I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Actually, in some ways, reviewing it is easy. It was well-written (favorite line: “After Luther, there would be two kinds of Europeans: those initiated into the illuminating world of print, and those still playing with hoops” apparently the only thing that has changed since Luther is that we have way better toys than hoops). It presented a clearly favorable – but still fair – portrait of Thomas Paine. It was a solid “life and times” style biography – as it has to be with Paine who was highly involved in so many of the interesting events of his time. The reason that I find it difficult is that it is so hard to know what to make of the subject – see Wikipedia for a summary of his life, which I don’t feel like re-writing.
At times Thomas Paine seems to be such an ideal character and defender of liberty. How can I not admired a guy who wondered “if a system of government could not exist that did not require the devil?” At other times, it’s hard to know what exactly he actually believes. Mr Nelson identifies as Benjamin Franklin’s ideological son, and refers to him as “Franklin unleashed.” Yet it’s Franklin who said “so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do” (a criticism that at times in his life seems particularly apt for Paine). And at still other times he veers off towards beliefs that are destructive to liberty.
It clear that Thomas Paine played an incredibly important (and highly underrated) role in the American Revolution. He was among the first to question British rule and to seriously suggest (and subject to reason, the proposition that the colonies begin) a break from British rule. I sympathize with someone who questioned religion and decided to subject it to reason. Yet, Paine also seems to lay the foundations for later movements that rolled back liberty and even some that were outright opposed to liberty (it’s only fair to note that Paine seems to have inspired the best reformers and the worst reformers alike). As Mr Nelson says:
Yet most of the founders were not happy with their creation; they were afraid they had killed off virtue. Mr Nelson quotes Jefferson:
All, all dead, and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who knows not us. . . . I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 . . . is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. . . . I have sometimes asked myself whether my country is the better for my having lived at all.