Review of the Book

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

Edward J. Dodson

[A review of the book by published by Viking Penguin, 2006]

"Craig Nelson is the author of four previous books, including The First Heroes and Let's Get Lost. His writings have appeared in Salon, the New England Review, Blender, Genre, and a host of other publications. He was an editor at HarperCollins, Hyperion, and Random House for almost twenty years and has been profiled by Variety, Interview, Manhattan, Inc., and Time Out. He lives in Greenwich Village."

We are offered a new biography of Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson, a writer who comes to the work from outside the academic community. Nelson makes use of cultural anthropology to explore Paine's development as one of the leading "moderns" of his age.

Nelson begins his story by examining Paine through the eyes of William Cobbett, a man who first dismissed then embraced Paine's political philosophy. Paine opened Cobbett's eyes, writes Nelson, to the depth of corruption in the British system and to the connection between Britain's imperial ambitions and an "escalating national debt, crushing taxes, and overreliance on paper money." [p.4] A decade after Paine's death, Cobbett tried but failed to relight the torch of liberty Paine had carried from the New World to the Old. For Cobbett, this was a true change of heart, as he had earlier attacked Paine relentlessly. British authorities responded to this new challenge, and Cobbett fled to the United States for the second time, intent on resurrecting Paine's reputation and securing his place in history.

What Cobbett discovered, observes Nelson, was that the new republic had already lost much of its promise, that the "era of profound hope was in eclipse." [p.4] Americans were heading in the wrong direction, and Cobbett determined to remove the remains of his hero from their New Rochelle, New York burial plot and return them to England. For this, Cobbett experienced only scorn for his trouble. And, of course, Paine's remains were lost as a result.

To understand how Thomas Pain became "Thomas Paine," Nelson provides a rich description of the world in which Pain was born and raised. He captures what living conditions were like for the overwhelming majority of people in the British Isles, "95 percent [of whom] were rural paupers trying to survive the enclosure movement, when common folk were suddenly forbidden to graze their herds, hunt, or forage on 3.4 million acres of now private grounds". [p.15] This is what occurs when wealth and political institutions are tightly in the grasp of a privileged elite. Nelson provides the details of what passed for civilization in Britain.

The years of Paine's youth were great years for Britain's empire builders. By defeating France in the Seven Years' War, Britain cemented its control over the eastern territories of North America, adding Canada to its dominions. Paine profited as well, returning from a successful sojourn aboard the privateer King of Prussia. With his share of the captured bounty, Paine visited London to nurture his thirst for knowledge - purchasing "a pair of globes" and taking in philosophical lectures at the Royal Society. Nelson describes Paine's aspirations as "a rigorous course of self-improvement leading to personal reinvention." [p.22] He had come to London, where many things seemed possible, but also where infant mortality, alcoholism, prostitution and crime plagued the lives of most ordinary citizens. Even the least of crimes was punishable by the penalty of death. He had just enough money, living humbly, to spend time in the company of others who gathered to discuss science and debate philosophy. I agree with Nelson's conclusion that "[i]t is implausible that [Paine] took part in the Enlightenment in London and the Revolution in Philadelphia … without having read the same books that everyone else he knew had read." [p.33] He was drawn by ideas into a culture where the study of the great thinkers was the price of entry. As Nelson confirms, he "joined these Newtonians with gusto, arguing with them in coffeehouses, reading the newest scientific publications" and "[d]rinking, smoking, and arguing … into all hours of the night." [p.36]

Unfortunately for Paine, his privateer earnings dwindled away, forcing him back into the daily grind of trying to earn a living with his hands, and then into the profession of excise tax collector. No doubt Nelson is correct that Paine's experiences as an agent of the state deepened his resolve to see his fellow Britons freed from corrupt and oppressive government. More specifically, observes Nelson, "Paine would repeatedly question the legitimacy of the British dynasty by recalling its brutal origins in the Norman invasion." [p.39] Over the years, others would emerge to join Paine in his crusade against hereditary position. As is the case throughout history, many paid a steep personal price for their courage. Paine's first serious involvement in political activism, his pamphlet The Case of the Officers of Excise, brought his dismissal from the excise service. It was not that long before he found himself in circumstances to "force him to risk all, to take a great leap of faith that would lead to his immortality," [p.47] or his destiny - in the wilds of North America.

This brings Paine's story to his fortuitous association with Benjamin Franklin "a remarkably close friendship that would last for the rest of Benjamin Franklin's life." [p.49] Just how much time they spent together in London before Paine's departure is not known; however, Franklin clearly developed a real affection for the younger man. Arrived in North America, Paine wrote to Franklin: "Your countenancing me has obtained me many friends and much reputation, for which, please to accept my sincere thanks." What he did not say is that Franklin's introductions had likely saved his life, as Paine had become seriously ill on the voyage over.

