The choice is illuminating, too, because the two men—once aligned over the justice of America’s rebellion—engaged in a long debate throughout the 1790s about how to respond to the French Revolution…
Edmund Burke was an early opponent of the French Revolution on account of its radical breach with the past. By casting aside religion, chivalry, and the custom and bonds of history, Burke argued, the revolutionaries were unleashing destructive forces with which the rest of Europe couldn’t coexist. Conscious as he was of the”ignorance and fallibility of mankind,” he feared the worst.
None of this, Mr. Levin reminds us, made Burke a reactionary opposed to any sort of change; far from it. He was a strong supporter of Catholic rights, a critic of the slave trade, and a keen reformer of corruption and inefficiency. His conservatism, as he put it himself, combined “a disposition to preserve” with “an ability to improve.” Burke saw tradition and social hierarchy not as bulwarks of an immutable order—as Continental European conservatives did—but as speed bumps that prevented terrible accidents by slowing the pace of change. The course of events in Europe, which saw the Terror in France and years of war between France and the rest of the Continent, bore out Burke’s prediction.
Tom Paine, by contrast, argued not from history but from first principles. Applying the unyielding criterion of reason to inherited arrangements, he suggested that they be dismantled forthwith. Mr. Levin writes that Paine advocated “a public pension system for the poor, free public education, public benefits for parents, and a progressive income tax.”
His vision was universal, with none of Burke’s qualifications of time and place. “All men are born equal,” Paine said, “and with equal natural right.” He supported not only the revolution in France but its export. “My country is the world,” Paine announced, “and my religion is to do good.” He saw such a mission as the path not only to justice but to peace: “When all the governments of Europe shall be established on the representative system, nations will become acquainted, and the animosities and the prejudices fomented by the intrigue and artifices of courts will cease.”
Mr. Levin is too subtle a writer to suggest that Burke is simply the progenitor of the Republican right and Paine of the Democratic left. To be sure, when he quotes Burke contrasting “half a dozen [radical] grasshoppers making the field chink with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent,” it is hard not to think of Richard Nixon’s invocation of the conservative silent majority against the cacophonous student protesters. As Mr. Levin reminds us, however, if Tom Paine was a redistributor, he was also an advocate of small government, and he was invoked by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign.
Mr. Levin’s convincing conclusion is that Burke and Paine should both be seen as progenitors of liberalism—a doctrine that emphasizes civil liberties and individual rights alongside the imperatives of order and security. When progressives seek to “liberate the individual” from traditional constraints, Mr. Levin argues, they are at one with Paine. When conservatives “warn of the dangers of burdening our children with debt to fund our own consumption,” they are drawing on Burke’s ideas of a historical contract between the generations. So the differences between left and right today, Mr. Levin says reassuringly, don’t reflect the “remnants of an argument between capitalism and socialism” or an irreconcilable “clash between religious traditionalism and secular cosmopolitanism.” Rather they go back to that “defining argument” between Burke and Paine at the end of the 18th century—an intra-liberal civil war, if you will.
Readers hoping to ransack this learned book for usable quotes won’t be disappointed; each of his subjects, Mr. Levin writes, was a “master of political rhetoric yet was known as much for the force of his arguments as for the power of his words.” But readers won’t find easy answers to current problems. In a Burkean manner, Mr. Levin enriches through wisdom rather than prescription. He gives us something more than a manual of past lessons—namely, the historical framework to achieve greater understanding.