How the essence and works of the American Revolution firebrand have been lionized, vilified, largely ignored and strangely reclaimed.
Kaye (Social Change, Univ. of Wisonsin, Green Bay) marshals the essential life details of Paine (1737–1809), erstwhile British corset-maker turned privateer and an immigrant to the Colonies on the eve of what he himself would indelibly characterize as “the times that try men’s souls.” But this is not a towering biography; instead, the author focuses on the impact of Paine’s writing, among the most widely circulated printed material both in America and Europe in his day, and on the politics and statesmanship of a revolutionary age. Paine’s ability to instantly make enemies was evident even in 1776, when his “Common Sense” pamphlet was rallying the cause for independence; John Adams, for instance, was so opposed to Paine’s radical democratic ideas as to openly suggest that the circumstances of the latter’s parentage involved a wolf bitch in rut with a wild boar. Unrelenting, however, whenever he perceived a drift toward Federalist concentration of power, Paine even produced material insulting George Washington. But in repudiating Christian scripture with terms like “mythology” in later works, Paine set the all-time negative example for American political figures (including his like-minded friend, Thomas Jefferson) to avoid. With open bias, Kaye laments the fact that Paine spent some two centuries alienated from the mainstream. It was not modern Democrats who rediscovered Paine—the original proponent of limited government, welfare support for the indigent and, yes, even social security—it was Ronald Reagan. Invoking the line from “Common Sense” that “We have it in our power to begin the world again” at the 1980 Republican Convention, Reagan reinvented Paine for the party, an act the author avers has actually subordinated Paine’s ideals.
First-rate analysis of original American political thought that has survived deep ecclesiastical enmity.