Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

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Agenuinely intimate biography of Thomas Paine is not an easy task. Most of his private papers were destroyed in a fire through somebody's carelessness or somebody's rancour. Consequently, some biographers have opted for generalisations based, reasonably enough, on Paine's writings, such as The Rights of Man, Common Sense and The Age of Reason. Occasionally such efforts are disappointing, not least and uncharacteristically a recent study by Christopher Hitchens, dismissed by one reviewer as "somniferously inert".

Craig Nelson more than compensates for these deficiencies. Even so, he cannot fill in all the gaps created not only by the loss of Paine's papers but by the formidable barricade with which this very public figure guarded his private life. Ambiguities persist also because of the way his reputation was trailed in the mud during his own lifetime and since, largely because of his views on organised religion. Paine was a deist, believing in a supreme being, but influenced by human reason and rejecting revelationist claims.

"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me to be no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit," Paine wrote in The Age of Reason, published in 1794-95. For this eminently sensible opinion, the immensely popular 26th American President Theodore Roosevelt called Paine a "filthy little atheist".

He was no such thing - but there you go. Long before Teddy Roosevelt, Paine's achievements had been rubbished by fervent detractors who couldn't stomach the fact that he insisted on addressing common people directly rather than through fraternal illuminati of the Enlightenment. Among the detractors who had once been fervent admirers was John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers, who read The Age of Reason in 1776, telling his wife later that he himself couldn't have written "in so manly and striking a style". However, years after becoming second president of the US, Adams described the equally manly and striking Common Sense as "a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass" - even though that document had been crucial to the Declaration of Independence. Adams also whinged to the third president, Thomas Jefferson, that history might "ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine".

These and other curmudgeons, on both sides of the Atlantic, whose sole satisfaction was in heaping up their own renown or wealth, or both, set out in various ways to destroy Thomas Paine, and with him dangerous notions of free speech, free thought and free choice when it came to electing politicians. That conscious demolition of an authentic friend of humanity proceeded from the requirements of a power that corrupted - continues to corrupt - those who have the chance to wield it against opinions that are "bold, acute, and independent" and tenaciously defended as were Paine's. The fact that Paine was a founder of the USA (and the French Republic), coined the phrase "United States of America", and wrote three of the best-sellers of the 18th century counted for very little.

Paine was born on January 23, 1737, in Thetford, Norfolk, where 95 per cent of his neighbours were rural paupers. As a youth he helped his father make corsets for women. Willing himself to be unconstrained, he went to London and in the coffee houses there he "would again and again take to heart Addison and Steele's Utopian visions of liberty, equality and sociability as the underpinnings of enlightened liberal democratic government".

He married a housemaid, Mary Lambert. Early labour killed her and her child. Paine, then 23, found work as a private schoolteacher and as a Customs and Excise man. He married Elizabeth Ollive, the only daughter of a tobacconist. That union was never consummated and eventually broke up.

Paine made many London friends, including the British-American colonial agent, Benjamin Franklin. When Paine, aged 37, decided on a trip to the New World, Franklin gave him numerous letters of introduction. There, in Pennsylvania, he wrote Common Sense, a pamphlet attacking European feudalism, its hereditary monarchs and class privilege. It appealed to his North American readers with extraordinary gusto: "There is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island."

He steered colonial minds towards independence. He also stirred colonial fists towards achieving it. Not only did he donate cash for the Continental Army's supplies, but he also wrote a series of dispatches that inspired disconsolate soldiers to keep up the pressure on the Redcoats. One of them, composed during George Washington's retreat across New Jersey in the winter of 1776, was read aloud to the frostbitten troops.

"These are times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." And so it proved. The Continentals won a decisive victory the following morning.

Paine returned to England in 1787, writing part one of The Rights of Man four years later, and defending the French Revolution against Edmund Burke and his crew. In 1792 he wrote part two, which caused him to be charged with seditious libel and ferociously hounded by William Pitt's lickspittle hacks. He fled to France where he was regarded as a hero until he protested at the execution of Louis XVl. Thrown into jail, he festered for 10 months until freed on the intervention of the US ambassador James Monroe. In 1800, the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson invited the ex-prisoner to the US.

Craig Nelson writes that Paine and almost all of his Enlightenment colleagues spent their last years "believing that their revolutionary programs had failed, that the philosophy of the light had been proved a pipe dream...". Nevertheless, he adds, today, nearly half of the world's nations have democratic elections and the freedoms which Paine's revolutionary generation hoped to achieve. "Of Paine's many reasons for daring to publish work for which he could have been hanged or guillotined in the United Colonies, the United Kingdom, or France, this legacy is his glory."