BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The other founder ...

This was a dollar store find … and I might not have picked it up had I known it was a “young adult” book (the info on Amazon says it's targeted for ages 12-17) … however, the only indication of this on the book itself (which I discovered once into reading it) was a /kids in the publisher's URL on the back flap of the dust jacket. Which is, in this case, a good thing, as Albert Marrin's Thomas Paine: Crusader for Liberty: How One Man's Ideas Helped Form a New Nation is quite a well-crafted look at this seminal American figure. Frankly, it's not a trivial read, and the only real indication within the text that this was a book specifically for kids are notes that explain things like the symbol £ representing “British pounds sterling”.

While I've read nearly all of Paine's major works, I don't believe I've hit something covering the man himself, and this is certainly a good overview on him. Also, being targeted at the audience it is, this is extensively illustrated, with a graphic of some sort (mostly reproductions of revolution-era paintings and press illustrations, with a few photographs thrown in) on nearly every other page … giving a very visual impact of the times and characters. The book (which is just shy of 150 pages before the notes and index), is divided into five sections plus an introduction, the titles of which are: “The Age of Paine”, “Portrait of a Failure”, “The Great American Cause”, “The Peculiar Honor of France”, “The Age of Reason”, and “An Honest and Useful Life”, which pretty much track through his life. Needless to say, it's odd to start off a biographical book with a phrase (from the introduction) like:
      In certain ways, Paine will always be a mystery. Much of what we would like to know about him is unknown and unknowable. The public Paine was a celebrity, his name known to millions. Of his private life, however, we have only the slightest hints.
Marrin notes that all of Paine's papers were destroyed in a fire not long after his death, so “None of Paine's letters remain except the ones kept by their recipients.” ... meaning that, to a very large extent, he was having to work with secondary sources of events around the man.

The book starts off with a survey of British culture at the time of the Enlightenment, and the development of the kingdom from the Middle Ages forward, with looks at the Magna Carta, the execution of Charles I, and exile of James II. There's a rather grim overview of “the rule of law” at the time, with over 250 crimes carrying the death penalty. The state of the government was also very heavily weighted to the aristocracy, with (Paine's home town of) “Thetford, a town of two thousand, had only thirty-one qualified voters.”. Paine's family was fairly low on the totem pole, with his father being a maker of corsets. When he was nineteen, he ran away to London, with the idea of joining the crew of a privateer (a licensed pirate-ish ship serving the Crown). His father, however, followed, and talked him out of this plan (luckily, too, as the ship he intended serving on was bested by a French privateer soon after sailing, losing almost all its crew). Paine opted to remain in London and used his family skills to go to work for a corset maker there. The London of the time was (except for the rich, of course), a vile place, with no sanitation, poor housing, riots, and beggars everywhere … with most of the population drinking gin rather than water (as it was safer). Paine eventually opted to try another privateer, which this time was a great success, with his cut of the booty being more than his father made in a year. Returning to London, he used this money to educate himself, hanging out in bookstores and attending paid lectures. When the money ran out he set himself up as a corset maker, and eventually married the daughter of an exciseman (a tax collector on imported goods), and he switched to that career. His first wife (and child) died a year later, and Paine ended up marrying the daughter of a tobacco dealer, whose business he eventually took over. At this time he began writing for assorted publications. Unfortunately, both the business and the marriage soon failed, and he had to sell off everything to avoid going to debtor's prison. In the wake of this, he returned to London, and was introduced to the already famous Benjamin Franklin, who suggested Paine move to America, and wrote letters of introduction for him, easing his departure in October 1774.

Paine arrived in Philadelphia (which at that time was the second-largest English-speaking city in the world, after London) on November, 30, 1774. The Atlantic crossing was not, as the author puts it for the meek or the weak, and during Paine's trip, five passenger died, plus nearly all were sick with Typhus. Fortunately, due to Franklin's contacts, Paine was whisked away by a doctor, who saw to his recovery over the following weeks. Once on his feet again, Paine found work with the Philadelphia Magazine, writing a wide array of pieces, including ones denouncing slavery, nothing the hypocrisy of those who demand liberty for themselves while denying it to others. One thing that Marrin sketches out here is an economic factor that led up to the Revolution – the British, having won the French and Indian War, were deeply in debt and having to man a new frontier. There were taxes on everything, and the Crown was looking for ways to further squeeze the colonies, including to extending the Stamp Act … which was what was being complained about in the “taxation without representation” slogan. The British eventually backed down on that, but came up with another set of taxes called the Townshend Acts, which included the duty on tea, that led to the “Boston Tea Party”, numerous attacks on tax collectors, the protests that resulted in the “Boston Massacre”, and eventually the conflicts at Lexington and Concord. In the wake of these, Paine was encouraged to generate a pamphlet with his views, the result was Common Sense, in which he built the case for independence. Initially published anonymously, the small book exploded across the colonies, selling 150,000 copies in a matter of weeks, and newspapers in many cities reprinted it for their readers. It was translated into a number of languages, and had reactions coming from as far away as Russia. George Washington was an admirer of it, and ordered it read to the troops (Paine donated all the proceeds of the book to buying supplies for the Continental Army). Nearly all of the Founding Fathers embraced it, and its demand for a “declaration of independence” … John Adams even wrote to Thomas Jefferson that History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine”.

Paine volunteered for the military, but he was ill-suited for combat, and Washington told him that “he needed his pen more than his musket”. The war was going badly for the colonists, and Washington needed a significant victory, and wanted some way to get the troops focused for his attack on the Hessian forces holding Trenton. Paine came up with The American Crisis (that ended up being a series, under the same title, of 13 pamphlets over six and a half years) which starts with the famous phrase “these are the times that try men's souls” … this gripped the imaginations of both the existing troops and a flood of new volunteers.

