in Rights of Man, Paine was ready to give up the ghost and return home to the United States in April 1793. He concluded his letter to Jefferson on a dire note of resignation : « As the prospect of a general freedom is now much shortened, I begin to contemplate returning home » (in Foner, II : 1331).

Paine’s disillusion with any French-led ‘descent’was reiterated a few weeks later in a letter to Danton. Retreating from his earlier ebullience, Paine now sought policies of non-intervention.

When I left America in the year of 1787, it was my intention to return the year following, but the French Revolution, and the prospect it afforded of extending the principles of liberty and fraternity through the greater part of Europe, have induced me to prolong my stay upwards of six years. I now despair of seeing the great object of European liberty accomplished, and my despair arises not from the combined foreign powers, not from the intrigues of aristocracy and priestcraft, but from the tumultuous misconduct with which the internal affairs of the present Revolution are conducted… All that now can be hoped for is limited to France only, and I agree with your motion of not interfering in the government of any foreign country, nor permitting any foreign country to interfere in the government of France (Foner, 1945 (II) : 1335).

This call for non-intervention represents a remarkable departure from his earlier optimism regarding French-led interventions. His call, however, was short-lived. Less than three years after writing these letters, Paine renewed his calls for a descent on England with both persistence and vigor.

Although Paine published To The Council of Five Hundred in 1798, where he offered to donate money and assist in a descent on England, his plans for such a descent were laid out much earlier. Paine devised the plan to launch gunboats from the Belgian coast to the Northeast of England while staying with Fulwar Skipwith in early 1796. In a letter to Louis Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux, then president of the Directory, Paine (1797) advised that « the North-east coast of England as the proper place to make a descent… About 18 months ago, I drew up a plan upon that subject. » In To the People of England on the Invasion of England (1804), Paine made his case for a descent in vivid detail. Paine was so committed to the idea of a descent on England, he ignored the importance of Nelson’s decisive victory at Trafalgar in October 21, 1805. As Keane (1995 : 514) notes how « Lord Nelson had destroyed the naval force of France and all but ruined Napolean’s plan to invade England, » but this did not dampen Paine’s zeal for such a descent. Paine wrote to Jefferson on how « Nelson’s victory, as the English papers put it, will have no influence on the campaign nor on the descent. » In letters late in his life, we see a tireless promotion of these descents. In one of his last letters to Jefferson, Paine proudly claimed ownership of the descent on England. In January of 1806, Paine boasted : « I am not certain if you know that the plan for a descent upon England by gunboats was proposed by myself. » Paine used this to help lobby for an official posting in Paris by the Jefferson Administration. Knowing of Paine’s frail state — and perhaps fearing his unremitting radicalism, Jefferson declined Paine’s offer. Talk of a descent on England to bring democracy, it appears, died with Tom Paine. But the justifications for many liberal interventions since bear a striking resemblance to Paine’s vision of a descent on England.

Paine, Interventionism, and Limited Militaries

One compelling reason to further explore Paine’s logic for interventionism rests in its contemporary and enduring relevance to global politics. Efforts to ‘begin the world over again’through liberal interventions turn up sporadically but repeatedly in American foreign policy. A thread of Paine’s ebullient optimism toward regime change can be detected in liberal interventions ranging from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. When asked by a British Ambassador why the United States intervened in Mexico, Woodrow Wilson responded : « I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men ! » A few years later Walter Hines Page, American Ambassador to Britain, explained Wilson’s policy of intervention to Edward Grey, then British Foreign Secretary. Page’s responses stand as one of the more stunning exchanges on American interventionism to impose good governance (cited in Smith 1995, 60) :

Grey asked, « Suppose you have to intervene, what then ? » « Make them vote and live by their decisions, » replied Page. « But suppose they will not so live ? » asked Grey. « We’ll go in again and make them vote again. » « And keep this up for 200 years ? »

« Yes, » Page retorted. « The United States will be here 200 years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space until they learn to vote and rule themselves. »

While Page’s view represents the most extreme, like Paine, his extremism was inspired by a vision of a more democratic, peaceful, and prosperous world.

George W. Bush displayed similar enthusiasms for promoting democracy abroad through interventions. In his speech at West Point, delivered to graduating military officers in June of 2002, Bush delivers a vision of how American power can bring about a more democratic world. A few snippets from the speech are sufficient to show some substantive and the rhetorical similarities between Bush and Paine :

We have our best chance since the rise of the nation state in the 17th century to build a world where the great powers compete in peace instead of prepare for war.

America stands for more than the absence of war. We have a great opportunity to extend a just peace, by replacing poverty, repression, and resentment around the world with hope of a better day.

The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.

Wherever we carry it, the American flag will stand not only for our power, but for freedom. Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace — a peace that favors human liberty… And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent. Building this just peace is America’s opportunity, and America’s duty. From this day forward, it is your challenge, as well, and we will meet this challenge together. You will wear the uniform of a great and unique country. America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves — safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life. (4)

In his rich analysis of the Bush speech, Edward Rhodes (2003, 134) notes how « America’s military is not simply a protective shell, but also a fist. This fist will be used to strike down freedom’s foes. » According to Rhodes, Bush, like Wilson, will deploy « military force aggressively and preventively to remove obstacles to the creation of a global liberal society. » Shortly after delivering the speech, the Bush Administration was advocating war against Iraq, with one of the putative justifications being democratization.

