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 …

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