19 September 2011

Christopher Hitchens On Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man

Though his role as the signal figure calling for the independence of the United States (he was the first to use the term) is often overlooked in American history textbooks and political conversation (mostly due to a clerical backlash against him over his succeeding work, The Age of Reason), in Europe—and other regions—Thomas Paine is remembered as the father of republican democracy in the modern world.  

Not only was he the father of American independence, he was also mentor of the beginning Scottish republican movement, an Englishman considered the godfather of Irish republicanism, and the flame of liberty that helped inspire the French Revolution of 1789. 

In many circles today, American as well as European, he is likewise thought of as the first socialist philosopher of the modern era due in part to his two works mentioned above plus essays and articles promoting abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, fair wages and safe working conditions for labor, universal suffrage, and many others promoting the general welfare of all humanity. 

Christopher Hitchens, an English-American history professor and strong believer in the humanist values of the Enlightenment, recently took an extensive look at Paine’s Rights of Man in his recent book by that same title.  The core of Hitchens’ examination of the work lies in chapters 3 and 4, which examine Parts One and Two of Paine’s book respectively.

In the Introduction, Hitchens’ describes the sharpest points of disagreement between Paine and the Irish Whig philosopher Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France served as the main instigation for Paine’s writing Rights of Man, at least in Part One (dedicated to George Washington). 

Burke, who had been an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and might have been expected to likewise support that taking place in France, on the contrary staunchly opposed it, largely because of the parallels between the goals of the French revolutionaries and those of the republicans in England, Scotland, and Ireland (though vocal advocate of the rights of the Irish, he opposed the Paine-inspired United Irishmen) of the time. 

Hitchens notes Paine’s liberal use of the example of the Marquis de Lafayette (known after his republican abdication of the noble title as Gilbert du Motier) as what he suggests Paine viewed as the equivalent of the later Che Guevara, to whom Paine dedicated Part Two.  The essence of Burke’s manifesto, according to Hitchens, was that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was England’s revolution and that it established once and for all the principle of heredity that Paine so abhorred. 

Hitchens’ introduction includes the ritualistic greeting of the Society of United Irishmen (which contains references to the “liberty tree”), the first verse of the Robert Burns poem “The Tree of Liberty”, and a parody of the British national anthem “God Save Our King” (originally a Jacobite diddy stolen from the supporters of the deposed House of Stuart and sung to the same tune as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) written in 1791 by Joseph Mather, a radical activist, largely in honor of Thomas Paine and his book published that year, Part One of Rights of Man.

In Chapter 1, Hitchens describes “Paine in America”, beginning with the steps by which Paine came to be in the about-to-be new nation. 

The first event which he notes as evidence of Paine’s yearning for freedom is the latter’s attempt, at age 13, to sing on with the crew of a privateer vessel named (no kidding) The Terrible, which was under the command of one (also no kidding) Captain Death.  Though he suggests that the strictness of the Quaker household in which he was brought up was one of the reasons for Paine’s lust for freedom, Hitchens also cites the family’s Quakerism as a strong influence in Paine’s inclination toward dissent, especially when he felt injustice. 

A successful attempt three years later to sign on with another ship and a different captain during the Seven Years War gave Paine the capital he needed to start an independent life and career in London. 

The most important employment to Paine’s later career as a propagandist and revolutionary was as an excise officer.  After obtaining a post in Cornwall, Paine became a member of the local debating club, and when the excise officers nationally decided to petition for better working conditions, it was Paine to whom they looked; it was his eloquent petition and defense thereof which brought him to the attention of Benjamin Franklin. 

In America, Paine’s most important works for the cause of American independence, according to Hitchens, were the pamphlet Common Sense and the essay The Crisis.  One of his last important writings before returning across the Atlantic was Letter to the Abbe Raynal, composed in answer to Raynal’s Revolution d’ Amerique, which attempted to minimize the significance of the American Revolution.

In Chapter 2, “Paine in Europe”, Hitchens details Paine’s dealings with republicans in England, Scotland, and Ireland as well as in France, and touches briefly upon briefly upon the dispute between Burke and Paine, saving fuller discussion for the next two chapters, though he does defend Burke’s liberal credentials on several points.  He notes that Paine’s friend Thomas Jefferson helped write the French Declaration de Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen and that Paine’s friend the Marquis de Lafayette was commander of the National Guard. 

Among the groups Hitchens lists Paine being involved with in England are the ‘Friends of Liberty’, the ‘Revolution Society’, and the ‘Society for Constitutional Information’ (noting that the second was not as revolutionary as its names suggests while the third innocuously named group was more so).  Without going into detail on the dispute between Burke and Paine, Hitchens tells of the difficulty Paine had getting both Part One and Part Two of Rights of Man published, then how he left England one step of the hangman. 

