Thomas Paine, who liked to view himself as a citizen of the world and who was in fact a citizen of three different nations, ran the risk of ending his life as a man without a country. A child of revolution, he played a major part in two important upheavals of the late eighteenth century, in the United States and France, and sought unsuccessfully to bring about another in England. In a carefully detailed, objective, and comprehensive biography, John Keane chronicles the life of this famous revolutionary, a man significant because of his role as a theorist and propagandist.
Because Paine lived through an age of revolution, his biographer is challenged by a complex, rapidly changing setting. As if to show how Paine coped with the shifting sands that he found under him, Keane concentrates on placing him within the historical setting and accounting for the works promoting revolutionary ideas that flowed from his pen. Although Keane has written numerous other books, he reveals more than a temporary interest in Paine, for he has also prepared a scholarly bibliography of Paine’s writings consisting of more than six hundred titles. This work, when published, will serve as the foundation for a complete edition of Paine’s writings.
For his strident deism and his partisanship as well as his occasional poor judgment in attacking others, Paine has been subjected to more negative attention than other leaders of early America. It was his fate to achieve greater success at arousing and guiding public opinion than at steering the course of a movement into practical, productive channels. Keane attempts a balanced assessment, portraying Paine as a talented writer and thinker who made no more mistakes than most other influential thinkers and who from modest beginnings played an important role in history. Largely leaving the personal life to speak for itself, Keane nevertheless provides a wealth of detail about Paine, both personal and professional.
Few men of prominence and significant achievement had origins more humble than Thomas Paine. Born in England into a lower-middle-class family, he was educated at Thetford Grammar School and started his working life as an apprentice staymaker, his father’s trade. Bored by the tedium of this menial work, he enlisted on a privateer and served briefly as a part of the “unofficial” English navy. During one voyage, he earned sufficient share of booty to move to London, where, at age twenty, he began to make friends among prominent intellectuals. His wit, pleasing demeanor, and generosity made him a congenial companion. From the London setting he began to absorb the democratic ideals rife at the time—such principles as popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, and inalienable human rights. Hired by the government as an excise collector, he was eventually dismissed for absenteeism and for agitating for changes in the tax system. The event reflects a handicap that Paine faced in practical affairs: a tendency to press his own solutions to problems to the point of exasperating others.
An optimist who believed in the idea of progress before it became popular, Paine served briefly as a Methodist minister, largely because of the humanitarian element in the Methodist movement, but increasingly he turned to writing pamphlets and articles promoting democratic ideals. This interest catapulted him into the major revolutionary movements of his time, where he achieved status as an important, though unlikely, player. In London he met Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged him to emigrate to America and offered him a letter of introduction. Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, just in time to launch his career as a writer of revolutionary propaganda.
In America, his visionary zeal promptly led him beyond limits that many of his peers were willing to tolerate. During the American Revolution, he assailed what he believed to be dishonesty in another public figure, Silas Deane; in support of his claim, Paine revealed information that he was bound, as a matter of public trust, to keep confidential. Further, unlike many of his fellow revolutionaries, Paine attempted to apply his democratic principles to issues such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans—an effort that made him persona non grata among the upper class. He appeared to assume that others would show the same selflessness and disinterested zeal for revolution and reform that he himself felt.
Throughout the biography, Keane not only portrays Paine as an untiring and energetic writer but also analyzes numerous individual books, pamphlets, and papers. He provides a rather full examination of the four major works that came from his subject’s revolutionary pen and...