320: Thomas Paine by Craig Nelson

by Gerard

320.51092: Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Penguin, 2007. 339 pp. ISBN 978-0-14-311238-9.

Dewey Construction:

  • 300: Social Science
  • 320: Political science
  • 320.5: Political ideologies
  • 320.51: Liberalism
  • +092: Biography

There had to be someone who came first. Someone had to write it before anyone else. In the winter of 1776, a fellow known as “Poor Tom”, a “dirty little atheist” set down in print the phrase “the United States of America.” He couldn’t even sign his name to it. The colonies, gearing up for the fight of their lives against the might of the British Empire, were just now coalescing, just now learning how to work together as a new nation. But for Thomas Paine, a liberal rabble-rouser born in England, having just come to the colonies two years earlier, it was the beginning of a new age. And he would be its father.

Craig Nelson’s Thomas Paine is almost as rip-roaring as the man himself. He chronicles his life and interweaves it with the lives of Washington, Jefferson, both Adamses, as well as incorporating perspectives from England and elsewhere around Europe. Thomas Paine was born the son of a Quaker in Norfolk, England. He apprenticed as a stay-maker and worked as a privateer, a shopkeeper, an excise officer, and finally as a teacher before meeting Benjamin Franklin, who convinced him to emigrate to the colonies.

The voyage nearly killed him. But once he disembarked the ship (with the help of Franklin’s physician), he was immediately caught up in the revolutionary fervor. He authored the famous pamphlets Common Sense and The American Crisis, which helped to cement both the attitude and the identity of the emerging nation. His talks with the French government secured funding for the war. Then he became really radical. His Rights of Man attacked established monarchies and helped him become deeply involved in the French Revolution. He narrowly avoided execution.

His involvement in both major revolutions solidified his place in history and Nelson’s book is one of both praise and folly. Paine had major flaws and this book does not gloss over them. Thomas Paine skillfully imparts the ideals of liberalism, the Enlightenment, and the Revolutionary War as well as thoroughly investigating the life of one our founding fathers. This was a very rewarding book.