• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Disturbing the Peace

Tom Paine: A Political Life

by John Keane
Little, Brown, 644 pp., $27.95

Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom

by Jack Fruchtman Jr.
Four Walls, Eight Windows, 557 pp., $30.00

Thomas Paine: Collected Writings

edited by Eric Foner
Library of America, 906 pp., $35.00

In 1805 cantankerous old John Adams pondered what to call the wild and tumultuous age he had lived through. Perhaps, he said, it might be called “the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte…or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit.” Call it “anything,” he said, but don’t call it “the Age of Reason.” It couldn’t be the Age of Reason because it had been dominated by Thomas Paine. Adams doubted “whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.” But this influence was far from a good thing. Indeed, said Adams,

there can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.

Despite Adams’s bitter sarcasm, Paine would have loved the title: he was nothing if not vain. Why shouldn’t the age be named after him? Who deserved it more? “With all the inconvenience of early life against me,” Paine once wrote,

I am proud to say that with a perseverance undismayed by difficulties, a disinterestedness that compelled respect, I have not only contributed to raise a new empire in the world, founded on a new system of government, but I have arrived at an eminence in political literature, the most difficult of all lines to succeed and excel in, which aristocracy, with all its aids, has not been able to reach or to rival.

Paine thought he had as much claim to being a founder of the United States as Franklin, Adams, or Jefferson.

Can we honestly say he was wrong in this view? Didn’t Jefferson say in 1801 that Paine had labored on behalf of liberty and the American Revolution “with as much effort as any man living”? Paine was after all the author of Common Sense, the most important and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language. It went through dozens of editions and sold at least dozens 150,000 copies, at a time when most pamphlets sold in the hundreds or a few thousand at best. Although the pamphlet, published in January 1776, probably did not cause Americans to think of declaring independence, it did express more boldly and eloquently than any other writing what many of them had come to feel about America’s tie to the British crown. There is no doubt, as his friend Benjamin Rush said, “its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind.” Nearly everyone knew it was a work of genius, and it immediately made Paine an American celebrity.

With his reputation established, Paine came to know nearly all of the political leaders of the United States, including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, and he continued to write on behalf of the American cause. The most important of these writings was his American Crisis series, a number of essays that appeared throughout the war with Britain. The most famous was the first, published on December 19, 1776, which opens with the memorable lines:

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Washington had this essay read to his troops at Christmas 1776 on the eve of their first victory at Trenton.

If these important contributions were not sufficient to immortalize Paine as one of the founders of the United States, then we have his extraordinary book, the Rights of Man (1791–1792), which his biographer John Keane says became “the best-selling book in the history of publishing.” Although the book was written after Paine had left the United States in 1787 and was intended as a refutation of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), it actually sums up what he had learned about constitutionalism and political theory during his years in America. In fact, the Rights of Man is the best and most succinct expression of American Revolutionary political thinking ever written. Paine himself noted how “American” were his reactions to events in Europe.

In the Rights of Man Paine laid out the new assumptions about politics and society that the American Revolution had recently made manifest: that the age of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy was over; that people were citizens, not subjects, and were born with equal natural rights; that the people created written constitutions that defined and limited their governments; that these written constitutions could not be changed by the governments but only by the sovereign people themselves; that the rulers had no rights of their own but were only temporary agents of the people, who must continually watch and empower them through electoral consent; that because people are naturally sociable, society is practically autonomous and self-regulating; and that people were independent and free to pursue happiness in their own way. Indeed, if Jefferson had ever written out in any systematic way what he believed about politics, it would have resembled much of the Rights of Man. Despite these great intellectual contributions, however, Paine apparently has never quite had what it takes to get admitted to the sacred temple of American founders.