At first glance, the liberal ebullience for interventions by Wilson and by Bush might be construed as a modern manifestation of Paine’s thinking. Such an interpretation, however, is misleading on at least two grounds. First, Paine’s policy calling for small militaries in democratic states would have rendered these large military interventions impossible. Second, Paine did not think all societies were ready for democratic rule. These descents were reserved for those societies where liberal movements and institutions were already afoot. By exploring these factors more thoroughly, we can differentiate Paine’s plans for a descent on England from more recent examples of liberal interventionism.

As noted above, Paine was a vociferous critic of high levels of military spending. As a result, he envisioned his descent upon England as a relatively small military undertaking. Measuring 60 feet long and 16 feet abeam, Paine’s gunboats could be easily and quickly constructed on the Belgian coast at minimal cost. These rather large row-boats would be rowed across the North Sea by a volunteer, citizen army. As indicated by his letter To the Council of Five Hundred, Paine (1798a) thought that such a descent could be funded by enlightened individuals making a « small patriotic donation. » Such descents would not require extensive state resources. Paine was optimistic that once the small force rowed ashore in England, they would be embraced as liberators by the oppressed English nation. For Paine (1798a) « the mass of the (English) people are the friends of liberty : tyranny and taxation oppress them, but they deserve to be free. » A descent would merely facilitate the rise of this oppressed nation. In Oswald’s words noted above, it would be a « friendly descent… to aid their brothers the sans-culottes of England. » When Paine published his letter To the People of England on the Invasion of England in 1804, the goals of the descent were « to give the people of England an opportunity of forming a government for themselves, and thereby bring about peace. » Descents were not meant to conquer but to tip the balance in favor of republican government. They could never succeed without strong, indigenous political movements ready to rise up to support republican principles. As a result of the certain assistance from the British people, the level of military resources needed would remain small. In this way, the idea of Paine’s interventionism is not inconsistent with his imperative for small, defensive military forces. This also highlights how recent large military interventions are very much at odds with Paine’s vision.

Clearly, Paine saw England as particularly ripe for revolution. In England, the divide between the rulers and the ruled was perhaps the widest in Europe. In Rights of Man, Paine (1792, 158) noted how « We now see all over Europe, and particularly in England, the curious phenomenon of a nation looking one way, and the government the other — the one forward and the other backward. » In England, Paine saw a larger proportion of society ready to take up the revolutionary cause. In a letter to Jefferson in August of 1803 on the question of settling the Louisiana territories, Paine wrote on how « there are thousands and tens of thousands in England and Ireland and also in Scotland who are friends of mine by principle, and who would gladly change their present country. » By turning to his thoughts on Louisiana, we see how Paine believed some countries like England were ready for revolution — and a descent, while others needed to brought along to republican values more gradually.

The distinction between Louisiana and England demonstrates how Paine thought some nations were ripe for revolution — and a descent, while others needed to be nurtured more slowly on republican principles. While Paine envisioned a large sector of the British population to be ‘friends of his by principle’and ready for self governance, he was decidedly against granting the inhabitants of Louisiana the same rights. In the same letter to Jefferson, 2 August 1803, he made the following suggestion :

I take it for granted that the present inhabitants know little or nothing of election and representation as constituting government. They are therefore not in an immediate condition to exercise those powers, and besides this they are perhaps too much under the influence of their priests to be sufficiently free. (Foner II, 1441).

Paine suggested that they might be gradually introduced to democratic governance by electing their municipal governors and perhaps their « Church Ministers. » The latter practice would « serve to hold the priests in a style of good behavior, and also give the people an idea of elective rights. » With the passage of time and the influx of enlightened immigrants from Britain, Louisiana could eventually be granted the full rights enjoyed by other parts of the United States.

A year later, in 1804, Paine addressed a petition by some of the residents of Louisiana wishing to maintain the institution of slavery. Paine (1804b) responded in his characteristic hard-hitting style. « You are arriving at freedom by the easiest means that any people ever enjoyed it…. And you already so far mistake principles, that under the name of rights you ask for powers ; power to import and enslave Africans. » Such a request demonstrates that « you do not understand the principles and interest of a republic… We have had experience, and you have not. » Paine concluded his missive with two powerful warnings : « Dare you put up a petition to heaven for such a power, without fearing to be struck from the earth by its justice » and « Do you want to renew in Louisiana the horrors of Domingo ? »

In Louisiana, it would take many years to nurture the principles of rights and self governance. Only then could the people rule themselves responsibly. In Britain, on the other hand, liberal principles were already widely recognized by the people. These principles were being suppressed by the illegitimate monarchy. The challenges facing England could be met by a descent that would topple the monarchy and « give the people of England an opportunity of forming a government for themselves » (Paine 1804a). In Louisiana, where people were lacking both the principles and experience of self-government, a descent would be extremely costly and would likely fail.

