Magazine article The Spectator

'Thomas Paine: Britain, America and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution', by J.C.D. Clark - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Thomas Paine: Britain, America and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution', by J.C.D. Clark - Review

Article excerpt

'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' Ronald Reagan made this most unconservative of lines a leitmotif of his 1980 presidential campaign, knowing its radicalism would highlight his energy, personal optimism and desire for change. As it duly did.

The astonishing power over words of its author, Thomas Paine, persists to this day. In a letter of 1805, the former president John Adams said of Paine that

there can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief.

Yet even Adams was forced to confess:

I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the past 30 years than Thomas Paine ... Call it then the Age of Paine.

By that time Paine had long been a household name on two continents, such was his notoriety and the power of his pen. The man himself was poorly educated and an early failure; in 1774, at the age of 37, he was sacked from his job at the excise, his second marriage disintegrated and his goods were sold at auction to pay off his debts.

He sailed for America, arrived with a severe fever -- probably typhus -- and began a meteoric rise that took him two years later to the heart of the revolutionary movement. His pamphlet Common Sense, published in early 1776, helped to rouse popular opinion towards independence; Paine himself estimated 120,000 copies were sold in its first three months. Little wonder he believed that America possessed the power to make the world over again.

By the late 1780s, Paine was using his literary celebrity in London to promote his design for a new iron bridge. When revolution began in France, his Rights of Man (1791), initially a counterblast to Edmund Burke's Reflections, was another huge bestseller, but led to his conviction in absentia for seditious libel. Paine himself was in France, where he quickly fell out with Marat and Robespierre. The Age of Reason (1793), his tract against organised religion, was completed in jail, and it too sold many thousands of copies. It is quite a story.

Part of the problem was that, as Adams's letter suggests, Paine rarely retained the confidence of those who knew him. He was, on the whole, a remarkably unappetising figure: a great egoist, he acknowledged no teacher and disavowed the influence of others. …

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