Paine served in various offices in the war, but was somewhat at loose ends once victory was achieved. He was without any resources, having donated all his publishing royalties to the army, and Washington made several pushes to get some funding for him, eventually succeeding in setting him up reasonably well. Paine had been working on several inventions during the war, one of which was a cast-iron bridge, which could be assembled where needed. Strangely, the States didn't care for it (being more expensive than wooden spans), but Franklin made introductions for him in Britain and France, and he headed back to Europe – thinking it was only to be for a few months, but ending up there for fifteen years.

Unfortunately, Paine's bridge did not sell any better overseas … but he did find that he had become something of a celebrity, even in Britain, where noted reformer Edmund Burke particularly lionized him. While Marrin is generally complimentary about George III, he has little patience with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette … quoting her brother, Austrian emperor Joseph II, as saying “they are a couple of awkward nincompoops”, albeit with power unrestrained by the checks of Britain's constitutional monarchy system. As France's revolution took hold, Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France which challenged some key concepts of Paine's, leading him to respond with The Rights of Man, which in the following decade “sold over a million and a half copies”. This prompted bans, fines for even owning the book, and a good deal of civil unrest in Britain. With things becoming personally uncomfortable there, Paine opted to sail for France, just barely making it onto a ship (only made possible by a letter from George Washington), which left port a scant 20 minutes before a rider appeared with a warrant for his arrest. Paine was welcomed in France, made an honorary French citizen, and even elected to the National Convention. Unfortunately, his arrival in France corresponded with the start of the “reign of terror” and the noted chaos and bloodshed that that entailed. In the trial of Louis XVI, Paine, while voting that the King had committed treason, also urged that the French eliminate capital punishment, and so argued for the King's imprisonment, and eventual exile (to America). The subsequent ballot on the death penalty was decided by a single vote … leading to the execution of the King and Queen. Unluckily for Paine, his arguing for the King's life ended up putting him under suspicion by the Jacobins, and he was jailed at the end of 1793. Paine had another remarkable escape there … due to an illness he was in a cell that was intermittently kept unsealed for ventilation, with the door open on the outside of the cell … when guards came by chalking the numbers of those going to guillotine, they didn't notice that these marks were going on the inside of that door, so he and his cellmates were not dragged off to their deaths once the door had been closed. Obviously, this error would have soon been rectified, but it was in the next day or so that forces arrested Robespierre and most of his top associates, their executions (four days after Paine's scheduled one) effectively ended the Terror. James Monroe (eventually to be the 5th President) managed to have Paine freed into his custody a few months later, and Paine stayed in Monroe's Paris home (he was the Ambassador) for a year following.

This time was also when Paine composed his last great work, The Age of Reason, finishing the first part of it just hours before his arrest, and writing the second part between his time in prison and while recuperating at Monroe's home.
      Paine blamed the looming disaster not just on fanatical politicians but also on Christianity. Like all organized religions, he argued, it rested on myths, not reason. Supposedly devised by corrupt priests, it aimed at controlling people's minds so the ruling classes might easily exploit them. Thus, Paine wrote The Age of Reason to fight atheism by replacing organized religion with the “true relgion of nature”.
      His ideas were hardly original. They had been around for well over a century. Though formally still Christians, members of the European and American elite were often Deists, from the Latin deus, or “God”. Deists were simply believers in God.
The first part of that book was, largely, a broadside against Christianity in general, and the second was “a book-by-book, chapter-and-verse attack on the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments”. Needless to say, this did not make him popular with large swaths of the population. Despite this, Thomas Jefferson urged him to come back to America, and in 1802 he returned.

Paine arrived in a much different America than he'd left fifteen years earlier. There was a great deal of conflict between Founding Fathers, with Adams in the Federalist camp, and Jefferson in the Republican ranks. Adams had defeated Jefferson to become the 2nd President (Jefferson served as Vice President, and became the 3rd President), and many topics had definite lines of divide between the two sides (Jefferson's Republicans supported the French revolution, while the Federalists supported the British monarchy as a counter-point to the chaos on the continent). When Jefferson became President, he often invited Paine to visit, and Paine became a handy weapon for the Federalists to wield in their attacks.

Paine's later years were spent between his house (provided by Washington) in New Rochelle, NY in the warmer months, and in various rooming houses in New York City in the winter. He descended into an extreme alcoholic state, not bathing or changing clothes for weeks at a time, and showing signs of clinical depression. Much of his despair was in the way the country was shifting from its revolutionary ideals, a discomfort shared with many of the Founders (Marrin comes up with some rather sobering quotes to this end). He died June 8, 1809, and ended up being buried on his upstate property (as his preferred resting place wouldn't have the author of The Age of Reason), with only five people (none notable) attending.

Thomas Paine: Crusader for Liberty concludes with a look at how Paine's writings have inspired movements around the world in the past couple of centuries, from workers' rights movements in industrializing England, to American Socialists, and assorted freedom currents everywhere. His words are spoken by a wide array of politicians, from Eugene Debs to Ronald Reagan, and are always useful for whipping up a patriotic response. As noted up top, despite this being a “youth” book, it doesn't aim too low and is a font of very interesting material, both on Paine and the political situations he found himself in.

While I picked this up at the dollar store, it's a fairly recent release (2014) and is probably still kicking around in the retail channels. The on-line big boys have it (at this writing) at a substantial discount (58% off of the cover price), and, surprisingly, the new/used guys don't have it for cheap (you might save a buck or two). I quite enjoyed this, and learned a lot about the man and his times, and figure that anybody with an interest in liberty, history, or the American experiment will find a lot to recommend this to them as well.

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