by Eric Foner ‧ RELEASE DATE: Jan. 29, 1976
To explain why Tom Paine, an ""unrelenting failure"" in England became an overnight success in America, Foner comes at him from an unusual vantage point: he probes the social structure of Philadelphia, the commercial center of the Colonies. He finds that a large part of the population--as much as 50 percent--were master craftsmen or journeymen, highly skilled and economically independent artisans. They became Tom Paine's constituency and he was their spokesman. The 1770's and '80's were the decades when political debate was opened up to ""all ranks"" of society. Paine did more than anyone else to politicize and galvanize the artisan class. His ideology, incubated during his frustrating years as an obscure staymaker and excise man in England, reflected the aspirations and prejudices of the preindustrial workers who were not yet a working class in the 19th century sense. Paine expressed their hostility to aristocracy and hereditary privilege; he insisted on the primacy of the ""producing classes,"" he was an egalitarian, a nationalist and a defender of private property; most important, he altered the terms of political discourse. Common Sense was written in the plain, direct language of the man in the street. By avoiding the florid, decorous prose of the elite, Paine, ""the artisan of words,"" demystified political processes; his style was uniquely suited to a mass audience. In America he both found and created that audience. Though Foner's book is not exactly a biography it goes a long way toward explaining why Paine's writing became the catalyst and spark of the American Revolution. Along with his friend Ben Franklin, another Philadelphian, Paine was preeminently the voice of the ""mechanical interests""; by mobilizing them Paine helped weld an alliance of ""property and persons"" in support of the War. For one brief historical moment he was the radical cutting edge of American democracy. Foner projects that moment in all its turmoil and unbounded optimism.
Pub Date: Jan. 29, 1976
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1976
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