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 Anglo-American 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 Burke–Paine 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. There is no generation that has a privileged position from which to inspire, guide, or bind any other generation. Therefore, in Paine’s words, “the vanity and presumption of ­governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.”

This, Levin thinks, effectively precludes the possibility of nationhood because it treats nationhood as a “repetitive” exercise rather than a “cumulative” project. Paine’s vision lacks the destiny of historical ­inheritance and sobering responsibility for a national future, both of which make politics a long-term ­project rather than a matter of episodic plebiscites.

This goes too far. Paine indeed believed the nation was “never stationary,” but he also saw it as “continually existing.” Every living generation has the right and the opportunity to fight anew for the basic principles of justice, but that right is also an ­obligation.

There is in Paine an unmistakable call to every generation to stand up for what is theirs, which provides its own kind of intergenerational common purpose. Abraham Lincoln, for example, beckoned his own generation to give “hope to the world for all future time” by decisively claiming fundamental rights for all those laboring in America. Principled commitment can make a people—but only if each generation claims for itself the natural freedoms human beings are given when they enter this world. We have the moral and political freedom to not simply inherit, but repossess.

Burke demurred, proudly noting that the English Parliament of 1688 pledged permanent allegiance to the monarchy (“we do most humbly and faithfully submit ourselves, our heirs and posterity, for ever”). His national vision is in practice dependent on a strong and stable line of noble families able to perpetuate themselves. The nobility are like “the great oaks that shade a country.” Were these noble generational links to be broken, Burke speculated, “men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”

This commitment to hereditary rule has always made Burke’s project difficult to translate into American terms, though Russell Kirk manfully tried. The Great Debate is in some respects another attempt at this kind of translation.

Levin wants to show that Burke was at core not a reactionary, or a mere establishmentarian, but a reformer and a gradualist ­preoccupied with the proper ­ordering of the future. He acknowledges toward the end of the book that the Burkean “tradition of conservative liberalism . . . has only rarely been articulated in American terms” and that we would be hard pressed to find it in the contemporary right’s ­rhetoric.

Modern American conservatism, with its origins in William F. ­Buckley’s anti-statist synthesis of the postwar period, never developed a ­recognizably Burkean vocabulary in defining itself against the New Deal consensus. Ironically, contemporary conservatives build more readily on foundations laid by Paine than by Burke, which is why there’s a radicalism in quarters of the modern American right from which Burke would have recoiled.

For this reason, The Great Debate should be read as a philosophical corrective to the anti-statist modes of American conservatism and as an encouragement to those trying to build on the basis of what we’ve inherited, including the governmental innovations of the twentieth century.

Danilo Petranovich teaches in the Yale department of political science and the directed studies program.

Articles by Danilo Petranovich