Paine was overwhelmed by the contradictions between life in Philadelphia and how most people existed back in Britain. The Americans had blossomed under the long period of what historian Charles Andrews called "salutary neglect" and the distant connection to British authority. He had arrived in a land of property owners. A seemingly endless supply of virgin land, combined with a low population in the colonies meant "two-thirds were property owners who voted, greatly broadening the political involvement of the working and middle classes, and dramatically strengthening the power of the legislature." [p.58] Yet, Paine soon learned that even here wealth was already concentrated and entrenched privilege poised to challenge the Jeffersonian vision of meritocracy. With so much free land to be settled, slavery had been adopted to ensure a steady and docile labor supply. All this Paine found repugnant and counter to moral principle. "Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbours, and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with the divine precepts?" he asked in African Slavery in America. "The nerve of this essay," writes Nelson, "in time triggered a chain reaction, one eventually leading to Paine's becoming Paine." [p.65] Clearly, Paine believed that right thought should lead to right action.

By the time of Paine's migration to North America, the last generation to experience Britain's benign rule over the colonies was trying to negotiate a return to salutary neglect, using their only effective weapon - a boycott of goods coming from Britain. Inevitably, tensions mounted until the reconcilable became irreconcilable. The great landlords of Britain ignored the warnings of the elder William Pitt and Edmund Burke; arbitrary policy brought on resistance, then rebellion. Yet, that rebellion did not begin out of a commitment to forge a democratic republic. It was, as described in the early 1940s by Peter Drucker, a campaign by the propertied interests to reclaim the more or less laissez-faire rules under which they had prospered. Only when the fighting began were the interests of the remainder of the population (i.e., those who would do most of the fighting) given consideration. Paine's declaration that what motivated British aggression against their subjects was "the vilest of all pretences, gold" applied similarly to the entrenched and propertied colonial elite as well. Common Sense represented a call to arms in defense of a cause few to that point articulated or embraced. Nelson draws on Paine's own words to make this crucial point:

"It cannot at this time a day be forgotten that the politics, the opinions and the prejudices of the country were in direct opposition to the principles contained in [Common Sense]. And I well know that … it would have been unsafe for a man to have espoused independence in any public company and after the appearance of that pamphlet it was as dangerous to speak against it. It was a point of time full of critical danger to America, and if her future well being depended on any one political circumstance more than another it was in changing the sentiments of the people from dependence to Independence and form the monarchial to the republican form of government; for had she unhappily split on the question, or entered coldly or hesitatingly into it, she most probably had been ruined." [pp.79-80]

As Nelson astutely observes, Paine's genius was his "ability to address the colonists' greatest fears by appealing to their noblest aspirations" while embracing the Lockean ideal of society as formed by the voluntary association of sovereign individuals. Rather than "the first American self-help book," as suggested by Nelson, Common Sense was more of a primer on moral principles and socio-political arrangements. Americans were, generally speaking, too busy creating, accumulating (or confiscating) wealth to contemplate these ideas, ideas Paine came to by his reading of the great books and translated into straightforward language by his debating experiences in the coffee houses of London. Paine articulated for the Americans what they themselves could not, at least not in the same inspired use of language. Nelson describes his incredible accomplishment as "inspir[ing] colonials to see themselves … as pioneers and forefathers struggling to create a better world for future generations."[85] Paine's challenge to the Americans was clearly stated:

"Should an independency be brought about … we have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again." [p.89]

Paine understood what was at stake. He had come from the Old World and life under a despotism justified by tradition and passed on as enlightened governance. His actions later suggest he did not fully appreciate the residual power of entrenched privilege and the need for continuous public education to ensure that moral principles would prevail over privilege as the nation at war faced the challenges of societal organization. As Jefferson predicted, factions were fast appearing as the fighting against the British came to a close. Had Paine remained on the American side of the Atlantic, had he continued to rally the general citizenry to common principles, his own future would have certainly been quite different - as, possibly, would the first decades of nation-building by the United States of America. Sadly, the clock cannot be turned back and restarted.

