Christopher Hitchens has come round to Tom Paine's view that things would have been far better if the French revolution had been more like the Americanby prospect / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books, £9.99)
The life of Thomas Paine was mostly pretty wretched. He was born in Norfolk in 1737, to a father who combined the strait-laced trade of a corset maker with the rigorous creed of a Quaker. His education was curtailed because his father objected to his learning Latin, the language of Popery. After a desultory apprenticeship to his father’s trade he gave up carving corsets and became, as he put it, “the carver of my own fortune.” The enterprise was not a big success. After failing as a seaman for a couple of years, Paine returned to corset making, and failed again. Realising that he had an aptitude for figures, he managed to get regular work collecting excise-duties, only to lose it for falsifying his reports; and after winning his job back, he lost it a second time, as punishment for agitating for better pay. In the meantime he experimented with the life of a tobacconist and a servant, as well as seeking (it is said) ordination in the Church of England. In 1774, having gone through innumerable jobs, two difficult marriages, many gallons of alcohol, and far more money than he possessed, he turned his back on England to make a new beginning in America.
At that point Paine was more interested in escaping his creditors than building a brave new world. But as soon as he arrived in Pennsylvania, with a serendipitous recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in his pocket, he found work with a printer and belatedly discovered his vocation. Soon he was editing the monthly Pennsylvania Magazine and using it as a platform for denouncing slavery. His journalism proved so popular that he turned his hand to an independent publication. Common Sense, addressed to the inhabitants of America, by “an Englishman,” was published in Philadelphia in January 1776, and Paine was scarcely exaggerating when he claimed that it met with a success “beyond anything since the invention of printing.” Paine’s summons to rebellion against British rule was perfectly timed, and about half a million copies would be printed in the next few years. He may have been a middle-aged lush and a journalistic novice but he had suddenly become the literary mentor of the American revolution.
With Common Sense, a new kind of political writing was born. Paine took over…