The Founder who makes Americans uncomfortable

Review Biography

September 24, 2006|By Wendy Smith

Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations

Craig Nelson

Viking / 398 pages / $27.95

Thomas Paine is the Founding Father who makes everyone uncomfortable. Indeed, many Americans probably don't think of him as a Founding Father at all. Craig Nelson's lovely new biography provides cogent reasons that the man who wrote Common Sense has often been neglected by the cheerleaders for the American Revolution. Paine wasn't just a radical, Nelson reminds us (all the Founders were that, whether they liked it or not); he was a working-class radical, a type from which America's leaders have been keeping their distance ever since the Federalists began lobbying for a government run by what John Adams called the "natural aristocracy."

Nor were the Federalists' opponents any fonder of the upstart lower orders. Thomas Jefferson's ideal common man was the independent farmer, not the urban "mechanics" among whom Paine worked, argued and educated himself in London during the 1750s and '60s. The only leading member of the revolutionary generation who was born in Europe, Paine arrived in late 1774 as a man of 37 whose political thinking displayed a sharp class consciousness more commonly found in Britain. Generations of progressives in his adopted country have shared his militantly egalitarian sentiments, a legacy nicely analyzed in Harvey J. Kaye's 2005 study, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Yet for long stretches of our complacent, affluent history, Paine's pugnacious strictures against the rich and powerful have struck many as, well, un-American.

In his heyday, however, he seemed to speak for all Americans. Nelson's narrative plunges readers into the flux of a revolutionary situation, where everything is in question and everyone is making up the answers as they go along. No one improvised better than Paine, a genius at changing the terms of the debate. Most Americans were loyal subjects of the king and just wanted better treatment, until the January 1776 publication of Common Sense made them ardent republicans who rejected monarchy along with unjust taxes. At the revolution's lowest point, in December 1776, after a string of American losses made it seem only a matter of time until Britain would bring the colonies to heel, Paine's first Crisis paper rallied Gen. George Washington's dispirited troops with his most famous and stirring words: "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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

Who could "shrink from the service of their country" after Paine so ringingly affirmed the righteousness of their cause? For 11 more years, he took Enlightenment ideals - the natural rights of individuals, the superiority of science and reason to ignorance and superstition - and trumpeted them in plain language.

Had Paine stayed put after American independence and let Washington and Jefferson wangle him a sinecure with the new government, he could have become a respected elder statesman. But he returned to Europe, and the book he wrote to defend the French Revolution caused him to be labeled a dangerous subversive in his native England. The Rights of Man, Paine's outraged reply to Edmund Burke's negative Reflections on the Revolution in France, pointedly observed that Britain's unwritten constitution, based on tradition and inherited privilege, offered few liberties to ordinary people. Envisioning a broad-based social democracy that terrified even reform-minded Whigs (Part II advocated health insurance, old-age pensions and a graduated income tax), The Rights of Man remained the bible of English radicalism for more than a century. In 1792, it got Paine convicted of sedition by a London jury.

He fled to France, where, as a member of its national convention, he voted for the abolition of the monarchy but against the execution of Louis XVI. The king's death, he argued presciently, would enable reactionaries the world over to depict the French as bloodthirsty barbarians. Instead, the revolution was engulfed by the Terror, in which many of his friends were executed. Paine narrowly escaped the guillotine in 1794.

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