Thetford's neglected republican

Tom Paine:
April 14, 1995

Thomas Paine has never had the attention he deserves. He was a man of the people and a citizen of the world; a revolutionary writer, speaker, soldier, politician (and engineer) who took a leading role in dramatic events in three countries; the author of the most clearly written and widely read defences of reason in public affairs; the prophet of national liberation, liberal democracy, and natural religion. Yet he has almost always been treated wrongly. During his lifetime and long after his death he was revered and reviled, and later he was admired by the few and ignored by the many. His reputation suffered not just from the divisions between parties but from the failure of either party to get beyond seeing him as a hero or villain. Even the people who took him seriously treated him superficially, and it is still difficult to make sense of what sort of person he really was and what sort of part he really played.

This situation is reflected in the publications by and about Paine. He was one of the best-known Englishmen in the world at the end of the 18th century, yet no proper account of his life or collection of his writings appeared until a century later, when Moncure Conway produced a two-volume account of The Life of Thomas Paine (1892) and a four-volume edition of The Writings of Thomas Paine (1894-96). These have long been out of print and out of date, but there was still no satisfactory biography or edition another century later. There have been many biographers (including A. J. Ayer), but all have relied on Conway and none has improved on him much, right down to Jack Fruchtman last year. There have also been several collections, but most of them have relied on Conway and the most useful of them - Philip Foner's two-volume so-called Complete Writings of Thomas Paine - is itself half a century old. Good cheap editions used to be published by the free-thought movement, but they were succeeded by bad dear paperbacks.

However, the prospect for his writings has recently improved. A huge one-volume collection has just appeared in the Library of America, and handy selections of political writings have just appeared in Everyman's Library and the World's Classics; an extensive and expensive five-volume collection is being prepared by Gregory Claeys and Mark Philp, and so is a critical bibliography by John Keane.

At the same time, the prospect for his life has been transformed by the same John Keane. Tom Paine: A Political Life, published simultaneously in Britain and the United States, deserves and will receive great success. It is a full-scale biography, as large as Conway's, decorated with a jacket portrait and 36 other illustrations. It is based on real admiration and affection for its subject, and it sometimes echoes him. The narrative is stimulating, indeed stirring; the style is vigorous, even vulgar. But it is a work of true scholarship, involving long and deep research in a vast range of original sources, including many previously unused writings by Paine. There are occasional slips of fact (Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro was not an opera but a play, Conway was not a supporter but an opponent of Abraham Lincoln) or usage (an alibi is not an excuse, Paine was not "a lousy poet"), but this is by far the most reliable and readable account of Paine yet produced.

To begin at the beginning, the title raises questions. Paine was called "Tom" by his best friends and worst enemies, but he called himself "Thomas", and so should we. And is it "a political life" in the sense of an account of a life spent in politics or an account of a life from a political point of view? Keane himself is mainly interested in politics, as a professor of the subject at the University of Westminster - he plays down personal matters, as Paine did, and is less concerned with religion than his predecessors or Paine - but doubts remain. To go to the end, there is the intriguing problem of iconography. Keane knows as much as Conway about the portraits of Paine, but seems no surer of some of the details.

The first part of the book covers half of Paine's life in 15 per cent of the space. This is the most problematical period of his career; only the superficial facts are known, and everything else is either anecdote or assumption. He was born in Thetford in 1737, his father a Quaker and his mother an Anglican; went to the local grammar school; was apprenticed at the age of 12 to his father's trade of staymaking, and worked at it in several places; first tried and then succeeded in going to sea as a privateer; attended classes and lectures, occasionally practised as a Methodist preacher or a school-teacher; married at 22, but his wife died in childbirth within a year; became an exciseman, and worked in several places, being dismissed from and restored to the service; settled in Lewes at 31, remarried at 34 but separated after three years; wrote a protest about the conditions of excisemen and was dismissed again; tried a small business, failed, and went to America in 1774.