We can imagine “the age of Jefferson,” but despite Adams’s quirky comment, it is unlikely that we Americans will ever call the period of our Revolution “the age of Paine.” Most Americans have never been able to make Paine a central figure in even the American Revolution, let alone the age as a whole. Indeed, for most of our history we have tended to ignore him. He was allowed to die in obscurity in 1809, and ten years later William Cobbett took his bones away to England. Even the Revolutionary leaders eventually came to ignore him. Although they all knew him, none of them publicly eulogized him upon his death. Most who had known him were embarrassed by the connection and wanted only to forget him. His papers were scattered and destroyed, and memory of him was allowed to fade.

To this day Americans have never mounted any serious effort to publish a complete and authoritative collection of his writings, a collection that would match in aim if not in size those monumental multivolume editions of the Revolutionary leaders that are currently being published. The early biographies of Paine were muckraking diatribes that pictured him as an arrogant, drunken atheist. Despite a few feeble attempts in the nineteenth century to refute this image of Paine, not until the end of the nineteenth century, with Moncure Conway’s two-volume The Life of Thomas Paine (1892), was an authoritative and laudatory treatment of Paine finally written.

The place of Paine in the American pantheon of Revolutionaries has improved considerably since then, of course. But it was not until the 1970s that modern historians, as distinct from literary scholars, attempted a biography. Even with all the studies of Paine we have had over the past several decades, the man still does not quite fit in. Paine ranked himself “among the founders of a new Independent World,” but most Americans have not agreed. Everyone senses that he is not like the other Revolutionaries, not like Franklin, Washington, Adams, or Jefferson. We cannot quite bring ourselves to treat him as one of America’s founding fathers.

The two biographies of Paine under review and the single-volume edition of his writings in the Library of America are designed to help change this situation. John Keane, in his Tom Paine: A Political Life, calls Paine “the greatest public figure of his generation.” Paine, writes Keane, “made more noise in the world and excited more attention than such well-known European contemporaries as Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Madame de Stäel, Edmund Burke, and Pietro Verri.” His important works—Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason—“became the three most widely read political tracts of the eighteenth century.” Paine’s vision of a decent and happy life for ordinary people in this world is still “alive and universally relevant…undoubtedly more relevant than that of Marx, the figure most commonly identified with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century political project of bringing dignity and power to the wretched of the earth.” In fact, says Keane, “Not only is Paine’s bold rejection of tyranny and injustice as far-reaching as that of his nineteenth-century successor, but his practical proposals…are actually more radical than Marx’s, mainly because they managed to combine breathtaking vision, a humble respect for ordinary folk, and a sober recognition of the complexity of human affairs.”

To make clear all these points in a biography is a formidable task, but Keane certainly tries. His book is the fullest biography since Conway’s and is no doubt the most deeply researched that we have ever had. Keane, who is professor of politics at the University of Westminster in London and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, has avoided a direct and thorough analysis of Paine’s political thought. Instead, he has sought to bring together the details of Paine’s personal and public life with his social and political philosophy in order better to understand both. He has thus tried to situate Paine and his ideas in his time and place, and, in order to avoid “sermonizing,” offers “an ‘open’ rather than a ‘closed’ text,” which he hopes will encourage readers to figure out for themselves what his interpretation of Paine is about and “to formulate their own questions and doubts” about the “knottiness” of Paine’s life.

It is an interesting approach, but it requires much attention to the historical setting and a great many facts, and it can overwhelm both paine and the reader. Keane’s biography is the first to give a close account both of Thetford in Norfolk, where Paine was born, the son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, and of the first thirty-seven years of Paine’s life, before he left for America. His father made corsets, and Paine soon left his shop, working miserably as a tax collector while he read widely on his own. He was fired for publishing angry demands for better pay, and he had no evident prospects until he met Franklin, who was impressed by him and urged him to go to America, where he arrived in 1774. Later on the biography sometimes bogs down in detail, and the reader yearns for less of Paine’s life and its circumstances and more of Keane’s often insightful analysis of his political thought. Still, it is by far the best, if not the most readable, biography of Paine that we have.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print