Regarding Paine’s adventures in revolutionary France, Hitchens begins with showing Paine’s alignment with the Girondin faction in the National Convention, which sat on the right of the speaker, versus the Montagnard faction (which Hitchens makes the common mistake of referring to as the “Jacobins”; at this time both groups were members of the Jacobin Club, and, in fact, the Girondins were then the dominant faction in the Club, a position they held until the Reign of Terror), which sat on the left. 

Attempting to replicate his American success with Common Sense and The Crisis, Paine wrote in September 1792 the Lettre de Thomas Paine au Peuple Francais, which was scoffed at by Robespierre and the Montagnards.  However, it was his pamphlet On the Propriety of Bringing Louis XVI to Trial, and even more so his later Opinion de Thomas Paine sur l’affaire Louis Capet, which brought about his imprisonment and near execution (which he escaped only by a lucky accident) during the Reign of Terror.  Paine was only released from imprisonment after the arrival of a new ambassador, James Monroe, who was his friend, replacing Gouvernor Morris, his political enemy over Paine’s call for universal suffrage in America.  Not to Paine’s credit, he supported the coup d’etat which established the five-man Directory.  However, Paine opposed Napoleon’s seizure of power as ‘First Consul’, and hearing of his imminent arrest, his old friend Jefferson, now President of the United States, invited him to return.

Chapter 3, “Rights of Man, Part One”, begins with a telling of the philosophical disputes between Paine and Burke which led to the former’s writing Rights of Man.  Hitchens points out the weaknesses of Burke’s arguments as well as what he sees as his few strengths.  He likewise contrasts the paucity of Burke’s rhetorical ability with the quick wit of Paine’s words both spoken and written. 

At the time, Hitchens says, Paine’s language in Rights of Man was seen as coarse and unsophisticated, but he points out that Paine intended for his work to be read and understood by common people, using his ample knowledge of the Bible (King James’ Version) and of the works of Shakespeare to illustrate and punctuate his points. 

While Burke asserts that the English so-called “constitution” sprang from the Glorious Revolution, Paine counters, following Jefferson, that it rather has its basis in the Norman Conquest, an idea to which many people in England could relate, even at that late date, nearly 800 years distant. 

One point upon which Paine and Burke disagreed, and with which Paine deals with extensively in Part One, is the privileges of the Church, which Burke, being a staunch Catholic, strongly supported. 

The last part of the chapter describes how Hitchens sees Paine’s greatest contribution to political discourse being the latter’s marriage of human rights to political democracy.

Chapter 4, “Rights of Man, Part Two”, Hitchens begins with a quote from Adam Smith’s On The Wealth of Nations, noting that Paine, correctly, assumed his readers would understand the reference as a rational put-down of the mystical system employed by Burke, revealing yet more of Paine’s literary expertise. 

In Part Two, Hitchens notes, Paine becomes much more pragmatic, attacking the ideas of monarchy and heredity with numerous examples, comparing the government in America with the corrupt and crumbling system in the United Kingdom.  Paine attacks Burke’s ideas about the British “constitution”, including the proposal that the Magna Carta was an advance toward liberty. 

Hitchens reviews Paine’s extensive proposals for democratic republican government, his preference for a single-house legislature (instead of the two-house adopted by the United States), his suggestion that triennial election elections be held to replace one-third of the legislature every three years, and that the three branches of government remain absolutely separate in order to prevent the type of authoritarian assaults on democracy to which hereditary systems such as that in England were too often prone. 

Paine proposed abolishing poor houses as well as becoming the first to propose cradle-to-grave support for all citizens. 

At the end of the chapter, Hitchens approvingly describes Paine’s call for America, Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic to form a federation to mutually reduce their navies and impose the same on the rest of Europe, then to convince Spain to free its colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

Chapter 5, “The Age of Reason”, discusses the work of Paine which earned him the most enmity in America, chiefly among the powerful clergy of New England. 

Hitchens shows how its core contention, that religions based on supposed “revelation” are as inimical to liberty and the rights of humanity as political despotism, is a necessary companion to Paine’s more political prior work.  Furthermore, examples from this work demonstrate Paine’s extensive knowledge, and critical examination, of the central foundation of the Christianity in which he was surrounded.  However, he also points out the contradiction between Paine’s aim to prove that religion is immoral and his simultaneous desire to demonstrate that belief in God is necessary.

In the conclusion, “Paine’s Legacy”, Hitchens deals with Paine’s last years, chiefly the fallout from the publication of The Age of Reason and his protests against the treatment of American Indians.  He notes at the end how Paine provided inspiration to advocates of Parliament reform in England, abolitionists in America, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, the Labour movement in England, women suffragettes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, the first president to cite Paine since FDR.

The best epitaph for Thomas Paine is that which is written on a plaque on the Rue de l’Odeon in Paris on which he lived in from 1797-1802: "Thomas Paine. English by birth. American by choice. French by decree. Citizen of the world."  (NOTE: Pictured above, taken by me on May Day 2011.)

