The Saturday Review - Aug. 15, 1959
The Mind that Moved Three Nations
"Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine," by Alfred Owen Aldridge (Lippincott. 348 pp. $6), contrasts, without favor, the conflicting views held about the controversial author of "Common Sense." But the man himself remains illusive in the opinion of Howard Fast, who is the author of "Citizen Tom Paine" and "The Winston Affair," which will be published early in September.
THOMAS PAINE fell into no category; he was singular, a sort of minstrel of democratic revolution who stepped into history at the one moment of history that could receive him fully. He made his role and art, practiced it, and then bowed out. His contribution to history was inadequately judged because there was no yardstick against which to measure it.
I think that Mr. Aldridge has come closer to assessing the role and importance of Paine than any other biographer. In dealing with a man who was loved and hated as few other eighteenth-century figures were, the author has maintained a remarkable objectivity; and he has given us a thoughtful and valuable biography In order to do this he has gone to enormous effort - in France and England as well as in the United States - to unearth original documents that have not until now appeared in this country. In doing so he has accomplished an admirable task of scholarship. If from the pages of this book no flesh-and-blood figure of a unique and tempestuous human being ever emerges, it is not Professor Aldridge's fault. I doubt whether any biography of Paine could produce the man.
For a century and a half the ghost and work of Thomas Paine have given rise to wildly heated attack and defense. Very few of the interested have been dispassionate about him. From Theodore Roosevelt, who is said to have called Paine a "dirty little atheist," to John Lewis who sees him as the author of the Declaration of Independence, there seems to have been a permanent silly season about a man, who, with many others, made the American Revolution and played no small part in the French Revolution.
No biographer of Paine ever denied that his contribution to the American Revolution was important, but neither is he allowed to rest upon his contribution. Professor Aldridge admits the originality of Paine's thinking and documents the enormous social, political, and moral effect of his thinking, not only upon the thirteen colonies but upon France and England as well; but Professor Aldridge, like so many others, is perplexed by the fact that Paine was said to have imbibed too much and bathed too infrequently.
Thus, instead of the inner personality of the man whom both Washington and Jefferson regarded as a close and dear friend, who moved a nation a-borning and fired the imagination of two generations with three unique books, Professor Aldridge presents us with a balance of judgments. He carefully documents the views of those who considered Paine a drunkard; he as carefully documents the views of those who did not. He presents the picture of Paine as a filthy boor; and then he presents the picture of Paine as a washed and decent-mannered gentleman. Paine the egotist is offset by Paine the selfless. Paine the opportunist by Paine the patriot, Paine the liar by Paine the truthful.
The result is certainly the most comprehensive study of Thomas Paine that we have; I could only wish that Professor Aldridge were a little less disturbed by Paine's shabby dress and doubtful antecedents. For the one weakness in this work is the failure to illuminate the very personality of the man who is the subject of the book. Paine was a violent and volatile man; he was not a gentlemen; he was self-educated; he undoubtedly drank too much at times; he was full of self-pity and egotism and uncertainty. But he came out of nowhere and blew a fire of revolution into being in America. His "Common Sense" shook American people like no other book in our history; his "Rights of Man" threw the fear of God into the British aristocracy and made him a national hero in France, and his "Age of Reason" still stirs the bigots and Philistines into fury.
What Professor Aldridge set out to do he has done very well indeed. We are indebted to him for a most detailed account of Paine's actions and travels in America during the Revolution. He presents a fine picture of Paine's invention of an iron bridge and of Paine's interest in science, although it is to be regretted that he impugns Paine's originality. While the French Revolutionary background is sketchily handled, Paine's own history against that background is rich and detailed. His last years are handled with charity and understanding and perhaps the best part of the book is Professor Aldridge's assessment of Paine's role in history.
Thus we have here a much-needed biography to add to the already existing material on Thomas Paine.