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A firebrand for freedom

46 Pages: Thomas Paine, 'Common Sense,' and the Turning Point to Independence, Scott Liell, Running Press: 174 pp., $18.95

May 11, 2003|Ronald K.L. Collins | Ronald K.L. Collins is a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., where he oversees the First Amendment online library ( He is also the co-author (with David M. Skover) of "The Trials of Lenny Bruce."

Thomas Paine was something of a contradiction. Born in 1737, he was a patriot to the colonies and a traitor to the Crown. He craved public recognition yet sought anonymity. He had a radical bent yet valued constitutional government. He believed in God yet detested religion. He was allied to the great men and ideas of his day and yet disconnected from them and their missions -- his revolutionary ideas did not always mesh with their notions of government. Paine was a rolling stone, a figure who tumbled from one nation to another and from one fate to another.

He was a man of his words; they were his catalyst to fame: "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."

Words were also his catalyst to infamy:

"My own mind is my own church."

"The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient Mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue."

Predictably, the disagreeable words stuck in the public craw. For John Adams, Paine was a "satyr" begotten by a "wild boar on a bitch wolf," a man who led "a career of mischief." For Theodore Roosevelt, he was a "filthy little atheist." However much some revered Paine for his political views in "Common Sense," "The American Crisis" and the "Rights of Man," they could never forgive him for what was (mistakenly) thought to be a godless tract -- "The Age of Reason."

Today's patriot can become tomorrow's enemy, if only he speaks his mind. This is a curious moral for a nation born and bred in dissent, for a people who once betrayed their own motherland in the name of reason and revolution and for a people constitutionally committed to 1st Amendment principles.

"Common Sense," first published on Jan. 10, 1776, in Philadelphia, is one of the great documents in the history of freedom. An astonishing 150,000 copies of the 2-shilling pamphlet, carrying zealous messages about rights and revolution coupled with broadsides against monarchical rule, were snatched up in its first few months. The story of that amazing pamphlet is vividly and economically recounted in Scott Liell's stimulating book, "46 Pages: Thomas Paine, 'Common Sense,' and the Turning Point to Independence."

Liell, a Connecticut writer and member of the Thomas Paine National Historical Assn., outlines the origins of "Common Sense" and how it was that this work of fierce, wild and indignant prose came to settle in the colonial mind. "Paine's aim," as Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn put it, "was to tear the world apart -- the world as it was known and as it was constituted."

Liell notes that Paine's heretical mission was to attack not the individual tenets of those who favored reconciliation with the king "but the ideological infrastructure upon which those tenets rested." Of course, such an undertaking was all the more challenging given that many of the colonists felt more of a bond to monarchical than to republican government.

"Common Sense" greatly stimulated the discourse of dissent that ultimately led to the American Revolution. But things did not start out that way; Paine's uncompromising ideas were seditious to some, senseless to others and stirring to those few bent on revolution. It took countless debates, elections, town-hall meetings, tavern disputes and a few constitutional conventions before Paine's prophetic message became reality.

"46 Pages" is an admiring, colorful and useful introduction to Paine and his revolutionary pamphlet. It is a compromise between John Keane's more scholarly and extended biography ("Tom Paine: A Political Life") and Bailyn's more abbreviated but rigorous 1973 essay, "Common Sense." Liell's felicity of presentation approaches that of Howard Fast's "Citizen Tom Paine," a 1943 work of historical fiction. It is a welcome companion to the Modern Library's new edition of "Common Sense," edited with a thoughtful introduction by Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood. While Liell's occasional lack of critical distance is unfortunate, he brings to his work a passion reminiscent of the fighting spirit of his subject.

Curiously, Liell devotes but a lone line to Paine's remarkable "Four Letters on Interesting Subjects" -- "a brilliant radical piece" of revolutionary prose as Wood tagged it. Paine's pyrotechnical letters attacking British constitutionalism and urging radical republican government played a notable role in the debate culminating in the Declaration of Independence.

Likewise troubling is the scant and unduly dismissive account Liell offers of John Adams' critique of "Common Sense" as set out in his "Thoughts on Government" (1776). There, Adams, supportive of Paine's call for independence, took perceptive exception to Paine's almost blind trust in a unicameral assembly tempered by no meaningful checks and balances. Even those who rightfully admire Paine must concede that he was more a political firebrand than a political philosopher. He took chances while others took time; and in the process he awakened the American mind to the glory of freedom.

At a time when love of country and love of liberty are sometimes treated as clashing values, Paine's "Common Sense" serves as salutary reminder that they need not be so, that the patriot and dissenter can indeed speak with the same voice.

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