O rare Tom Paine! Prolific political pundit Hitchens (God Is Not Great, 2007, etc.) sizes up the “self-taught corset-maker and bridge-designer” who fomented rebellion across the world two centuries ago.
Paine’s Rights of Man—the ostensible center of this entry in Atlantic’s Books That Changed the World series—was, writes Hitchens, “both a trumpet of inspiration and a carefully wrought blueprint for a more rational and decent ordering of society,” as well as “an attempt to marry the ideas of the American and French Revolutions” with the aim of introducing them to Britain. Of course, America and France found manifold ways to shake off revolutionary rationality, and Paine quickly found himself a prophet without honor, even if William Pitt allowed that Paine was of course right. (Pitt added, though, that to encourage Paine’s opinions would be to invite revolution indeed.) Antimonarchical but at once radical and conservative—for instance, Paine “often wrote of economic inequalities as if they were natural or inevitable,” and he resisted the atheism of the French Revolution—Rights of Man asserted a few contradictions and foreshadowed, in some ways, the notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat, but it also pressed for a certain wide-ranging species of liberty, against which Hitchens contrasts Edmund Burke, whose own ideas of equality and liberty turned on the presence of a hereditary king. Paine’s vigorous and plain prose, Hitchens observes, has been taken as evidence of an uncouth nature, but Paine’s ideas were elevated, and of course widely influential—reverberating, in time, in the labor movement, women’s suffrage and Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech after Pearl Harbor. Paine, as Hitchens notes in this lucid and fast-moving appreciation, has no proper memorial anywhere; this slender book makes a good start.
Less exuberant than Tom Collins’s essential book The Trouble with Tom (2005). Still, as with all Hitchens, well worth reading and arguing with.