BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Thomas Paine: A Man Who Knew the Power of the Pen : THOMAS PAINE: Apostle of Freedom <i> by Jack Fruchtman Jr.</i> ; Four Walls Eight Windows $30, 557 pages
A professor of American history now sits in the Speaker’s chair, the song of the “sunshine patriot” is upon the land: What better moment to recall the trenchant words of America’s earliest and most famous spin doctor, Thomas Paine?
“These are the times,” wrote Paine in his suitably named journal, “American Crisis,” “that try men’s souls.”
Jack Fruchtman, a professor of political science at Towson State University in Maryland, conjures up Paine in all his rhetorical glory in a new and especially timely biography. Although Paine held no high office and won no decisive battles, he deserves to be called a hero of the American Revolution and a founder of American democracy no less than George Washington, for whom Paine served as a “hired pen,” or Benjamin Franklin, who claimed Paine as his “political adopted son.”
Indeed, Fruchtman emphasizes that Paine’s real genius was the use of media as an instrument of politics, and so we may be tempted to compare him to an Izzy Stone or even a Rush Limbaugh.
“Paine deliberately used his pen as a weapon,” writes Fruchtman, “to tear away the fabric of tyranny wherever he saw it: monarchy, when he argued that kings were no better than the lowliest of God’s creatures; religious superstition, when he examined how the Church tried to control the mind with fantasies and falsehoods, and slavery, when he saw how it flourished even in America.”
Paine was born in England, the son of a craftsman who made whalebone stays for women’s corsets, but Fruchtman shows him to be a “wanderer” whose taste for adventure was boundless. Paine always seemed to show up at crucial moments in the political life of America, France and England, whether as a sailor aboard an English privateer in the Seven Year’s War, a self-invented political propagandist in America during the Revolutionary War, or a deputy in the revolutionary government of France during the Reign of Terror.
Fruchtman is a political scientist, and he pays special attention to the workings of Paine’s heart and mind in the context of 18th-Century politics. Indeed, Fruchtman compares Paine favorably with such revered political philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke, who was both his contemporary and, at times, his adversary.
“One thing is certain about Thomas Paine,” Fruchtman writes. “Friendship never impeded his engagement in an argument.”
We are given a whiff of Paine’s odor among his contemporaries, who literally complained that he did not bathe frequently enough. One of his “friends” described Paine as “coarse and uncouth in his manners, loathsome in his appearance, and a disgusting egotist.” And John Adams, one of his enemies, agreed that the hot-headed Paine was a “bad character” who “could not write until he had quickened his thoughts with large draughts of rum and water.”
So great was Paine’s gift for incitement that he was vilified by both the right and the left. For example, Paine was tried in absentia in England and his writings were banned as “seditious libel,” and then, only a few years later, revolutionary France struck him on the other cheek by throwing Paine in prison.
“My friends were falling as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off,” Paine wrote to Samuel Adams, “and . . . I every day expected the same fate.”
Now and then, Fruchtman probes the more intimate crannies of Paine’s life. The author dismisses the notion that Paine’s marriages failed because he was impotent, for example, and Fruchtman gives us a bit of clumsy romantic doggerel that Paine composed for the wife of a friend, rhyming “the disobedient Jews” with a declaration of his love for “Y, O, U.”
Still, “Thomas Paine” is not psycho-history; and Fruchtman is clearly more interested in politics. More often than not, Paine’s most intimate crises are explicitly tied to the state of public affairs: “In 1779-80, the financial condition of the states was bleak,” writes Fruchtman at one point in the book, “matching Paine’s own mood and finances.”
By presenting Paine as no less than an “Apostle of Freedom,” Fruchtman takes the risk of turning Paine from a firebrand into an icon. But he asks us to ponder not merely what Paine stood for, but what Paine acted upon.
“Paine’s task,” explains Fruchtman, “was to spread . . . the political and social message that human beings could improve their living conditions when they acknowledged the godliness of life itself and their own creative abilities to transform political and social evils into liberty, equality and justice.”
“Thomas Paine” is not intended as a veiled critique of contemporary politics--Fruchtman’s authoritative and readable book is a work of history, not commentary. But it comes at an opportune moment, and it casts our own landscape in a revealing light. We might wish for men and women in American politics who share Paine’s clear thinking and plain speaking, his hatred of hypocrisy and his love of liberty.