Among American revolutionary leaders, Thomas Paine is perhaps the most controversial and most reviled by history. Somewhat mercurial, Paine poses a challenge to a biographer seeking a balanced and fair assessment. Largely because of his revolutionary writings, Paine merits the attention of posterity and a just biographical assessment.
Keane’s careful probing of the available records has resulted in a biography that is balanced, fair, and on the whole favorable. TOM PAINE: A POLITICAL LIFE traces the subject from his humble origins to the height of fame as a political writer, after the publication of COMMON SENSE (1774), and through later controversies and decline. After an early apprenticeship in England, he met Benjamin Franklin and followed Franklin’s advice to seek his fortune in America. Paine arrived in Philadelphia just in time for the American Revolution. With publication of his pamphlet COMMON SENSE, his name became a household word, and his essays on behalf of the Revolution, THE AMERICAN CRISIS, enhanced this fame.
Yet the idealism that made Paine so effective a propagandist for revolutionary views also made it difficult for him to function in routine, mundane duties. Leaving America for France, he continued his revolutionary writings there. He found himself at first famous and later prominent, yet narrowly escaped the Reign of Terror. He lived his last final seven years in the United States, sometimes the confidant of leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, sometimes reviled by those opposing his unconventional religious and political opinions.
Keane’s Paine is an idealist of almost simple faith in humanity, a man with flaws, but one selfless to the point of ignoring his own interests. The biography makes few judgments about Paine the person, but creates the impression that the subject possessed untiring energy, a fertile intellect, and rational control of his efforts.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist. CCCXXXVI, July 22, 1995, p. 82.
National Review. XLVII, May 15, 1995, p. 65.
The New Republic. CXII, April 24, 1995, p. 34.
New Statesman and Society. VIII, March 31, 1995, p. 35.
The New York Review of Books. XLII, June 8, 1995, p. 19.
The New York Times Book Review. C, March 12, 1995, p. 1.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 19, 1995, p. 5.