Gordon S. Wood’s Review
An extract from Gordon S. Wood‘s Disturbing the Peace, a Review published New York Review of Books, Volume 42, Number 10 · June 8, 1995. (Read the full review here)
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. […]
The place of Paine in the American pantheon of Revolutionaries has improved considerably since then, of course. […] 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.
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.