Craig Nelson. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. 396 pp. $16.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-311238-9.
Reviewed by Michael J. Turner
Published on H-Albion (November, 2008)
Commissioned by David S. Karr
An Interesting Work That Will Do Much Good
Historians have long debated the importance of Thomas Paine’s writings and ideas and the contribution they made to revolutionary movements in Britain, America, and Europe. Craig Nelson’s book is a welcome addition. It traces Paine’s personal, political, and intellectual development; places him in the relevant social, cultural, ideological, and political contexts (in an era when so much was changing, and quickly); and offers one of the most interesting and thorough portraits of Paine that has yet been published. It is stronger on Paine’s American activities than on those in Europe and Britain, and although Eric Foner’s Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976) remains useful, Nelson’s book can profitably be read alongside it. Similarly, other writers on Paine have been more analytical--notably the contributors to Ian Dyck's edited collection, Citizen of the World: Essays on Thomas Paine (1987)--but Nelson’s book also repays a careful reading.
Nelson clearly admires his subject. Occasionally this leads him to exaggerate Paine’s influence and importance. We are repeatedly told of the friendship and respect that existed between Paine and such figures as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but the correspondence between them, and other parties, only reveals so much, and we cannot be sure about what these prominent Americans really thought of Paine and his conduct. Another problem is that Nelson’s grasp of British history and understanding of how British institutions operated in the late eighteenth century are not all that they could be, and one is left wondering why--if conditions for most people in Britain were as bad as Nelson thinks--there were not more Thomas Paines around to complain, enlighten, and agitate. The book has some stylistic shortcomings. Nelson is not always kind to his readers; it is not uncommon to be faced with long, rambling sentences that ought really to have been broken up (one, on p. 48, has twelve commas and contains over one hundred words). The format used by Penguin for notes and references also leaves a lot to be desired.
However, the expertise that Nelson displays in describing Paine’s struggles, adherence to principle, and participation in some of the key events in the age of revolutions is impressive, and there is good coverage of Paine’s writings, especially Common Sense (1776), The Rights of Man (1791), and The Age of Reason (1794). The issues with which Paine grappled, concerning power and freedom and the whole gamut of political and social relationships, continued to vex succeeding generations. Indeed, they are still with us today, if in a somewhat different context. Paine provided some of the fundamental parameters for thought and discussion. This is why he is worth studying. Perhaps the chief merit of Nelson’s book is that it reminds us that Paine’s major works still deserve to be read.
Opinions about Paine differed sharply in his lifetime and ever after. Nelson makes use of many of these jarring assessments--including those of another troubled British radical, William Cobbett, who was born twenty-five years after Paine and whose view of Paine underwent a transformation from negative to positive in the early nineteenth century. That Paine continues to inspire contradictory positions is clear: hence the furor over an article in the Wall Street Journal of September 22, 2006, which claimed an affinity between Paine and American neoconservatives (on the basis that, above all, Paine believed in capitalism and defended the rights of property). It was and is possible to like Paine’s ideas without liking him as a person. He could be difficult and touchy, as Nelson makes plain. He tried various jobs, usually without much success. He was often short of money. He was a misfit, rarely feeling “at home” throughout his peripatetic, ocean-crossing existence. Nelson is not blind to Paine’s faults and weaknesses, even while he demonstrates his subject’s lasting significance.
At the end of 1793, as the twists and turns of the French Revolution made Paine a political offender in the eyes of the dominant faction, his rooms in Paris were searched and one of the police agents took a look at the manuscript of The Age of Reason. His comment to Paine might also serve as a verdict on Nelson’s book: “'It is an interesting work; it will do much good'” (p. 274).
On the other hand
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Michael J. Turner. Review of Nelson, Craig, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations.
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