Keane claims that "Paine's activities in England are here for the first time given their due weight", and attempts "the task of understanding the English roots of Paine's political identity". He does as much as can be done, but is often reduced to describing the personal geographical, social, political and religious background, resorting to the conditional mood, or confessing that there is no evidence. The trouble is that virtually nothing of importance has or probably ever will be established about Paine's intellectual development during the first 30 years of his life, though rather more has emerged about his time in Lewes, when he began to take part in political affairs. Even then, nothing he did or wrote in Britain explains what he did and wrote in America.

The middle part of the book covers Paine's public career of 28 years, first in America, then back in Britain, and then in France. Paine arrived in America in 1774, served a brief apprenticeship as a magazine editor, then began his major work as a pamphleteer. Keane uses the latest research in his account of Common Sense and the Crisis papers, which played a leading part in the paper war of independence and established Paine's reputation, and of his participation in the military war of independence and in the politics of the new republic; it still is not clear how he achieved what he did. Keane also makes the best of Paine's attempts to design an iron bridge in America, France and England; it still is not clear how far he might have succeeded. Keane's touch is less sure with Paine's political activity in England, from 1787 to 1792, when he wrote the two parts of Rights of Man and various shorter pieces; his account of the radical movement is too superficial and summary. But his touch is back again with Paine's political activity in France, from 1790 to 1802, when he served in the revolutionary Convention, joined the Girondins (supporting the abolition of the monarchy but opposing the execution of the king), suffered imprisonment and nearly suffered death under the Jacobin Terror; again Keane uses the latest French research.

The last part of the book describes Paine's final stay in America, from 1802 until his death in New York in 1809, in 15 per cent of the space. This is a sad story of disappointment and depression, drink and disease, and he died as miserably as his enemies hoped, though he did not repent as they claimed; Keane maintains a proper balance between the fantasies of both sides on the basis of the known facts.

Keane is good on Paine himself - the plebeian background and the rise to the top in three countries; the awkward personality and the bohemian lifestyle; the self-acquired erudition and the do-it-yourself style; the glorious success, with sales of hundreds of thousands and international fame, and the inglorious failure, with constant poverty and international infamy.

Keane is strongest on Paine's politics. As director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, he is particularly interested in Paine's striking and shifting ideas about what we call democracy. He mentions but shows less interest in Paine's equally striking ideas about what we call the welfare state - a system of state allowances for children, education, coming of age, work, marriage, old age, death (even disability), financed by progressive taxes on property, all carefully costed and seen not as charity but as a right.

Keane is weaker on Paine's religion. He covers Paine's relationship with various Christians during his early life, the first part of The Age of Reason (his classic defence of deism), and some of his later writings in America; but he misses Paine's pioneering use of "the religion of humanity" (in the seventh Crisis paper in November 1778), and ignores the second part of The Age of Reason (his classic demolition of the Bible), and his involvement with the Theophilanthropists in France in 1797.

A final regret comes at the end of the book. After reading so much about Paine's life, it is disappointing to have nothing about his afterlife. The narrative stops with his death. There is no mention of his dismal funeral, and no account of his continuing position as the favourite radical author whose works were reprinted and repressed for decades; who became an object of worship by socialists and secularists, in whose company he would have felt uncomfortable; and who has become a subject of study by academics, in whose company he would have felt even more uncomfortable.

The symbolic fate of Paine's mortal remains is dismissed in a footnote. William Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and brought them to England for a memorial, which never materialised; they were kept for a time, and eventually disappeared. But his soul goes marching on. His last home in America was made a shrine and a statue was raised in his birth-place; millions of people over two centuries have read Common Sense and the Crisis papers, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason; most of his ideas foreshadowed later developments in politics and religion, and are now taken for granted; many of his points are still as sharp as when he made them; several of his phrases have passed into common speech. His firm footsteps echo clearly throughout John Keane's resonant book. Perhaps he will at last get the attention he deserves.

Nicolas Walter is the managing director, Rationalist Press Association.

Tom Paine:: A Political Life

Author - John Keane
ISBN - 0 7475 2007 0
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £25.00
Pages - 644pp

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