EARLY ISLINGTON MAN

A new book finds that Tom Paine, `a disgusting egoist', was a true champion of humanity whose work lives on

ACCORDING to this outstanding biography by John Keane, Tom Paine "strikes our times like a trumpet blast from a different world". In a way this is true. But how different?

Paine addressed himself to an 18th-century world of unemancipated toilers ruled by monarchical despots and privileged oligarchies; a world in which children were hanged for stealing a few shillings, and women routinely died in childbirth (as Paine's first wife did); in which America was little more than a scattering of East Coast settlements, Britain had a population of barely ten million, and Islington - where Paine wrote his most famous work, The Rights of Man, in a pub close to what is now Angel tube - was an outlying village tucked away from the bustle and filth of central London.

Yet what is startling about Keane's account is not the difference, but the kinship. In politics, precious little has altered, and the debates that concerned Paine and his close contemporaries - about the definition of liberty and the institutions needed to protect it, about the desirable extent of equality, and about the legitimacy and use of state violence - are identical.

Much of the political landscape of the 18th century, too, is recognisable. "I am, Mr Dundas," wrote Paine to the Home Secretary of his day, after he had been accused of seditious libel because of The Rights of Man, "not your obedient humble servant, but the contrary." Paine would have laughed uproariously, with a strong sense of dj vu, at the Major government's frightened attacks on impertinent BBC interviewing.

The most striking aspect of Paine's world is the flow of ideas, as though the lack of satellite and Internet made no difference. In those incendiary times, a book or a pamphlet published in Pennsylvania could light fires across Europe almost before the ink was dry.

Of the trumpet blast there can be no doubt. Demagogues massage the vernacular, appealing to base instincts: Paine elevated it, reminding people of the best that was in them. He was a populariser, but never a vulgariser. Like many of the greatest thinkers and writers, he was not an innovator in the strictest sense. But there was a whirlwind freshness about him. He was a writer of eternal truths with a canny knack of surf-boarding the tide of fashionable longings. His continuing resonance comes both from what Keane calls the "diamond-hard" quality of his colloquial prose, and from a non-theorising, practical immediacy.

Indeed, if the extraordinary, passionate, limpid, still exciting Paine had one overriding capacity, it was an ability to be, physically and intellectually, at precisely the place where history was being made at any moment - whatever the barriers of distance and language. "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good," he wrote in The Rights of Man. Paine's country had no fixed point; his religion was addressed to what he saw as universal feelings. He was a philosopher above nations who, none-theless, became embroiled in the politics and ideas of three. Many people think of him as an American: in fact, he was one of Britain's most potent imperial exports. Keane makes much of Paine's birth in 1737 at Thetford, Norfolk, in the shadow of the local gibbet, symbol of oppressive state power, and of his youthful resentment of authority. Yet his early years seem unsettled rather than oppressed, and - as the persistent holder of minor office in the service of one government or another - he retained an ambivalent attitude to authority. The ambivalence may have had religious, as much as political, roots: he was the product of a split marriage, with a Quaker (dissenting, pacifist) father, and an Anglican mother.

According to Keane, Paine "reckoned life was a daring adventure or nothing" - and the streak of recklessness in him began early. Yet much of his young manhood remains a mystery. His grammar school education ended at 12, and he apprenticed in his father's trade as a corset-maker. At 20 he ran away to sea, but soon returned to an unremarkable existence in London and nearby counties, moving from job to job working in the female undergarments trade and as an Excise officer. The second occupation seems to have been most responsible for politicising him, as a trade union organiser on behalf of his fellow civil servants.

Personal unhappiness may also have sparked his public concern. In 1771, he married for a second time, and - amid rumours of non-consummation - rapidly separated from his wife, whom he never saw again. (Keane points out that the justice and liberty in Paine's idealism did not extend to the status of women, who featured little in his writing, or - for that matter - to the status of non-whites.) Perhaps if this marriage had succeeded, Paine would have stayed in England, eking out an existence as a minor pamphleteer: his life, before his emigration, contained little to set him apart from other coffee-house debaters and scribblers chafing at the restrictions of Hanoverian Whiggish rule. Indeed, Paine's early years on native soil are almost unfathomably dull, and there is still no easy explanation for his sudden transition, when already middle- aged, from English drifter into American polemicist of world renown.

Timing had something to do with it. Paine cannot have been completely unknown in London radical society: not every penniless immigrant arrived in America with letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Nor did they arrive at such a key moment. For a political writer to turn up in Philadelphia at the end of 1774 - just as the colonists were getting worked up about taxation without representation - required a kind of opportunistic genius.

It also indicated an unquenchable curiosity. It is here that Keane's tale takes off, into an astonishing romance: as if the fantasy of every run-of-the-mill lingerie salesman and tax clerk had miraculously come true.

Breathing American air, Paine instantly began to identify in his own mind a nationhood that did not yet exist in the consciousness of those around him. To be a newcomer and a convert, as great events unfold before your eyes ... Paine's sense of his own destiny and the destiny of his adopted compatriots can be imagined. "As each day passed," says Keane, "the cause became his passion." Uncluttered by the reservations of established settlers, Paine was soon ahead of current thinking, and began to predict outright independence. His first clear voice can be heard in the pages of the Pennsylvania Magazine. As Keane shows, the directness of his writing for this journal led straight to the compelling invective of Common Sense, the work which made his name, and perhaps helped to cause the American Revolution.

