I continue my torrid literary affair with Christopher Hitchens with his latest short biography. He’s previously done a slim tome about Thomas Jefferson; now, he turns to famed pamphleteer Thomas Paine, beginning a theme of which Susan Jacoby would be proud.
Ostensibly a biography of Paine, one gets the feeling early on that Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography is going to end up being itself something of a philosophical treatise, piggy-backed on the narrative framework of a biography. Hitchens begins with a sizeable introduction which is dark with just such portent. He dispatches swiftly with Paine’s childhood and young years as a sailor, and later as an oft-fired government bureaucrat (this is in his native England). His penchant for rhetorical rabble-rousing made him a few good friends (eventually with Ben Franklin) and plenty of enemies.
His exploits in America are of course his best-known: he wrote Common Sense, the most famous of several pamphlets that he authored in support of a war for American independence—and it is notable that he called explicitly for an independent American state, since there was still a sizable population that simply wanted a redress of grievances and not complete secession from their motherland. He is, perhaps, the first to use the phrase “United States of America.” He was an ardent abolitionist, and originally influenced a passage in the Declaration of Independence denouncing the slave trade, though it was excised by committee before the final revision.
But easily half of this book focuses on Paine after the American Revolution, when he returned to France to foment a revolution there. Between France and England, Paine made plenty more enemies: his efforts east of the Atlantic were not as fruitful as those west of it. The French revolution changed states more often than a transistor, and was infinitely more bloodthirsty.
Curiously, Hitchens focuses on Paine’s intellectual rival, a man by the name of Edmund Burke, an Irish author and political theorist who wholeheartedly supported the American colonists’ independence, but strong opposed the French Revolution. Burke saw the French Revolution not as the true establishment of democracy, but a violent compulsive reaction to the suddenly unpopular notion of monarchy or hereditary power, which he curiously supported in his native Britain.
The literary catfights in this period are a subject of great interest to Hitchens, for whom they are a platform to wax idealistic, as he so often does, about the nature of liberty, the vagaries of inherited v. elected power, and the effect and wisdom of religion—specifically in connection to Paine’s Age of Reason an argument for deism among other things.
Paine eventually came back to the United States, where Federalist detested him for his ideas on government, devout religionists detested him for his ideas on deism, and yet others detested him for his associated with the French Revolution. He, poor and largely unpopular, in 1809.
If you’re interested in an in-depth history of Thomas Paine’s life, Hitchen’s brief treatment might not be for you. If you would merely like to know about Paine, and his influence, then you might appreciate what Hitchens has to say: it’s a good primer on Paine and his legacy.