Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations
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Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations

3.92 of 5 stars 3.92  ·  rating details  ·  631 ratings  ·  51 reviews
Despite being a founder of both the United States and the French Republic, the creator of the phrase United States of America, and the author of three of the biggest bestsellers of the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine is perhaps the least well known and the most controversial of the American founding fathers. Unlike such friends and allies as Washington, Franklin, Jefferso...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published September 21st 2006 by Viking Adult (first published 2006)
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Todd Martin
Thomas Paine, revolutionary figure, pamphleteer and author of 'Common Sense', 'The Ascent of Man' and 'The Age of Reason' among others was a complex and contradictory figure of the war for independence. Alternately celebrated and reviled he was the best selling author of his day who donated the profits from his work or waived them to keep the cost low so that it may be read by the greatest number of citizens. In contrast, he was sentenced to, and escaped death in two countries and engendered wid...more
Rossrn Nunamaker
I wasn't too familiar with Paine's life and only knew of his writings, though could not say that I had studied or known them well.

Nelson did a good job of explaining in great detail Paine's life and work in the context of the times.

In his lifetime, Paine was friends with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the other founders of our nation. He was also friends with Lafayette and met with Napoleon, who claimed to keep a copy of Rights of Man under his pillow. In essence, every...more
Bob Reutenauer
Lot's of attention to Paine these days! I called attention in my blog:
Nelson's book is a great read both for people new to Paine or for those who already have some ideas about his work, character, importance. Some revisionist conclusions will lead to more research. For example the common view of his hard drinking and dying penniless is questioned. Nelson claims Paine had a million dollar estate. Most interesting for political philosophy and history is Nels...more
It is good for me to gain some knowledge of what happened so long ago and to read about someone who isn't studied about in school as much as say George Washington or Napoleon, and was a part of the beginnings of America and influencial to France. The author did an excellent job of explaining events, how life was for Thomas Paine and how he worked together with the "better well-known" founding fathers.
Jason Hissong
This is pretty good, if a little long. Paine is one of the most important figures of both the American and French Revolutions and oftentime I feel he takes a back seat to the Founding Fathers who became President and Franklin.

Still, this is a good comprehensive look at Paine's life and well worth a read if one's into that sort of thing.
Jack Hansen
I now understand why I knew very little about Thomas Paine, other than he being the author of "Common Sense." His brilliance and enigmatic nature cause devotion and hatred, depending on one's philosophy of life and government. Many contradicting, defamatory claims about this man have been dispelled but some are kept alive still by those less informed. His writings are studied and quoted widely.

Author, Craig Nelson, reveals Paine's deep and honest pursuit of truth. It seems that those who pursue...more
The author notes the mythological perception of the 'founding fathers' and notes they were actually extremists. Thomas Paine was considered more radical because "he explained modern, patrician ideas in essays that any plebeian could read and understand." Portions of Paine's writings are interspersed throughout this work. Mr. Nelson also puts Paine in context with his times and describes various philosophies e.g. deism and how the 'founding fathers' expressed their beliefs.
Other interesting quote...more
To learn about the life of Thomas Paine is to develop a deeper understanding about the founding of the United States as a nation. After all, he first published use of the phrase "United States of America." Born in England, he rose to be as centralized and controversial a figure as any amongst our founding fathers. His many writings, which included Common Sense, Age Of Reason, The American Crisis, and and Rights of Man; were all lightning rods that either inspired or antagonized the nations of No...more
This provides a potted history of the Enlightenment as much as it offers an account of the life of Thomas Paine. And I found both absorbing and thrilling. The book successfully conveys just how radical and daring and unlikely the rationalist effort to make the world over again was, without ever becoming triumphalist; the book closes by describing the disappointment later in life of most of the American founding fathers, and how they would be disappointed in our own government, as well as by poin...more
Brent Ranalli
Pros: Generally very well written, and elegantly captures the 18th c. intellectual and social milieu that formed the background and raw material of Paine's life and thought.

Cons: In spite of the author's best efforts, Paine remains a two-dimensional character. We're left looking in at him from the outside. This is not entirely the author's fault. Paine was in some ways a private and disagreeable person and would have been hard to empathize with under most circumstances. And given that so many of...more
A very informative and, it appears, mostly objective biography of America's forgotten founding father. Already familiar with most of his major works, this book gave me even more respect for Paine. He viewed himself as a practical philosopher, and refused to compromise his belief in broad-based demoracy with inalienable rights, opposition to slavery, and attempt to live a life of civic virtue inspired by Ancient Rome.