Nathaniel Poe vs. Natty Bumppo: Film vs. Novel in The Last of the Mohicans

Michael Mann’s 1992 take on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans has been my favorite movie since I first saw it. 

Desiring to make a film of the novel updated for the late 20th century, Mann—who produced the film, wrote the script with the help of one person, and directed action with two others—departed from the novel on several key points, some of which had to do with change in genre, some with “New Age Indian” popular culture, others, perhaps, with a desire to put his own footprint on an enduring epic. 

Though I had not thought of it in years, upon finally reading the novel and watching the movie yet again, I remembered that the timing of its release, the year of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, was probably not coincidental.  Many of the popular notions (and misconceptions) of “Indian” or “Native American” culture current at the time show up in various scenes.

Unlike the novel, the movie begins with the protagonist, Natty Bumpo, whom Mann renames Nathaniel Poe, his adopted father Chingachgook (adopted elder brother in the novel), and his adopted brother Uncas chase a deer through the forest, hunting it down to kill it for food, its skins, and other uses.  Upon its death, Nathaniel (who also carries the appellations Hawkeye and Le Longue Carabine, or Long Rifle) kneels down at its side and prays for its forgiveness for killing it out of necessity, an example of Mann’s injecting of popular notions into the film—Indians viewed as in harmony with the land and all its creatures. 

Later in the story, the refugees avoid detection by a French-led Huron war party refusing to enter the burial ground where the group hides for the night, another New Ageism about Indians in general; neither the Iroquoian Huron nor the Algonquin Mohican of the time had burial grounds nor held such things in awe.

Meanwhile, the Munro sisters, Cora and Alice, daughters of General Munro who commands the garrison at Fort William Henry, arrive in New York colony in a scene which contrasts imperial England with the colonial frontier.  Here, Major Duncan Heyward, newly assigned to her father’s command, pleads the cause of his courtship with Cora, who tells him she does not love him. 

This scene establishes one of the bases for the conflict between Heyward and Nathaniel, who later falls for Cora as she does for him.  At one point the former aims a pistol at the latter intending to shoot him, which is absent in the novel.  Also in the novel, it is not Cora with whom Heyward falls in love but her younger and more delicate sister Alice (whose character stays much the same).

The next morning, a British officer exhorts the colonials to join the militia, calling them to serve for “King and Country”.  When Nathaniel asks why any of them should fight for his (the officer’s) country and the officer in reply asks if he does not consider himself a patriot and loyal subject of the crown, Nathaniel answers, “I don’t consider myself subject to much of nothing.”  A colonial named Jack Winthrop gains General Webb’s promise to allow the militia to return home if the Huron, France’s main Indian allies in the movie, begin attacking the frontier. 

Heyward, in Webb’s office when the negotiation takes place, expresses contempt for the army having to negotiate with the colonials.  This contempt, and that of the other English officers in the film, does not appear in the novel; rather, he and Munro (who in the film wants to hang Nathaniel for sedition) highly regard Nathaniel and his companions for their abilities and knowledge about the frontier.  No doubt Mann added that element to Cooper’s story to appeal to the American public’s latent anti-British feelings.  However, here Cooper proves more historical—at the time, the colonials in the English colonies still considered themselves English.

Mann attacks the French general, Montcalm, with an equal fusillade, so France does not escape slander either.  Historians differ about how much action Montcalm took to prevent or stop the massacre of the departing English-Mohawk-colonial contingent, but at worst they have suggested he knew about it and did nothing to prevent it.  In contrast, Mann portrays Montcalm as all but ordering Magua to carry it out.

Magua of the film, who leads the column in which the Munro sisters travel with Major Heyward and the regiment to Ft. Henry into an ambush (in the novel he offers to take the three there by a shortcut with similar results), shares much of the same early life story with his literary counterpart but receives a more sympathetic reason for hating Munro.  The general was behind the Mohawk attack on his village in which his children were killed and after which his wife, thinking Magua dead, remarried; in the book he finds hardship because of alcoholism.

Magua, portrayed by Cherokee actor Wes Studi, displays in Mann’s film the same cunning and ruthlessness, though, which Cooper gives him, earning his French nickname in the novel, Le Renard Subtile (Subtle Fox).

Besides his animosity for Nathaniel, Heyward displays in the film another bad character trait not present in Cooper: deceit. 

After their rescue by the trio of Nathaniel, Chingachgook, and Uncas from the attack on the regiment travelling to Fort Henry, Heyward and the Munro sisters continue on their way by another path where the party comes upon friends of the Mohican trio killed by a war party with their house burned.  Hawkeye orders that the bodies lay where they are in order that the path of the refugees not be discovered. 