The pen is mightier than the sword: within a month, Common Sense had set the country alight. To anticipate was the thing. Paine was saying what the colonists were beginning angrily to feel, but dared not say. "Independence a year ago could not have been publicly mentioned with impunity," wrote one Bostonian. "Nothing else is now talked of, and I know not what can be done by Great Britain to prevent it." If not a cause, then Paine's book was a catalyst: urgent, modernist, irreverent, outrageous, blaspheming against the verities of religion and Monarchy. Paine took George III's madness as the symbol of an insane political system, and dismissed him as a ruler whose tenuous legitimacy came from William the Conqueror, "a French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself King of England against the consent of the natives".

The adventure now began in earnest. Paine witnessed burnings and sackings, and was forced to flee from Philadelphia, under siege from the British. Briefly, he served as Secretary of the new American Committee of Foreign Affairs. His enthusiasm and insight, however, were not matched by the political judgement needed in such volatile times. He was forced to resign, and embarked on the next phase of his life, in Europe.

"I am a farmer of thoughts," wrote Paine, "and all the crops I raise I give away." Arriving at the Court of Louis XVI as a member of an American diplomatic mission (though he spoke no French), his fame had preceded him. For a time, he was part industrious clerk, drafting official letters, but also part celebrity - feted for his writings, which were directed against the French monarchy's enemy, monarchical Britain. There was a heavy irony here, not lost on contemporaries, for Paine seemed almost a caricature of the villainous agitator. His interpreter recalled his "brimstone odour", and that he was "coarse and uncouth in his manners, loathsome in his appearance, and a disgusting egoist; rejoicing most in talking of himself, and reading the effusions of his own mind".

Back in Philadelphia, Paine found himself frustratingly marginalised. In 1787, he returned to England to visit his parents in Thetford, and also to follow up a madcap scheme for a single-span wrought iron bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The plan failed: instead, Paine wrote The Rights of Man, the finest manifesto Islington has yet given birth to.

It was also the best-selling book in the history of publishing, ricocheting around the whole of the Eurocentric world, and speaking, not just to, but with and on behalf of, the common man. "As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand," wrote Paine, "I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet." He described despotic governments as a fungus growing out of a corrupt civil society, and vigorously demanded a welfare state (an aspect of Paine's writings Lady Thatcher neglects to mention when she quotes him in her speeches). Keane suggests that the fight for extending the rights of citizenship required a fresh political syntax: it is also true that Paine, unlike later writers chasing popular truths, showed that basic social and political realities are painfully simple, and can be simply expressed.

The best test of a book's power is the fury it arouses among those it attacks. In Britain, The Rights of Man caused uproar: the authorities had good reason to be worried about a man whose work had already helped to lose them half an empire. Paine was quickly forced into exile, once again getting the moment just right. Seldom has an Anglo-Saxon been so welcomed in France. Arriving in Calais in 1792, he was immediately offered French citizenship, and elected as the town's representative to the exploding National Convention.

"Vive la Nation! Vive Thomas Paine!", cried his constituents. It was to be a poisoned chalice. Forgetting England, almost forgetting America, Paine - the new citizen - was sucked into the vortex, involving himself utterly in the turmoil of a culture he barely understood. Yet, as Keane movingly reminds us, he retained his sense of proportion, and his humanity. Though he voted to condemn Louis XVI, he fought to save him from execution. ("Citizen President," he courageously declared, against the ominous tide. "My hatred and abhorrence of monarchy are sufficiently known ... but my compassion for the unfortunate, whether friend or enemy, is equally lively and sincere.") As the Terror mounted, Paine took to his desk, and savaged organised Christianity in another great and lasting work, The Age of Reason.

Once again, desperate events overtook him, this time almost fatally. Having escaped lynching at the hands of the mob, he was thrown into gaol by a paranoid government and, hourly fearing his own death, watched fellow prisoners dragged off to the guillotine. Despite this trauma, Paine stayed in his latest adopted country, his pen continuously active against enemies on both sides of the ocean. George Washington was the subject of special calumny, for allegedly conniving at his imprisonment, and for having "acted towards me the part of a cold-blooded traitor". In 1802 Paine returned to America to spend his last seven years in growing ill health and squalor, denouncing unreason to the last.

What did he leave? A vibrant energy pervades this book, and this record of the life of Tom Paine - smelly, cantankerous, privately selfish - characterises a particularly uplifting kind of public virtue. Yet Paine's deeds counted for little compared with his words. Today they are treated as a holy text. Paine's echoing prose has become as much a part of our modern idiom as some of the passages from Milton, on whom he draws. The best books, George Orwell noted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, are those that tell you what you knew already, and would have said, if you could get your thoughts together. A unique capacity to encapsulate the emerging beliefs of a fragmented, newly secular world was the secret of Paine's popularity and force.

There have been scores of studies of Tom Paine. Another might have been very dry. This one is the reverse. The author uses the skills of a political philosopher, as well as a biographer's empathy, to reveal the personality and ideas of a great crusader for humanity, and to show how much, in our equally chaotic and fast transforming age, we still have to learn from his great call.

! `Tom Paine: A Political Life' by John Keane is published tomorrow by Bloomsbury at £25

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?