TOM PAINE by John Keane


A Political Life
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 An aptly subtitled biography of the trailblazing political polemicist: This detailed account finds virtually no trace of a personal life. After his wife's death in childbirth in 1760, argues Keane (Politics/Polytechnic of Central London), Paine (17371809) reserved his primary passion for politics; his jobs as a corsetmaker and an exciseman in rigid, hierarchical England only sharpened his sense of economic and social injustice. The American colonies, seething on the brink of revolt when he arrived in 1774, were ripe for ``someone who supposed, with immense seriousness, that in politics words count.'' Common Sense, his blast against British rule in particular and monarchy in general, was deliberately written in plain language accessible to those previously excluded from political discourse; it outsold any other pamphlet ever published in the colonies and shaped the course of the American Revolution. It was Paine's ability to speak to the common people, as much as what he said, that made authorities of every stripe nervous: He gradually lost favor in more conservative, post-revolutionary America; his return to England climaxed with the 1791 publication of The Rights of Man, a work so radically democratic he was charged with seditious libel and forced to flee the country; in revolutionary France, he narrowly escaped execution during the Reign of Terror when he proved as allergic to state despotism of the left as of the right. The Age of Reason, written during those dark days as an attempt to define his militantly nonsectarian religious beliefs, ensured that Paine was damned as an atheist when he went back to America; the poignant final chapters show him, sick and abandoned by all but a few friends, still churning out pamphlets to guide the nation that now scorned him. Nothing really new here (despite occasional sniping at minor errors by previous Paine biographers) but a solid, well-written portrait that reiterates Paine's ongoing importance in contemporary discussions of democracy's potential and perils.

Pub Date: March 6th, 1995
ISBN: 0-316-48419-9
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995