Cosmopolitanism and Nationhood in the Political Thought of Thomas Paine
15 May, 2013
By Dr Robert Lamb
Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Exeter, UK
The late eighteenth-century political writer Thomas Paine is regarded chiefly as a rhetorician pamphleteer and polemicist rather than as a theorist of any great note. Yet in a number of writings devoted to defences of the American and French Revolutions, Paine outlined one of the first modern variants of rights-based liberalism, one that is of historical and philosophical significance. This paper offers an interpretative reconstruction of one key aspect of his neglected political theory: his account of international relations. A self-declared 'citizen of the world', Paine has traditionally been cast as offering the most radical form of cosmopolitanism visible in modern, Western political thought, one that goes much further than Kant in terms of delineating a set of globalised moral and political commitments. In this paper, I subject this reading of his thought to critical scrutiny, suggesting that it has been somewhat exaggerated. In particular, I argue that there is a tension in his thought between the cosmopolitan sentiments present throughout his writings and the clear, though oft-overlooked commitment to national sovereignty that he displays in texts such as Rights of Man: the apparently universalistic rights he ascribes to individuals would seem to be undermined by the particularistic rights he ascribes to 'nations'. Through analysis of his mature writings, I argue that this tension can ultimately be resolved and that Paine's international political theory emerges as a coherent and historically distinct species of liberal cosmopolitanism. Nevertheless, this resolution raises several further questions for Paine's theory that continue to pose difficulties for contemporary liberals.
Robert is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Exeter in the UK. His main research and teaching interests are in the history of modern liberal thought, its relationship to contemporary political philosophy and the methodological questions involved in interpreting past ideas.
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