Some select quotes:

Regarding Paine's prescience:
"It could be said that the most...more
Steve Van Slyke
Today there is a common misconception that the North American colonies were all clamoring for independance in the last half of the 18th century. Had it not been for men like Washington, Jefferson and Thomas Paine, they might never have rallied around a common cause. Paine was a best-selling author of his time and his Common Sense provided Washington and other proponents of independence with a document that focused the colonist's attention on what they had to gain or lose. Nelson does a good job...more
Ken Yakovac
I listened to to the audio CD. There is a dearth of original writings surviving from Paine, so this biography doesn't cite as many primary sources as does McCullough in John Adams. Subsequently, it doesn't delve as deeply into Paine's personal views and reads more like a historical biography detailing the events in Paine's life. There still remains enough material from people who knew Paine to get some grasp of his personality. His political views are, of course, fully expressed by his published...more
Excellent telling of one life, and its place in three societies: the USA, Great Britain, and France. Wow, to be so versatile to see the opportunities in politics and humanities. Well told tale. Real life is so much worse than any fiction I come across. People can be so mean to each other--they can lack all respect, and lack boundaries.
Obviously Mr Nelson is a great admirer or Mr Paine. Most of us know that Thomas Paine appeared during the revolutionary war, wrote Common Sense, and then seemed to disappear from our history books. This book does fill in the gaps in Paine's life. However, Nelson does spend a great deal of time on the history of the French Revolution. It seems that Nelson ran out of material and stretched the book by adding this history. At time, the book loses focus from Paine to other subjects. The book seems t...more
The best account of Paine's life I have read. Yes, It is only the second biography I have completed but I found this one to be much more even handed than the other. Paine is a personal hero of mine, mostly for his early stance on religion (not an atheist as many believe, but a deist)which I find courageous. But, even as I admire him I recognize he had many flaws and Craig Nelson does a good job making sure the reader is aware of his imperfections. Overall I recommend this book to anyone looking...more
The author had a challenge here—Paine was a thinking man, not a man of physical action, so his biography was more about his influence than about what he did, although he had a few harrowing adventure, like barely missing a date with the guillotine. I did not come away with a full understanding of the true character of the man. He was complex and the reactions to him were complicated and diverse. But his affect was huge and he certainly deserves a place on the top shelf of American heroes.
Booklovers Melbourne
Really enjoyed this book, it had sat on my shelf for a while before I got around to it and I wish I'd made the effort earlier. A fascinating character who managed to shake my royalist principles almost two centuries after his death. If only his deism had actually crept into atheism as many of his detractors claimed, he'd have been a perfect enlightenment hero in my eyes.
Steve Williams
Really enjoyed this book, it had sat on my shelf for a while before I got around to it and I wish I'd made the effort earlier. A fascinating character who managed to shake my royalist principles almost two centuries after his death. If only his deism had actually crept into atheism as many of his detractors claimed, he'd have been a perfect enlightenment hero in my eyes.
I loved this book!!! Mainly because it dealt with alot of other famous people that Mr. Paine got to meet and know such as Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, etc..Also, the times during his life were very interesting because of the beginning and end of the american revolution, as well as the start and end of the french revolution..It was one of those fascinating books!!!
Surprisingly interesting. Nicely woven narrative, part biography part big picture discourse on the philosophical movements of the day. Aided my understanding of both the American and French revolutions as Paine played an integral part in both. Was it luck that America did not descend into the same society rending chaos as France during the Terror?
Gregory Soderberg
This was a fun read! Nelson is a detailed historian, and knows how to write, as well. He captures the excitment of the Revolutionary Era, and explains numerous aspects of both the American and French Revolutions that most of us weren't told in our history classes.
Great writing. Gives a fantastic overview of the enlightenment and the role of Paine's writings in the American Revolution. Unfortunately, Thomas Paine the man still eludes us. More intellectual history than biography.
Interesting biography about a revolutionary hero whom I knew little about. A brilliant man with a troubled life who dedicated himself to freedom and democracy.

The book dragged a bit, but the historical insights kept me going.
An interesting account of an interesting man, often overlooked in the history books. Nelson does an admirable job describing Paine's role in the American and French Revolutions. A surprisingly quick read.
Justin McCoy
It was ok. It just failed to keep me interested enough to want to pick it up again. After 3 months of it sitting on my night stand collecting dust and library fines I dropped it back off at the library.
Edward Sullivan
This is an outstandingl portrait fascinating, wonderfully complex genius. I have read Common Sense and some of American Crisis. This book makes me want to read them again and the rest oif Paine's work.
I'm a huge nerd for the foundations of constitutional democracies. For the most part, this is an illuminating read for an interesting subject. It might be a bit of a bore if 1776 isn't your thing.
Lisa Greer
Nelson has a great voice for historical narrative. It's wry, witty, and cutting but also informative and nuanced. I knew a good bit about Paine and others in the period but learned so much more.
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