Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review: Thomas Paine

In Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, Craig Nelson taught me that Thomas Paine was the Forrest Gump of the Enlightenment.  He bumbled along through life, usually with no money, no real job, or no home of his own.  Yet he was involved in the most important events, and with the most notable figures, of the Eighteenth Century.

Paine (then Pain) spent his first 37 years in England when, separated from his wife, bankrupt, and fired from his job, he decided to go to America.   It was then that he precipitously met the most famous American in Europe, Benjamin Franklin, who became his lifelong friend and his immediate benefactor by providing him letters of introduction.

Arriving in America in 1774 with his cache of Franklin letters, Paine was a delegate at the first Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.   He began another lifelong friendship, this time with George Washington.  While struggling along as a magazine writer and editor, he wrote Common Sense, which sparked the American Revolution. Although he did not fight in the Revolution, he was often at the front lines with Washington, and his line, “These are the times that try men’s souls” was the troops’ rallying cry.

Following American independence, Paine did not hold office like many of the other Founding Fathers.  But he was sent to France to represent America in negotiating peace with Britain.  He wrote Rights of Man, which sparked the French Revolution and was a world-wide best seller.   It also earned Paine, in abstentia, a British death sentence for sedition.

During the French Revolution, Paine was elected to the French National Assembly, where he was the only member to vote against beheading Louis XVI.  He got himself crosswise with Robespierre and was thrown into prison, destined for the guillotine, when the tide turned against Robespierre and American diplomacy got him released.

While waiting in France until it was safe to sail to America, Paine wrote The Age of Reason.  He also provided military advice to Napoleon Bonaparte about how to invade Britain.  He returned to America upon the invitation Thomas Jefferson.

Nelson does a good job with the story of Paine’s life and adventures.   His “grand theme” gets a little attenuated towards the end as he tried to tie everything together.  But overall this is an entertaining overview of this omnipresent at the revolution Founding Father.


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