P

Paine, Thomas British/American, 1737-1809

Thomas Paine was a pioneer in popular rhetoric, a form of discourse most familiar now in advertising, which he employed primarily in support of the natural rights of humankind, but he is best known for his association with the American and French Revolutions and for his rejection of conventional Christianity. Although this last position was common among his Enlightenment contemporaries, it was the ruin of Paine. He was a serious writer, never humorous, whose plainness and lack of pretense, were it not for allusions to contemporary issues, more closely resemble good political discourse of the 20th century than of his own, especially in his most famous work The Rights of Man ( 1791-92).

Paine was nearly 40 when he became an overnight sensation with his first published work, Common Sense ( 1776), a pamphlet which urged the American colonies to consider the rightness of separation from England. He spent the next two decades basking in the glow of various revolutionary fires, although he personally objected to violent overthrow and viewed revolution as ideally a "natural selection" in government. While in France, he nearly lost his life in a failed defense of Louis XVI on these grounds. Controversy followed him wherever he went, inviting a popular form of personal attack at the time; his biography is, unfortunately, a part of all readings of Paine. Political enemies funded the first Paine biography with money provided by an English MP after the publication of the first half of The Rights of Man. It suggests that he was cruel to his mother, killed his first wife, abandoned his second, drank excessively, and did not wash. Although cleverly written, it is neither history nor biography, and has colored all subsequent Paine scholarship. Controversy surrounding The Rights of Man culminated in a conviction on charges of treason for too nearly suggesting the overthrow of the English monarchy to some readers, although modern readers will have difficulty seeing it.

With the publication of the first part of his statement of personal belief, The Age of Reason ( 1794-95), Paine's infamy was complete. He lost his popularity in America, the only country he claimed as his own, a final, deeply ironic failure as an essayist in a lifetime of spectacular success in that genre. Immediately after his death, a large body of unpublished work was probably destroyed by a former French revolutionary out of combined loyalty to Paine and to the Catholic Church, to which she had converted while caring for Paine in his old age. A fire destroyed the rest several years later. Near the end of the 19th century, the first editor of Paine's collected works ended his biography of Paine with a call for world government and religious tolerance in a style reminiscent of Paine's own, the first scholarly testament to the power Paine continues to wield with readers.

The basic elements of the Paine myth -- the scurrilous biography, the late-life apostasy, the legions of loyal Paineites -- have always overshadowed the essayist Paine. It goes without saying that any serious appreciation of the simple logic of his essays -- all of it intended as public discourse and unrelated to the controversies which followed him to the grave -- should absolutely exclude the "life" of Thomas Paine, especially since the private Paine is lost with the lost papers.

All that remains of the popular Paine are the opening lines of the first installment of what is now collectively referred to as The American Crisis ( 1776-83): "These are the times that try men's souls . . ." With this essay, Paine invented an American identity and with it the possibility of an American nationalism necessary in times of war. These lines, written to rouse disheartened soldiers in General Washington's army, have reappeared in wartime speeches of commanding generals ever since, although Paine's personal political views were idealistic and pacifist, founded on the idea of the people's right to establish or re-establish their own government based on present need rather than on either tradition or the fundamental notion of "might makes right." His philosophy proved impractical, even to himself in the end when he failed to influence the French with his rhetoric of reconciliation, a realization which lent much of the bitterness to The Age of Reason.

At the height of his powers, Paine produced the immensely popular The Rights of Man in support of the French and in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France ( 1790). Unlike the philosopher Burke, Paine approached the essay form as a populist means to current ends rather than as a literary form in the service of philosophy. Although he succeeded, according to relative sales of the two documents, he did not do justice to the subtleties of Burke's argument. While Burke addressed a social and political elite with the power of England's literary past behind him, Paine produced rhetoric that inflamed a broader readership, choosing what proved to be a superior moral high road.

Now that the argument no longer matters, Paine's is clearly the superior rhetoric, although Burke is of course the superior philosopher, as Paine was neither systematic nor profound in

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Encyclopedia of the Essay
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers ix
  • List of Entries xiii
  • Preface xix
  • A 1
  • C 137
  • D 203
  • E 239
  • F 273
  • G 319
  • H 373
  • I 419
  • J 425
  • K 443
  • L 457
  • M 503
  • N 591
  • O 611
  • P 629
  • Q 683
  • R 685
  • S 725
  • T 829
  • U 865
  • V 871
  • W 883
  • Y 911
  • Z 915
  • Indexes 925
  • General Index 961
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 981
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