Jesse Norman

Polemicist of genius

As a cosmopolitan citizen of the world and pioneering opponent of religious superstition, Paine fits perfectly within the modern narrative

‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’ Ronald Reagan made this most unconservative of lines a leitmotif of his 1980 presidential campaign, knowing its radicalism would highlight his energy, personal optimism and desire for change. As it duly did.

The astonishing power over words of its author, Thomas Paine, persists to this day. In a letter of 1805, the former president John Adams said of Paine that

there can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief.

Yet even Adams was forced to confess:

I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the past 30 years than Thomas Paine … Call it then the Age of Paine.

By that time Paine had long been a household name on two continents, such was his notoriety and the power of his pen. The man himself was poorly educated and an early failure; in 1774, at the age of 37, he was sacked from his job at the excise, his second marriage disintegrated and his goods were sold at auction to pay off his debts.

He sailed for America, arrived with a severe fever — probably typhus — and began a meteoric rise that took him two years later to the heart of the revolutionary movement. His pamphlet Common Sense, published in early 1776, helped to rouse popular opinion towards independence; Paine himself estimated 120,000 copies were sold in its first three months. Little wonder he believed that America possessed the power to make the world over again.

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