I continue to read and recommend Gordon Wood's latest offering, the brilliant Revolutionary Characters. His brief essay on Tom Paine, "America's First Public Intellectual," reminded me that the international revolution that Paine promoted with such vigor, enthusiasm, and optimism collapsed initially.

Plenty of contemporary commentators warn that the Middle East is culturally ill-prepared to embrace democratic rule; consequently, they cast the US project to remake the Middle East as unadulterated folly. The argument in a nutshell: how can a society without an understanding and appreciation of John Locke adopt popular government? President Bush has intimated that this argument is a form of racism (or at least Eurocentrism).

An aside: as one who teaches freshman history, I can only hope that a democratic society without an appreciation for John Locke can survive.

Were Europeans prepared for democracy? Many of those most virulently pessimistic about democracy in the Middle East are smug Europeans (or smug Americans who pine for a European sense of sophistication in our culture). But Europhiles are too quick to forget pre-WW II history. While the United States showed an almost immediate aptitude for republican-democratic government, the long and dreary path to self governance in the Old World featured spectacular failures. In fact, the American clarion call brought much more grief than triumph for European republicans in the nineteenth century. Then, in the early twentieth century, when democracy seemed on the march, the drive faltered once again in tragic and astonishing fashion, when fascism overpowered the fledgling democratic governments of Western Europe.

A rebirth of conservatism? Professor Wood reminds us that John Adams, writing more than a decade after the failed French Revolution, refused to call the times in which he lived an "Age of Reason" (alluding to the famous contemporaneous treatise of the same name). In the mind of Adams, it was nothing of the sort. Adams preferred to describe his era as one of "the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit," or, perhaps, the "Age of Paine."

He referred to Thomas Paine, and, as you might infer, he offered the label not as tribute but as censure. Adams believed that Paine's sanguine and impractical philosophy of rule by the masses had corrupted the opportunity for a level-headed republican experiment and caused (and would cause much more) misfortune, suffering, distress and agony. The Age of Pain(e).

Other contemporaries of Paine and Adams saw the dark power for destruction contained within the new age of popular revolution. More than fifteen years prior to Adams's stinging critique, Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which correctly predicted the disastrous and brutal conclusion to the French Revolution. Burke's jeremiad against the radical assault on tradition, authority and human nature gave birth to modern conservative thought.

The optimistic age that produced the French Revolution drew strength from the surprisingly successful rebellion against the British Empire in America. In turn, the "terror" of the French Revolution gave voice to a calculated realism, gradualism, and respect for tradition that eventually gave rise to modern conservatism. Undoubtedly, the triumph of American ideals, will and power in World War II and the Cold War provided the foundation for a renewed optimistic vision for a world connected by liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Will the perils and frustrations of Iraq bring about a conservative revival in American politics?

What of Iraq? Did we move too fast? Did we entertain unrealistic expectations? Yes. Students of democratic history should not be surprised at the troubles inherent in this brand of societal transformation. On the other hand, history also offers hope. From the despair of failed revolutions, horrific wars, and unspeakable cruelties in Europe emerged the modern era of Continental peace, prosperity, tolerance, and popular rule. The world was not prepared for democracy in the "Age of Paine," but that trying period spread the seeds of democratic thought and began the slow and agonizing process of positive change.

The great question of our age remains: will the seeds we plant in Iraq today eventually produce a fruitful Middle East?