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

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.

Suggested Topics
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?