Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine
Craig Nelson

It may be, as Craig Nelson suggests, that Thomas Paine was bipolar. Certainly his public reputation was. But were his personal highs and low a clinical condition, or just the fallout from being an idealist serially mugged by reality? More to the point, as perhaps the most successful political propagandist in history – his sales are almost unimaginable today, and his impact profound – was he only a useful idiot for the revolutions (American and French)? He was disposed of soon after the ejection of the old regimes, as the new bosses didn’t care much for him or his services rendered. This led to some understandable bitterness in his unhappy final years, but as Nelson nicely points out, the revolution betrayed quite a few of its children. It’s still hard to see Paine as a great mind, but he was in many ways ahead of his time, and in most of what he said correct. It’s just that even after the passage of two centuries he has a character that still, somehow, makes one uncomfortable. You don’t have to be traditionalist to expect people to behave by certain rules, and Paine was just too much his own man for his own good.