Of Nelson's description of the war years and of Paine's activities during this period, I have only a few comments. Readers already well-versed in Paine's life story will find little new here, which leaves us to contemplate Nelson's interpretation of events and the motivations of those involved. Even discounting the avowed Loyalists, there is considerable evidence that only a minority (although a sizeable minority) of the colonists "were hoping to create a meritocratic instead of an aristocratic society … based on Enlightenment principles of liberty and the educated citizen." [p.117] Some decades ago, the historian Jackson Turner Main concluded that as early as the mid-eighteenth century the primary means of acquiring great wealth in the colonies was inheritance, and the means of doing so came from the concentrated ownership of land. Paine joined with the Physiocratic school of political economists in calling for landowners to pay a "ground rent" to the community for the privilege they enjoyed. Agrarian Justice puts Paine squarely in the group of moral philosophers who declared the earth to be the birthright of all persons, equally. How Paine came to embrace these principles as his own is not well-documented, and Paine does not disclose the development of his thinking on the subject.

If I have any serious disagreement with Nelson, this disagreement is with his observation that the "colonial era was a time when American Indians and Europeans became fully integrated as a community, with full and common relationships not only of business and of government but of friendship and intermarriage." [p.117] More accurately, I argue, the indigenous tribes were unable to restrain the European immigrants and their descendants from an almost continuous migration from coastal settlements into the interior. Some integration occurred, but the population of most tribes suffered rapid decline as a consequence of frequent warfare between tribes (made more vicious by the introduction of European weaponry) and as allies with the French or English colonial regimes - and by contracting European diseases against which they had no resistance. Nelson mentions the sophistication of the Iroquois confederation but does not tell his readers that on instructions from George Washington, a large army of Continental troops was sent into the Iroquois territory with instructions to destroy every village and all food crops they found, clearing the land permanently of these troublesome people, many of whom subsequently starved during that winter. This would be only the first of the major campaigns to displace the continent's tribal societies from the land they occupied to make way for the new American System, the cornerstones of which were land grabs, land speculations and landed wealth.

Paine's writings during the war continually reminded the "Inhabitants of America" they were fighting for more than mere independence from British authority. The ideal of self-government, born over several generations of experience in the New World, was at risk of being subdued before blossoming. And, in an era of great ironies, one of the greatest was that a monarchial regime even more despotic than that ruling Britain came to the rescue of republicanism. France's minister of finance, the Physiocratic leader Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, warned his sovereign that French support of the American cause would bankrupt the nation's treasury (notwithstanding the fact that the landed aristocracy continued to enrich itself with ground rents but paid no taxes). When Turgot campaigned with the King to impose taxes on the landed, they orchestrated his dismissal. The French were from that point on a straight path toward social and political turmoil, although few, if any, sensed what the outcome might be.

That Paine did not recognize the dangers attached to an American alliance with the French - and argue against this entanglement - is another of the great ironies of his thinking. Through Franklin, Paine is certainly to have learned of Turgot's opposition to French assistance. At that critical point, he decided to accompany John Laurens to France and provide whatever support he could to Benjamin Franklin. The French progressives welcomed him as a man of letters and gave him pause about ever returning to North America, "to a country where I had experienced so much thankless treatment," he wrote. Viewed in the full context of his earlier life, Paine's feelings are hard to reconcile with the acceptance he experienced among the colonials. Nelson allows Paine's expression of frustration to pass by without comment, for the moment, writing later that "Paine wanted both acknowledgment of his place in history and long-term financial security." [p.158] His patriotism during the war prevented him from profiting from his writings; but, with peace he fully expected to be recognized, honored and pensioned. What was in his heart came out in his final Crisis paper, written in April, 1783:

"'The times that tried men's souls,' are over - and the greatest and completest revolution the world ever knew, gloriously and happily accomplished. …It is not every country (perhaps there is not another in the world) that can boast so fair an origin. …"

But, for Paine, his own soul would be more than tried over the course of the remainder of his years. There would be little time for calm reflection. In this chaotic period, he alerted his readers to his likely departure from the New World, writing: "and whatever country I may hereafter be in, I shall always feel an honest pride at the part I have taken and acted, and a gratitude to nature and providence for putting it in my power to be of some use to mankind." From Nelson we read of Paine's subsequent missteps and lapses in judgment that compromised a graceful passage into old age, years that might have been filled with scientific experiments and moderate public service. Nelson identifies another important piece of the puzzle directing Paine's life away from America:

"The Common Sense/Declaration of Independence era, with its glorious aspirational hopes and dizzying optimism, was over, replaced by the retrenchment period of war's end. Now was a time for the practical toil of creating a national government, instead of dreaming Enlightenment dreams. There had been a great era of utopians, but now the American Congress was by necessity a body of compromise, of down-and-dirty politics and expedient business negotiations." [pp.171-172]

