Craig Nelson Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking, 2006)
One of the most important documents of American history and perhaps the most influential work in swaying the American public to declare independence, Common Sense hardly needs my commentary added to the numerous far more learned commentaries I am sure exist. What struck me upon my first adult reading of the pamphlet was just how “uncommon,” in some regards, Paine’s work is, and, at times, how nonsensical it is, a few examples of which I will mention.
Paine definitely convinces with his highly Protestant-based arguments against monarchies in general and against the English in particular. Given the complex role government plays and its current self-aggrandizement, however, it will surprise new readers perhaps that, against the natural good of society, Paine sees government as a necessary evil, as a force needed only when society has grown large and diverse enough that it can no longer control aberrant behavior, and, accordingly, needs laws to rule man’s nature. “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.” Tell that to Washington!
Rome, Giardino del Lago, Villa Borghese, October 17, 2003
I have no idea what led me to reread Paine’s important text (I must have read Common Sense in high school, but I have no memory of it). Perhaps I had just revisited a movie I have seen dozens of times, Born Yesterday, wherein William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall educates the “junk” king’s moll, “Billie” Dawn, played Judy Holliday, by encouraging her to read, among other writers, Thomas Paine. I do recall that I was considering reprinting it in my Green Integer series (and perhaps someday will do so). In any event, as these annuals have long-ago evidenced, there are few unrelated events in my world. In 2006 a splendid new biography of Paine was published, and I leapt at the chance of knowing more about this American hero.
Los Angeles, December 21, 2006