Judging from this comparison between Louisiana and England, Paine was selective on the question of interventions to bring about democratic governance. Paine’s descents would only work where the nation was already acquainted with what he saw as good governing principles. Descents would not be used as a blunt and broad force to transform all societies. Instead, Paine’s descent would be a strategic force to tilt the domestic balance of power in favor of what he termed ‘his friends by principle,’ with those principles being democratic governance and an appreciation of universal rights. The big point is that some societies, in Paine’s view, were more acquainted with democratic institutions than others. Many of the modern manifestations of liberal interventionism overlook this distinction.

For these reasons, efforts to equate Paine’s descents to other forms of liberal interventionism are mistaken. The recent invasion of Iraq — while often noted as a liberal intervention to bring democracy (Rhodes, 2003) — is categorically distinct from Paine’s ideas of a descent on England. This was staged by a massive and costly, if not oppressive, military force. It targeted a nation where the principles of democratic government were largely absent from society. A closer approximation to one of Paine’s descents might be the International Brigades intervening in the Spanish Civil War. These were a relatively small force of volunteers intervening to assist a strong and well-established Spanish republican movement. While associating any 20th — or 21st — century interventions with Paine’s 18th century vision will be rife with problems, the Spanish Civil War lands closer to the mark than many other interventions associated with liberal internationalism. The International Brigades were too small and failed, as did most efforts to jumpstart democracy by military force. These efforts, like Paine’s descents, were driven by an ill-advised optimism.


Part of Paine’s enduring appeal may be this exhilarating optimism. Paine’s optimism can attract, perplex, and enrage — often simultaneously. From songwriter to scholar, Paine’s optimism is duly noted and then tempered by the events of an imperfect world. Dylan’s song, As I Went Out One Morning, begins in a pure optimistic morning but ends in a darker light. « As I went out one morning/To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s. » This air around Tom Paine’s was clean, pure, innocent, and liberating. But in the song, the clean, pure air did not endure. It ends with Paine’s failed effort to head off some perceived calamity : « Just then Tom Paine, himself came running from across the field/Shouting at this lovely girl and commanding her to yield/And as she was letting go her grip, up Tom Paine did run/‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said to me. ‘I’m sorry for what she’s done’.» Gregory Claeys (1992, xxiv) concludes his introduction to Rights of Man by noting how « Paine’s relentless faith in democracy may have its flaws. But faith in anything else has often turned out to be even more misplaced. » As we sort through Paine’s uncertain remains, the task at hand is to differentiate the impossibly flawed from the attainable. Paine has left us with ample amounts of both.

Paine envisioned progress and rights emerging as naturally as the rising sun. In Rights of Man, Paine (1792, 168) noted how « There is a morning of reason rising upon man on the subject of government, that has not appeared before. » This rise of reason would result in revolutions across Europe within seven years. In more tempered, if not ambiguous, claim, Paine (1792, 112) noted that « It is an age of Revolutions, in which everything may be looked for. » And what Paine ‘looked for’was the very best in mankind, the very best in states, and the very best in relations between states. The cumulative would result in a peaceful, just, and prosperous world. But in the end, we are left in a world that never measures up to Paine’s optimistic vision. Democracy did not take hold in all the enlightened countries of Europe in the seven years that Paine predicted. When democracy does take hold, the citizens are a far cry from Paine’s vision of reasonable, responsible, and engaged individuals. War, inequality, and despotic rule continue to mar the human condition in the 21st century. Descents, as Paine envisioned them, have rarely been pursued and have never succeeded.

Yet to dismiss Paine as a utopian visionary would ignore the obvious but slow progress that has occurred. Republican principles of government and democratic rule have increased around the world, but not as rapidly as Paine predicted. Once established, these democracies are indeed peaceful with one another, much as Paine predicted. International trade does reduce militarized disputes between states, but it can also exacerbate some domestic conflict. International organizations that help manage free trade and conflicts have emerged, but without the force Paine predicted. So it would seem that Paine’s optimistic vision of world politics does not deserve the abject ridicule it sometimes receives.

Thomas C. Walker (Walkerth@gvsu.edu)


(1) Dylan featured Paine in “As I went out one morning”, from his John Wesley Harding album. Reagan frequently used quotations from Paine, especially Paine’s call for change in Common Sense: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” For a most curious and idiosyncratic account of Paine’s bones see Collins (2005).

(2) Here, and throughout the remainder of the text, I will use the terms republic and democracy interchangeably. Paine’s republics—freely elected, representative governments with constitutionally protected rights—form the core of modern democracy.

(3) As a curious aside, Paine (1801), in Article 8 of the Compact, asked that the “association establishes a flag for itself, to be carried by the ships and vessels of every nations composing this association, in addition to its proper national flag. The flag to be a pennant at the head of the main-mast, composed of the same colours as compose the rain-bow, and arranged in the same order as they appear in that phenomenon.”

(4) Text of the speech was drawn from http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html.

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