These were matters about which Paine had no practical knowledge or experience. Yet, Franklin, returning to Philadelphia and learning of Paine's absence, wrote, "I cannot help regretting the want of your abilities here where the present moment they might, I think, be successfully employed. Parties still run very high - Common Sense would unite them. It is to be hoped therefore it has not abandoned us forever." [p.172] I have long wondered why Paine, the journalist, did not return to his fundamental calling as a newspaper editor. Paine may have contemplated the future of a celebrated sage, but he apparently looked to commerce - and the building of bridges - to provide for his financial security. His bridge took him back across the Atlantic (at the urging of Franklin, and with new letters of introduction from Franklin to key members of the French scientific community). This time, however, he saw the Old World rather differently, writing in a letter, "the noblest work of human wisdom, the grandest scene of human glory, the fair cause of freedom rose and fell … send me safe back to my much loved America!"? [p.178]

Paine had come back to a surreal world, and Nelson describes the unfolding drama. Turgot's warning of financial ruin was upon the French, and the thin veneer of social stability was by 1787 wearing then. Wealth in France was concentrated in the hands of the landed aristocracy, who collected ground rents from those who actually worked the land. Even so, the trigger events sparking revolutionary upheaval came from nature - "a series of harsh winters, destructive hailstorms, and runs of drought, triggering famine and doubling the prices of bread and firewood." [p.182] The stars were aligning for the coming turmoil - riots, assassinations, conspiracies, warfare, and - finally - dictatorship. Paine would live through it all, if just barely. Many of the best minds of France did not survive. Physiocratie, the ideas that might have ushered in a true "Age of Reason," were denigrated and forgotten.

An important part of Paine's story remains to be told, I believe, and may await a biographer who examines the personal papers of the great Physiocratic theorists with whom Paine came to know. Turgot, I have already mentioned. There was also Quesnay, physician to the King, and Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemeurs (who would eventually escape to the United States). Franklin knew these men and embraced their principles. Paine's writings on political economy indicates he did as well. Franklin's death in 1790 had to have affected Paine deeply; they had shared so much; they had been present at the creation and had given all they had to give to influence the outcome. In a very real sense, with Franklin gone, Paine was now alone. His accomplishments from this point on must be considered remarkable, yet his judgment failed him more frequently as the years passed. Perhaps the wise counsel of Franklin might have tempered his actions, if not his thoughts.

Because of the French Revolution and the response of Edmund Burke to what was occurring in France, we have Paine's most coherent treatise on political philosophy, The Rights of Man. On the one hand, as Nelson writes, "[i]t is the exaltation of the great mass of humankind that makes Rights of Man thrilling and distinctive, so much so that in the decades after its publication the very phrase 'rights of man' would come to mean not just civil and natural rights, but a reengineering of government to provide for the greater good, a state designed for the happiness of the largest number of citizens instead of its elite ruling class." But, then, Paine would allow himself to be persuaded that monarchy and feudalism could be toppled and the void filled by a democratic republic. The Americans had been extraordinarily fortunate in their long experience of self-sufficiency and local governance. Neither the French nor his fellow Britons enjoyed anything approaching this same history. And, then, for a time, Paine put his faith in Napoleon Bonaparte to defend the French Constitution and save the republic. His failure to understand the enormous stresses George Washington was experiencing in the Office of President of the United States, and then going public with an attack on Washington, demonstrates his loss of perspective - more so, I think, than publication of The Age of Reason. Paine was, after all, only one actor on a very troubled world stage.

Jefferson had a clear insight into the future even as the Americans' war for independence from Britain was just beginning. He anticipated that as soon as peace came so would the Patriots begin to form themselves into opposing parties. Paine's return to the United States came too late - too late in his own life and too late for his presence to have a unifying influence. "As Ben Franklin had predicted," writes Nelson, "America at that moment crucially needed the renewal of values and the inspiration to virtue that had always been a Paine hallmark. If Paine himself was no longer capable of writing a Common Sense, American Crisis, or Rights of Man for the United States of 1800, he tried, with a series of ten articles on modern American politics." [p.308] The extent to which these articles influenced public opinion is not addressed by Nelson, but neither other biographers nor historians, generally, suggest that Paine's return and his subsequent writings contributed materially to the ascendance of Jefferson or the Jeffersonian-Republicans.

There is nothing in this biography to distinguish the telling of Paine's final few years. The facts are as they are. It seems appropriate to repeat Paine's remarks as he neared death: "I care not a straw for the opinions of the world." [p.322]

Benjamin Franklin, ignored at the end of his own life, would eventually be lifted by historians to his rightful place in the public memory. Paine's resurrection has taken considerably longer, but this book by Craig Nelson is one more bit of evidence that Paine is deserving of our lasting gratitude and respect. Above almost all his contemporaries, he possessed a moral sense of right and wrong - of justice versus injustice -- deserving of serious study and debate today.