Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for Tom Paine
TOM PAINE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, ERIC FONER, HYPERION, NEW YORK, 2004
If Leon Trotsky was considered by many to be the “prince of pamphleteers” for his efforts on behalf of the Russian Revolution and socialism then Tom Paine can rightly be regarded as the “prince of pamphleteers” for his efforts on behalf of the American and French Revolutions (and its offshoot- the pro-revolutionary English radical movement of the 1790’s) and plebeian democracy. Mr. Foner centers his biography of Tom Paine on the meaning of his key works Common Sense, The Rights of Man and the Age of Reason and the influence they had on the plebeian masses in the Age of Revolution. This, in itself, makes the book worthwhile reading.
These tracts are Paine’s classic arguments for plebeian democracy and the expansion of the capitalist market. Make no mistake, Paine is no socialist but as an agent of the revolutionary plebeian democratic movement- when and where it counted- we can claim him for our own. Mr. Foner also gives a rather detailed picture of Pennsylvania prior to and during Tom Paine’s entrance on the political scene there to help set the impact of his propaganda, especially Common Sense, on the developing American national liberation struggle against England.
Tom Paine, like many important revolutionaries in their time, had an impact on more than one revolutionary movement and therefore justly earned for himself an honored place in plebeian democratic history much to the chagrin of some later historians of these movements. In an age when sales of printed matter were small his tracts sold in the hundreds of thousands and those purchases were not for the coffee table at a time when money was dear. That alone helps defines the impact of his work.
Tom Paine, like other revolutionary leaders, has suffered through the ups and downs of reputation depending on the times. His Age of Reason, the consummate tract in defense of popular deism, led to a steep decline in his reputation for most of the 19th century, an age in America of religious piety. He has fared better lately, in an age that is much more secular and which is not shocked by deist conclusions. Paine also comes in handy as an ally when democratic rights are, like now, under full-scale attack in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’. Let me conclude by saying this, if a closet-Tory like Founding Father John Adams can look pretty damn good in comparison to today’s bourgeois politicians then Tom Paine can rightly take his place in our pantheon of revolutionary heroes.