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Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations Paperback – September 4, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine would be pleased with this brisk, intellectually sophisticated study of his life. Nelson (The First Heroes) breezes through Paine's first 37 years, his attention tuned to 1774, when Paine moved from England to Philadelphia, bearing glowing letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. It was there that "his real life story would begin" with the writing of the hugely influential Common Sense, which attacked the divine right of kings and advocated American independence. Nelson follows Paine as he heads to Europe in 1787, and charts Paine's ambiguous relationship with the French Revolution. During the Reign of Terror, Paine got to work on The Age of Reason, and Nelson insists that, though his subject has been called an atheist, this work advocated 18th-century deism and was right in step with "mainstream Anglo-American religious discourse" of the era. Nelson concludes with a brief, intriguing discussion of Paine's legacy in the United States. The descriptions of Paine birthday galas in New York and Philadelphia 20 years after his 1809 death are fascinating—in fact, an entire chapter could have been devoted to Paine's influence in the Jacksonian era. This volume won't replace Eric Foner's classic Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, but it's a welcome addition. (Sept. 25)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Shortly after arriving in the American colonies in 1774, Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet "Common Sense," which was instrumental in pushing the colonies to declare independence. After independence was declared, his "16 Crisis" papers helped keep up the morale of American soldiers. Yet Paine is rarely accorded the adulation or even respect given to those deemed our Founding Fathers. To a degree, that is a result of Federalist politicians; frightened by his devotion to democratic principles and his support for revolution in France, they took every opportunity to disparage him as a rabble-rousing atheist. Nelson admirably restores Paine and his ideas to a deserved place of prominence. Above all else, Paine was a man of the Enlightenment. He went to France in 1787, defended the revolution in its early stages, but strongly opposed the descent into bloody extremism. He barely escaped execution during the Terror and died in obscurity in New York in 1809. However, his ideas stressing the virtues of democratic republicanism and his optimism for the future of America remained influential. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
No, these words weren't written by Thomas Paine, but by Walter Cronkite. One strongly suspects, however, that if Paine were alive and well in 2006, he would issue a similar indictment of our present plutocracy.
In his new biography of Thomas Paine, Craig Nelson writes: "While Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson would be crestfallen that the modern-day American federal government is the reserve of a new aristocracy--multimillionaire plutocrats and their corporate sponsors--Adams and Hamilton would be just as shocked to learn that their admired ruling elite no longer even pretends to lives of virtue."
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) helped foment the American Revolution through his powerful and, for the times, incendiary, writings, most notably his first great work, Common Sense (published in 1776; its working title had been Plain Truth).
In this work, Paine attacked the divine right or kings and urged the American colonists to rebel against "Mother England," throw off its slavish dependence on a tyrannical government, and establish "the United States of America" (a phrase which he originated), a new nation that would have freedom of expression, assembly, association, education, and religion.
Craig Nelson calls Paine "the Enlightenment's premier evangelist," "the apostle of the Enlightenment," and its "greatest missionary," pointing out that Paine was the most popular author of the 18th century, his other works including The American Crisis, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason.
During the darkest days of the colonists' struggle for independence, Paine wrote, in The American Crisis, these now-famous words: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
George Washington was so impressed by these inspiring words that he ordered them to be read to his troops on Dec. 25, 1776, prior to his crossing of the Delaware.
An eyewitness of both the American Revolution and the French Revolution, Paine was indefatigable in his advocacy of meritocracy, as opposed to the despotisms of monarchy and aristocracy. "We have it in our power," he wrote," to begin the world over again."
At first he was welcomed as a hero by the French, who fought for "liberty, equality, and brotherhood," but was later condemned during Robespierre's Reign of Terror, spending ten months and nine days in a Paris prison, and narrowly escaping execution by the guillotine. Mob rule, Paine discovered, has its own despots.
Nelson advances the intriguing theory of a manic-depressive Paine: "The course of his biography, with its episodes of buoyant enthusiasm and mute withdrawal as well as eyewitness accounts of his alternately overwhelmingly voluble and determinedly silent bheavior, imply that Paine may have suffered from a form of bipolar disorder. His letters include reports of months spent alone and never leaving his house, while his life story repudiates that easy flow common to biographical narrative, instead changing course in leaps and jolts."
Paine's publication of The Age of Reason (1794), a skeptical critique of the Bible and Christianity, led many of his detractors to marked him as "a filthy, dissolute, and drunken atheist." John Adams dismissed Paine as "a disastrous meteor" and "a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar and a bitch wolf." Few men in American history have been so vilified, and yet so admired, as Paine.
Paine was not an atheist but a deist. He believed that God, as First Cause, created the world, but then withdrew into a lofty transcendence, having little or no interest in, or care for, his creatures. One can see, however, how a conservative religionist would brand Paine as an atheist, for he rejected the God of providence and prayer, calling men and women to grow up intellectually (according to the Enlightenment tradition) and rely on their own judgments rather than trusting in the outworn dogmas of a superstitious tradition.
Craig Nelson's admirable biography rehabilitates an often slandered patriot, restoring him to the mantle of American hero, a tribute Paine so rightfully deserves. Thomas Paine is a highly enjoyable and enlightening work, written with political and philosophical acumen.
Nelson gives us a renewed respect for Thomas Jefferson and a confirmation of our low opinion of John Adams. Most importantly, he gives us a new appreciation of Paine's influence on the shaping of our nation.
We need more men like Thomas Paine today.
This book is about the man, Paine, his times, situations, his life and his influence. No other reference put me in the scene so well. It paints a vivid picture of Paine's personal life, his morals, strengths, weaknesses, and his crucial, world changing yet fragile relationships with prominent and powerful people. This book helped me understand the motivations that made Paine the most compassionate, dangerous, controversial, loved, respected, despised and important man of the 18th century.
The massive amount of research Nelson has assembled is more than impressive, it is awesome because he wove it into an a book that is not merely fact filled, but instead is alive in detail and fascinating in style. I could feel the tension and excitement of the situations Paine either initiated or wound up in. Nelson's writing style is a great lesson for many history writers. I was very impressed. Nelson is a nonfiction artist.
I felt that I was reading a screenplay, complete with scenery and a cast of award winning characters. It made me wonder why Paine has never been portrayed in a feature length movie. Few people on earth have had a more interesting, diverse, exciting, dangerous and important life. Maybe then, when a movie based on this book is produced, Paine will receive the recognition he deserves.
This book is NOT a first reader on Tom Paine. Paine's actual works are not included. Read Paine's works directly instead (many other sources exist) to get an introduction to Paine's ideas and the power of his pen. Come to realize how much American citizens owe Tom Paine by reading what flowed from his own pen, by learning at least that Paine was a MAJOR and critical influence and motivator of our respected founding fathers AND the common man, THEN read Nelson's book.
Nelson brings us closest to experiencing Paine's story. It is a valuable addition to my Tom Paine collection and should be in yours.
Overall, Nelson's "Thomas Paine" is a really an outstanding exploration of many of the founding themes of the United States, exploring in an insightful and sometimes provocative manner the relationship of the ideals of the Enlightenment to the establishment of the nation. It also offers an important analysis of the role of personal ideals in relation to civic responsibility. At what point, for instance, does a person of honor and integrity begin to oppose a government engaged in actions viewed by the person as reprehensible? If one decides that opposition is required, what type of action follows--civil disobedience, armed insurrection, and the like? I find these fascinating questions and no less salient today than when Paine wrestled with them in the eighteenth century. Nelson's book raises fundamental issues in the context of American history and governance.
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