Sunday, August 16, 2009

Thomas Paine's Surprising Influence on Ronald Reagan

I am just finishing up John Patrick Duggin's book on President Ronald Reagan. Duggin brings up an interesting point that I hadn't realized, namely that Reagan was strongly influenced in his views by Thomas Paine. Paine is the one founding father that Reagan quoted the most, and much of Paine's ideology -- individual liberty, a suspicion of large institutions, hostility to taxation and government regulation, etc. -- is evident in Reagan's general approach to conservatism.

One particularly interesting point that Duggin makes is the Reagan's brand of conservatism was remarkably untraditional in its rhetoric. In several different contexts, Reagan quoted Paine's stirring line, "We have the power to begin the world anew" -- a very untraditional sentiment. Reagan embraced Paine's idea that human beings can liberate themselves from corrupt and oppressive structures in order to create a new order of liberty and individualism. While Reagan appealed to voters of a more traditionalist perspective, he was no disciple of Russell Kirk and even less a disciple of Edmund Burke. Behind Reagan's conservativism was a streak of radicalism that is underappreciated both by many current conservatives who tend to be overly hagiographic when speaking of the former president, and many modern progressives who ignorantly demonize him.

It is a fascinating twist of history that the most radical founding father -- Thomas Paine -- serves as a primary philosophical influence on the most successful conservative president of the 20th century. Any attempt to understand Ronald Reagan must take into account the influence of Thomas Paine on his work. And any attempt to appreciate Thomas Paine's influence on America must look to the impact his work had on the ideas, rhetoric and program of President Reagan.


J said...

Reagan was initially sort of a secularist--and a Democrat, (though not a Pelosicrat--and never a pal of unions). He joined the GOP in 60s, did he not--the biblethumpers didn't really seize control of the GOP until, well, Reagan's campaign for President in late 70s--when the GOP backroom boys finally realized the power of the "moral majority" voting bloc.

However Reagan was not exactly too tolerant of dissent or freedom (ie Paine-like virtues), when, as CA Gov, he and his henchman Ed Meese ordered the cops into Berkeley, was he.

Reagan's Paine-ism was sort of finished by the time he took office as Governor (--though some might argue it was over when he was testifying for HUAC...).

Daniel said...

Certainly Reagan is ignorantly demonized by the left and ignorantly idolized by the right, but his radicalizm contained few elements to appeal to Progressives. He drive to "make the world anew" was not a desire to re-engineer society, but the stop the engineers, but in the world and in the U.S. At the time, I think most of us thought the use of Paine's language was just a flourish of oratory, as it is with most polemicists.

That said, the point is a very interesting one, and deserves further consideration.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I took a quick survey of the internet on this very interesting meme, and there's certainly a lot to it. However, Edmund Burke's applicability---of respect for tradition as having at least undergone a roadtest, unlike modern ideas---is shown in Reagan's belief in constitutional originalism vs. the "living constitution," and also against socialism, which wasn't around in Burke's time.

Still, Reagan's epitaph is

"I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there's purpose and worth to each and every life."

...hardly a Calvinist sentiment, and an area we've touched on on this blog, of the Founders' view of man and man's nature.

Still, as writer Matthew Franck writes:

*Using published presidential papers, and comparing him to his nine predecessors from Hoover to Carter, I found that Reagan mentioned the "Framers" or the "Founding Fathers" more often than all of them combined, and the "Founders" about three quarters as many times as the others combined.

And so, Reagan's conservatism, in his advocacy of returning to the Founding principles, is Burkean in spirit, even if the particulars differ.

But it should also be noted that Reagan himself wasn't particularly a social conservative, even if the so-called "bible-thumpers" chose him as their best alternative.

Reagan is certainly sui generis, and deserves careful evaluation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, I was writing while you were, Daniel, and expressed similar sentiments.

Michael Heath said...

Mark in Spokane - interesting post. I'd appreciate seeing additional posts on this topic where you analyze Paine's influences on Reagan in perspective of time.

Reagan's views were either constantly adapting or his actions differed from his past rhetoric and claimed positions, and not just for expediency, but also as an effort to improve results - I think a primary reason he was ultimately so successful after initially failing. In fact his evolution during his tenure as President is an aspect I find most fascinating about him. So knowing when Reagan was subscribing to Paine's views, or in opposition, would be particularly insightful.