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Thomas Paine was one of the key political thinkers, writers and conversationalists of the Enlightenment. Credited with either formulating or certainly popularising the notion that the source of power lies in The People and that the government - any government - is only legitimate by the mandate of the population. Born in England a commoner, not very academically successful, trained as a staymaker and worked as excise officer (so did Rabbie Burns, what is it with the 18th century democrats and tax collection?); he soaked in the cafe culture of Enlightenment London but came to prominence after his arrival in America with nothing but a recommendation letter from Benjamin Franklin. He went on to become an incredibly popular pamphletist and his Common Sense is credited with implanting the idea of independence and a republican government firmly in the heads of the American colonials and arguably formed the basis for the Declaration of Independence.
He supported the American Revolution throughout and then went back to Europe, where he got involved in another one in France and wrote The Rights of Man - one of the books that shook the world with its savage rejection of hereditary privileges, staunch republicanism and ideas of welfare state; an astonishing bestseller that sold half a million copies in its first 10 years and which still informs the agenda of many modern political controversies.
During the French Revolution's Terror, under the shadow of the guillotine, Paine produced his last major work, a manifesto of enlightened personal spirituality and a protest against the corrupt and corrupting nature of organised religion The Age of Reason which has still a lot of relevance today, and sadly, probably more now than 30 years ago.
Craig Nelson's biography is titled Thomas Paine: His Life, His Time and the Birth of the Modern Nations and it certainly provides and excellent description of the times and momentous events that Paine was involved in. In fact, at many a time Paine was just one of the key figures in a rich account provided by Nelson.
For my tastes Thomas Paine started with too much of 'social history' trivia, often with no relevance to the main ideas. For some unfathomable reason we get a detailed listing of kinds of foods brought to America by immigrants from different parts of the UK and different denominations. Generally, the beginning of the book is its weakest part, including a scene setting introductory chapter describing the story of William Cobbett's snatching of Paine's body many years after his death and the British background information. We are informed that Norfolk today is a home to turkey farms and a thriving community of expatriate Portuguese, but the 17th century enclosures, fundamental to understanding the situation and even the key political figures of the time are mentioned only in passing.
It gets much better as it progresses, though. The account of London's thriving cafe society with its implications for development for natural sciences, technology and democratic political ideas is very good; with a general insight into the time of extraordinary changes of the cultural landscape that are usually called the Enlightenment period. Nelson concentrates more on the aspects of social and political thinking that characterised Enlightenment, but he gives some attention to the developments in natural sciences too (I wish there was more of that) - as many an Enlightenment gentleman, Paine himself dabbled both in natural sciences and in technology.
Most notably, Thomas Paine includes fairly detailed accounts of the American and French revolutions. The accounts are rather different in style and character. The American one is more vivid, less complete and full of personal insights. It also was, at least for me, both more interesting and harder to follow, as it makes some assumptions about the readers having a modicum of knowledge of the subject. But then my school history learning took place in Poland and thus my knowledge of this subject is rather sketchy and probably more sketchy then most educated UK and US readers potentially interested in the book. On the other hand, the account of the French revolution is more complete, has more exposition and explanation, is drier and more textbook-like.
There is also a clear portrait of Thomas Paine as a living person, his quirks and foibles, and in particular his often lamented by Nelson lack of political pragmatism; as well as the poignancy of his final years and death.
The book reads well. I would stop short of calling the writing incandescent or comparing it to Paine's own (as much Nelson is a gifted journalist, he doesn't reach the unique, passionate clarity of his subject), but it's clear enough, lively and full of well selected quotations.
Nelson has definitely his preferences (which obviously lie with Franklin and Jefferson rather than John Adams for example) and politically, his book is an extremely timely reminder of how radical the key figures of the American Revolution truly were and how radical and how optimistic the political experiment they performed was. From the country embodying the most noble concepts of the time, in an amazing combination of the highest ideals and an efficient political pragmatism, the American Republic has developed into the world's most militarily and economically powerful country with a decidedly arrogant, imperialist attitude; internally ravaged by massive wealth inequalities.
'Thomas Paine' should be a required reading for all Americans, not just those interested in their country's political history and current dilemmas.
Those readers which are interested in Paine more as a general political thinker will still find Nelson's account illuminating: I for one came from reading his book with a new interest in the American revolution and a desire to know more about Benjamin Franklin especially, as well as a plan to re-read The Rights of Man.
And finally, the descriptions of the reactions of the establishment to the rabble of ignorant, property-less (and thus vote-less) commoners organising to demand the vote after reading The Rights of Man might send shiver of recognition down the spine of many a current broadsheet reader comfortable in their contempt of the junk-food eating, Big-Brother watching lower orders of today.
Recommended for anybody with interest in history of political ideas, and a must for Americans.
Profile Books Ltd (18 Jan 2007), Hardback, 416 pages.
£9.99 from Amazon.
This review was first published on www.thebookbag.co.uk