The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions

The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions

The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions

The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions

Synopsis

This collection of essays by Bernard Vincent covers most aspects of Thomas Paine's life, thought, and works. It highlights Paine's contribution to the American and French Revolutions, as well as the active role he played in the intellectual debates of the Age of Enlightenment, in particular through his heated arguments with Edmund Burke or the Abbe Raynal. More than two centuries later, those debates-on the universal' nature of human rights or the exceptionalism' of the American experience-seem today to be more relevant than ever. Not only have Common Sense, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason become classics of Anglo-American literature, but, from the moment they appeared, they ushered in a new type of writer, a new way of writing-and a new class of readers. How Paine stormed the Bastille of Words, and in so doing served both the republic of letters and the cause of democracy, is the real subject of this book."

Excerpt

Thomas Jefferson considered Thomas Paine (1737-1809) as the only man of letters of his own generation that wrote better than he did. Commenting on Common Sense, he had this remark: “No writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style, in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language. In this he may be compared with Dr. Franklin, and indeed his Common Sense was, for a while, believed to have been written by Dr. Franklin.” Franklin himself added: “Others can rule, many can fight, but only Thomas Paine can write for us the English tongue.”

Yet Paine would not practice art for art's sake. Everything in him was focused on action, on the possibility of changing the established order of things. He believed in the subversive virtue and historical function of writing. His only purpose as a writer was to help public opinion evolve, convinced as he was that a change in the minds of people would sooner or later result in a transformation of society. Such was, to a large extent, the destiny of his first pamphlet Common Sense, whose outright plea in favor of independence brought about “a wonderful change … in the minds of men” (George Washington), and was even deemed by General Charles Lee powerful enough, “in concurrence with the transcendent folly and wickedness of the [English] ministry,” to give “the 'coup-de-grace' to Great Britain.” Similarly, when the French Revolution broke out, Paine viewed the event as the result of what pre-Revolutionary authors had prophetically expressed in their writings. As he put it in Rights of

Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, 1903
1907), 15: 305.

Quoted in Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends 4, no. 3 (August 2003): 3.

Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Boston, 1833-37), 3: 347.

Jared Sparks, ed., The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution
(Boston, 1829–30), 1: 136.

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