7 May 2011
This is a very good read on a controversial writer and activist from the revolutionary era. In many ways, it is a classic "life and times" bio, but it is also a wonderful inquiry into political philosophy and the American character.
Paine started out as a dress maker without much education - he never mastered Latin - but soon ended up in London, where he became an enthusiastic autodidact in the Enlightenment mold, attempting to look beyond the classics and question everything. He befriended Benjamin Franklin, then a celebrity resident of England and media mogul, who provided him with reference letters to move to Philadelphia. He arrived on the cusp of the revolution, immediately got a job as an editor, and quickly wrote his most famous work, Common Sense. To say that that pamphlet was the greatest best seller of its era is an understatement: it, like many other of his works, sold second only to the Bible in the years immediately after he wrote it. Not only did it catapult him to international fame, but it supposedly helped to galvanize the American public to look beyond their traditional fealty to King George III and think of their own political independence. Paine then became a soldier (not a very good one) and correspondent during the Revolutionary War, providing vital information and propaganda to the public. He work was read or listened to by fully half the population in North America by some estimates.
Interestingly, Paine worked at cross purposes to his own interests in this period. Hoping to get as large an audience as possible, he renounced all royalites, charging as little as possible and donating any profits to George Washington (for such things as mittens for the soldiers). This left him poor, if laudably committed to his ideals. He also cultivated extraordinary friendships with Jefferson and others, though also made (after initial friendships) innumerable enemies who vehemently opposed him for the rest of their lives, including John Adams.
Feeling slighted and after many severe political mistakes, Paine decided to head back to Europe to foment AMerican style revolutions there as well as promote a metal bridge he had designed as the Enlightenment polymath that he was. Back in ENgland, he wrote a pamphlet against aristocracy and the king, which got him branded as a traitor and eventually put a death sentence on him that any British vessel encountering him would have carried out immediately. So, he skipped over to France, which was having its own revolution, and due to his fame was elected a deputy to the Assemblee Nationale, even though he didn't speak French! Once again, he made so many enemies with his uncompromising and principled positions, which landed him in jail during the terror and in danger of his life.
In France, he also composed an essay on deism, the enlightenment version of Christianity that was skeptical and argued that worship of God should be rational and include inquiry into nature as Newton had done. While it achieved an immense following, this pamphlet also undermined his image in America with its arguments against organized churches and their self-proclaimed monopolies on the word of God. His reputation would never recover in his lifetime.
Once released from Luxembourg prison, for a time he was a broken man. Recovering slowly, he lingered in France drunk and in fear of the British Navy, though eventually made it back to the US. He arrived at the point where Jefferson was mounting his opposition to the Federalists and took his old friend's side. It was at this point that the book began to lose me, as the author appeared to me too pro-Jefferson (as an advocate of simple grassroots democracy and freedom) and too critical of Hamilton and Adams (as supporters of aristocratic elites, as they were portrayed in Republican propaganda); these partisan stereotypes unfortunately go unquestioned. Alas, Paine again self-destructed by writing an article critical of GW, in a fit of pique, further damaging his reputation. He died in obscurity, with many enemies who worked to excise him from the canon of the founding fathers.
AT its best, this book evokes the extraordinarily varied historical watersheds in which Paine participated, and gives his personal take on all of them. This is useful, exciting, and truly fascinating. However, I also did not think that Paine was all that sympathetic a character and that a book devoted entirely to him verged on too much. He did some important things, was at the right place at the right time with the required talent to insert himself, but he also screwed up and was extremely bitter and often simply a difficult drunk. He made bad decisions, many of his views were questionable (i.e. on Jefferson). The author was not critical enough of him, extolling him instead as a kind of prophet idealist whose views were finally vindicated - over the last 2 centuries!
Recommended as good food for the brain. It is an enjoyable reading experience and beautifully written.