Scotland and America in the Age of Paine

Scotland and America in the Age of Paine

Thomas Paine is rightly regarded as among the most influential of English political iconoclasts. His two best-known works – Common Sense (1776) and Rights of Man (1791) – ensured his remarkable success in positioning himself, both literally and literarily, at the forefront of both the American and French revolutions. It is no exaggeration that Paine’s works lie at the heart of popular revolutionary sentiment as it came to express itself in the later eighteenth century. For that reason they were regarded at one level as manifestos of the crying need for social and political change, but at the same time by government and the law as dangerous instruments of sedition and republicanism.

In this new title from Aberdeen University Press, Dr Ronald Crawford explores how, in both Scotland and America, Paine’s brand of radicalism took particular hold, though only for a limited period – the ‘Age of Paine’.

Part One of the book explores American themes discoverable in the works of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson; the explosive political impact within Scotland of Rights of Man (1776); and how Scottish precedents, through the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, helped shape the educational system of the early United States.

Part Two examines the careers of four Scots emigrants who made distinguished contributions to the American ideal of liberty: the ‘bookman’ Robert Aitken who employed Paine as contributing editor of his Pennsylvania Magazine; John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey, one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the radical poet, Alexander Wilson, whose (very different) Scottish and American careers are re-examined with the help of newly found original sources; and the lawyer from Fife, James Wilson, another signer, whose remarkable contributions to the evolution of the US Constitution are considered from the point of view of his indebtedness to numerous Scottish sources.


Ronald Crawford was born in Paisley and educated at Paisley Grammar School. He holds research degrees from Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities and is currently an Honorary Visiting Professor in History at the University of Strathclyde.  In his former role as a senior university administrator Dr Crawford has published widely on Scottish higher education. Previous monographs include Professor Anderson, Dr Franklin and President Washington (published by the University of Strathclyde in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the grant of its Royal Charter),The Lost World of John Witherspoon: Unravelling the Snodgrass Affair (Aberdeen University Press, 2014), and The Chair of Verity: Political Preaching and Pulpit Censure in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Humming Earth, Edinburgh, 2017), the latter having been short-listed by the Saltire Society in 2018 as Research Book of the Year.