Thomas Paine, so celebrated and so despised as he traveled through the critical events of his time, has long appealed to biographers. Paine was present at the creation both of the United States and of the French Republic. His eloquence, in the pamphlet Common Sense, propelled the American colonists toward independence. A little later, when the American army faced collapse, he rallied support for it in the series of articles that began with the ever memorable “These are the times that try men’s souls.” After independence was won he moved on to France and poured out a torrent of words in defense of the revolution there. Wherever he found oppression he took it upon himself to attack it. In a famous, if perhaps apocryphal, conversation, when Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said to him, “Where liberty is, there is my country,” Paine appropriately replied, “Where liberty is not, there is mine.”
Paine’s dedication to freedom inevitably landed him in trouble, not simply with the regimes he opposed but with the rebels he supported. He could not stop with pointing out that the emperor had no clothes, he had to show up nakedness everywhere. It was not simply George III or Louis XVI who needed replacing but the British and French governments themselves and finally the church of Christ, both Catholic and Protestant. If he had said what he had to say with less eloquence, he might have gone unscathed, but Paine was a genius with words, putting home truths in language that is still moving. People in charge of things, whether revolutionary or reactionary, whether priests or politicians, correctly perceived him as threatening and took what steps they could to disgrace him. How successful they were may be suggested by the sobriquet fastened on him by Theodore Roosevelt, of “a filthy little atheist.”
The first biographies reflected the controversies in which Paine had engaged, but in the past century he has earned the admiration of scholars in a series of serious, if still partisan, studies, first by Moncure Daniel Conway, who edited his works, and more recently by David Freeman Hawke and Eric Foner. Now comes Sir Alfred Ayer, the philosopher of logical positivism, in a critical biography that assesses Paine’s writings, not as works of partisan rhetoric but as prescriptions for society and government.
It is a curious match. Although Ayer and Paine share a certain bent for épater le bourgeois, Ayer is an acknowledged master of cold reason, while Paine is the enragé, the master of effective polemic. The outcome is a strange book, a narrative of Paine’s life combined with a summary and analysis of his principal writings: Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. The biographical sections are derived largely from Conway’s biography, published in 1892. Conway, Ayer assures us, is “still the best and most thorough of Paine’s biographers,” a judgment about which some historians may have reservations. But no matter. What makes a …