Such attitudes would foreshadow the next two centuries of public thinking about the man who was once considered the most important political writer of his century. Though “Poor Tom” was a founder of both the United States and the French Republic, the creator the phrase “United States of America,” and the author of the three biggest bestsellers of the eighteenth century, he is known today by the educated public primarily through biographies for children. At the same time, since he wholeheartedly followed a motto that life should be “a daring adventure, or nothing,” his personal drama and historic achievements have inspired a never-ending chain of advocates, apostles, and cultists.
So Craig Nelson begins his biography of Thomas Paine, who was originally named “Pain.”
Each time I teach American government, I take the class on a bit of a stroll through Paine’s Common Sense – or at least through the first 5,000 words or so of the 20,000 word eighteenth century pamphlet – to watch him ruminate and reason his way through the errors of monarchy and hereditary succession and boldly say the word in print what no one else would: independence.
I love watching senior high students’ eyes open a bit as we read through the pamphlet out loud – Common Sense, like our New Testament Epistles – is meant to be heard as one reads and the rest listen. Craig’s book has done the same for me with Paine’s life, and now as I listen I hear the voice of Paine.
That alone is worth the price of admission.
I probably wouldn’t have liked Paine, nor he me, had we met in person. Definitely different speeds. But how we need different speeds – and how, evidently, his speed was needed in his times. Reading the circumstances of his life – and what a reminder of the relative ease in which we live – at least here in the States Paine was instrumental in founding! Life expectancy of 36.6 years; a fifth of women perishing through childbirth – Nelson cites an example he calls “terrible but not atypical” of one family, the artist Goya and his wife Josefa, who “became pregnant twenty times, gave birth to seven children, and saw only one of them survive to adulthood.” It’s what I experienced each time we returned to PICU at the local hospital for the latest round of chemo with our daughter: there’s always another story whose depth of pain and pathos puts yours into perspective.
Anyway, reading the circumstances of Paine’s life, it’s hard not to see that Providential Hand working, weaving through its movements and timing, that he should end up on these shores, with the connections through Franklin and such in Philadelphia society as he ended up having, and then within but a year or two of first arriving here to be positioned to write and publish a pamphlet so seminal in thought and explosive in effect in uttering the word “that must not be named” (independence) leaves me basking in reaffirmed confidence that in the midst of so much seeming randomness and tragedy in our world, there is a thread of meaning and relevance shot through it all.
If we wait long enough, we may see it – but it may take the perspective of a century or two, or even of eternity – even if we are “eulogized” after our death (or while still alive!) as “Poor Tom” and remembered, if it all, in the biographies of children.
Thomas Paine is a gift, if we will take the moments to journey through it.
Take and read.