When they arrive at the fort, asks Munro to release the militia to defend their homes as Webb had promised.  Upon being asked if Nathaniel’s story is true, Heyward denies it, and Munro refuses the request, whereupon Hawkeye arranges for those militia who wish to do so to escape, leading to his arrest for sedition.

Mann atones for his characterization of Heyward toward the end of the movie in which the Sachem, the elder who is the chief man in the Huron town (sachem is an Algonquian rather than Iroquoian word, by the way) orders Cora burned in compensation for the loss of Magua’s children.  Hawkeye protests, offering himself, saying what a great honour the death of Le Longue Carabine would be to the Huron, telling Heyward to translate it into French, which only Heyward speaks and which serves as the lingua franca in the region where they then are. 

Instead, Heyward offers himself in her place, sparing Hawkeye; Cooper places a similar scene, though no one dies in it, in a Delaware (Lenape) town which does not appear in the film.  Thus, Heyward of the movie finally lives up to Heyward of the novel.  In a scene recalling Episode 3 of the 1977 miniseries “How the West Was Won”, in which Zeb Macahan shoots his friend Cully Madigan who is being tortured to death by Indians, Hawkeye performs the same mercy for Heyward as the flames reach his body once he and Cora have gotten a safe distance away.

The character in the movie who gets the shortest shrift is Uncas.  Where in the book, Heyward, as the pursuer of Alice, is the romantic hero, Uncas is the valorous hero, famous throughout the region for his deeds and bravery.  Where Nathaniel in the movie is in love with Cora, Cooper makes Uncas her beloved, and he is drawn toward her because she is such a strong individual.  Where Nathaniel in the movie enters the Huron village alone and is made to run the gauntlet, that role falls to Uncas in the novel, who in it has a French title of his own, Le Cerf Agile (Bounding Elk).  Overall, in his film Mann greatly diminishes Uncas’ role in events.

Actually, I could say that the major character in Cooper to whom Mann gives the shortest shrift is David Gamut, since he does not appear at all.  In Cooper he plays a key role in several scenes, most notably in the long chase after the sisters when they are taken from the battlefield following the ambush after the surrender of Ft. Henry. 

Speaking of the chase, in the book the chase takes up at least a fourth of the action and is a nod to the famous chase by Daniel Boone and his companions after the Cherokee-Shawnee war party which took captive Boone’s daughter Jemima and the Callaway sisters Elizabeth and Frances lasting three days and ending with the girls’ rescue.  Gamut trails the war party close behind while the rest of the group, Hawkeye and his two Mohican companions along with Heyward and Munro (who does not die in the novel), follow three days behind, and, like Boone’s, their chase lasts three days.

Like the book, the final action in the movie is a fight on the cliffs, and is similar in that Magua does kill Uncas in both.  Rather than Alice jumping off the cliff as in the movie, however, Cora gets stabbed by one of Magua’s men, who is in turn killed by Uncas before his own death at Magua’s hands. 

In the movie, Chingachgook kills his son’s killer with an axe, but in the book it is Hawkeye with his famous long rifle.  Mann places this scene just after that in which Hawkeye shoots Heyward.  Leaving out the Delaware village Cooper supplies in his book gave Mann no Delaware warriors for the picture Cooper paints of the battle as a lead up to the chase and fight on the cliffs.

Having watched the film again after reading the novel, I would now like the film better without the elements of Anglophobia and the manufactured-for-the-film animosity between Nathaniel and Heyward.  Of course, since Nathaniel is the hero and this is a Hollywood film, the hero has to get the girl, and, being the late 20th century (when released), she has to be the strong one rather than the damsel-in-distress.  Maybe the triangle should have been between Uncas and Heyward over Alice.

On the other hand, Mann greatly improved the story for modern audiences by removing the elements of racism laced throughout Cooper’s written tale.  He makes up for changing Nathaniel’s family name from Bumppo to Poe and his self-reference from Natty to Nathaniel, as well as the slander with which he treats the characters of Munro, Heyward, and Montcalm. 

Natty of the novel several times refers to himself as a “man without a cross”, meaning a white man of “pure-race”; at first when I saw that phrase I thought it meant he was areligious.  Furthermore, he objects to the pairing of Cora Munro with his friend Uncas because they are of different races; how much more would Natty of the novel have objected had he known what Munro told Heyward when the latter asked for his blessing to pursue Alice, that Cora by his first wife was a quadroon, three-quarters-white and one-quarter-African-Caribbean? 

Without these bigotries, Nathaniel of the film proves a much better human being and a less equivocal hero for the late 20th/early 21st centuries than Natty of the novel.

Final note: Chingachgook was not really the “last of the Mohicans”; descendants of the Mohican survive today in the Stockbridge-Munsee Community of Wisconsin and as the Stockbridge element of that union (the Munsee are a branch of the Lenape).