The story of a man committed to transforming the landscape of the new world.
Besides being a gadfly, political theorist, and enormously popular pamphleteer, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an architect, determined to design an iron bridge, economically crucial, over the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. Gray (History/Florida State Univ.; New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America, 2014, etc.) sets Paine’s engineering project against a backdrop of political turmoil as the Colonies struggled for independence and responded to the French Revolution. In 1775, the prospect of breaking ties with Great Britain generated fierce controversy. “To separate from the United Kingdom,” many colonists thought, “was to challenge the political wisdom of centuries,” which held that a “hereditary monarchy [was] the only way to political stability.” Paine’s Common Sense, published in 1776, contested that view, and within a year, up to 150,000 copies were circulated, with huge impact. Over the next six years, he followed with a series of 13 essays called The American Crisis, exhorting Americans “that theirs was the just cause” and bolstering the morale of beleaguered troops. Paine never grew wealthy from his writing, always returning profits to his publishers to ensure continued printings. As much as he inspired his countrymen, he incited detractors, and by the 1780s, he sought to break with his radical past. “The quiet field of science has more amusement to my mind than politics,” he declared. But although he poured his energies into designing an iron bridge, he could not fully break from politics: Rights of Man appeared in 1791, with a printing of between 100,000 and 200,000 in three years. The Age of Reason was published in 1794; “among the fiercest attacks on organized Christianity ever written,” it earned him new enemies. Although the author repeatedly shifts the focus to Paine’s engineering project, he inevitably returns to the more compelling facts of Paine’s political career.
A fresh look at an influential political activist.