Harbinger of a human revolution

Claude Rawson on the life and turbulent times of Tom Paine, radical and literary stylist Tom Paine: A Political Life John Keane Bloomsbury £25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Tom Paine was born at Thetford in Norfolk in 1737. The son of a staymaker, and apprenticed in his father's shop, he became a major player in the two great revolutions of the 18th century and had the ear of statesmen in three great Atlantic powers. He served in the American War of Independence and was elected to the French National Convention. He remained his own man throughout, a persistent thorn in the flesh of his distinguished friends. He was in many ways a loner, principled and headstrong, and also a bit of a crank, much addicted to inventions and projects, devising iron bridges, fiery arrows to blow up British ammunition dumps, and experiments to ignite a creek. He had a dynamic and restless creativity and his schemes were not always as dotty as they sound.

He was, above all, a fervid defender of liberty, committed to overthrowing the old rgimes in Britain, America and France. "Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise", he wrote in his earliest important work, Common Sense, which appeared in January 1776, and has been described as the "war-cry" of the American revolutionary movement. For the next two decades and more, he was a militant voice in radical politics: a voice of unusual integrity, and unusual too, as John Keanebrings out in this biography, in that some of its militancy was directed against the extremists of his own side. His political eloquence and the extraordinary international impact of his writings were matched only by those of Edmund Burke, his good friend and later, at the outbreak of the French Revolution, his prime antagonist.

Common Sense was written before the pair fell out. Their positions on the American colonies, while by no means identical, were hardly as irreconcilably opposed as on the revolution in France, on which Burke published his Reflections in 1790 and Paine his reply, The Rights of Man, in 1791. But with the hindsight of history, Common Sense looks like a proleptic challenge to Burke's dearest political principles. If "government" and "dress" were symbols of lost innocence for Paine, Burke regarded them as indispensable. His purplest passage, about the rough treatment of the French queen in October 1789, spoke of "the decent drapery of life" being "rudely torn off". Paine, though personally and courageously compassionate towards the French royals, thought this was precisely what should be done with monarchies. Keane shows that he brought to older traditions of English republican thought a new and transforming radicalism. Both he and Burke might have agreed about the "lost innocence", but Paine thought revolution could recover it while Burke believed, in a long line of conservative thinkers, that it could not be retrieved and that "government" and "dress" were needed to control and cover a necessarily flawed and contentious humanity. In The Rights of Man, Paine replied to Burke's image of the "decent drapery of life", remarking that Burke "pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird". Nothing could save the ancien rgime from its inherent corruption, and he could never assent to Burke's notion that the plumage, which was a containment as well as a cover of corruption, made possible restoration and growth.

When Paine remarked thatBurke pitied the plumage, he was perhaps retorting to his antagonist's description of revolutionaries as "filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags, and paltry, blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man". Burke saw revolutionaries as logic- chopping theorists and unfeeling automata, and hated what he called the "abstraction" of revolutionary discourse. Paine, however, has none of this "abstraction". His prose is rich with the reek, and the glow, of the human. He made a great point of boasting about his avoidance of "literary ornament", but he was as great a master of it as Burke himself. Keane is naively literal when he says that Paine's "point was to outflank Burke by replacing the accepted courtly standards of literary excellence with the vulgar and quotable language of common speech". Paine used all the riches of Burkeian rhetoric when it suited him, and his claims to "vulgar and quotable" utterance, as well as his use of it, were themselves rhetorical. The most memorable formulations of both writers, their favourite images, seem to pick up and answer one another. Paine spoke in Common Sense of the "young oak" of free American nationhood, while Burke invoked the great old "shadow of the British Oak".

Though Paine radicalised earlier traditions of English republican thought and pressed for an extension of equal rights as a citizen to social groups previously excluded from the category of "the people", he did not support voting rights for women (maintaining a loaded silence on a New Jersey law of 1776 which extended the vote to female citizens) and was reluctant or reticent even about universal male suffrage. Though his opposition to the old trappings of monarchy was very strong, he did not, contrary to common belief, champion "popular sovereignty". He understood that a cultish idealisation of "the people" readily turned into a version of the tyrannical mystiques it was designed to replace, and Keane vividly shows how the example of Robespierre and even Washington alerted him to the dangers of power exercised "in the name of `the people'." He had an acute awareness, as early as Common Sense (1776), of the despotic potential lurking in revolutionary groups and their vulnerability to pseudo-messianic manipulators. He also warned of the potential despotism of majorities, anticipating Tocqueville. In the run-up to the French Revolution he surprised his friends by seeing in Louis XVI the promise of a "republican" monarchy. He was optimistic about the Revolution and slow to detect its dark side. Although he became disillusioned with Louis XVI after the flight to Varennes, he was dismayed by the execution of the king and opposed Jacobin excesses, was imprisoned, and narrowly escaped execution himself. It is one of the distinctions of Keane's book that he makes clear the deep connection between such attitudes and the character of Paine's radical anti-monarchism.

Paine returned to America in 1802 at the invitation of Jefferson, who had become President. Jefferson remained loyal to him, but Paine had lost the esteem of large sections of American opinion for what were perceived as his irreligious sentiments and for his criticism of George Washington and of various aspects of American domestic and foreign policy. His last years were troubled by drunkenness, financial hardship, a sense of American ingratitude for his services, and even a degree of estrangement from Jefferson. He continued to write on political and other themes. Projector to the end, he published an essay on The Cause of Yellow fever and the Means of Preventing It (1806). At one point, "socially isolated, unable to walk properly", he lived for five months above a tavern in New Rochelle, "lost weight, cried often, and rarely washed or shaved". He kept up a correspondence with Congress, and with Jefferson, unsuccessfully asking for money. He died on 8 June 1809 at the age of 72, refusing to the end to declare a belief "that Jesus Christ is the son of God".

Paine's early years in England, his involvement with the revolution in France and his last years in America are movingly and compellingly portrayed in this biography. Keane's literary judgement, though, is a blunterinstrument - it is not enough, for example, to dismiss Paine as a "lousy poet" without offering an adequate description - and he occasionally slips into politically correct but anachronistic usages. Yet this is an engaged and engaging book, crisply and generously narrated, with a vivid sense of quotidian detail, a sensitive understanding of Paine's personality, and a sophisticated command of the movement of ideas.