The Trouble With Tom: A review

Paul Collins is one of my favorite historians.  He has such a great eye for detail, such a great knack for conveying the specific details of life in the past.  And the subjects which command his attention are outside the usual historical narratives.  A few weeks ago, I reviewed another of his books: Duel with the Devil, about a murder trial, in which both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr represented the defendant.  I liked it so much, I went to Amazon and bought two more of Collins’ books.  Anyway, if you want a great introduction to his work, let me recommend The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine.

I can’t remember her name, but I remember reading an American historian who compared the Founding Fathers to superheroes.  Obviously, George Washington was Superman, and Thomas Jefferson was Batman.  Well, Tom Paine was Aquaman–really good at one thing, but only worth having around if you found yourself in deep water.

Paine, as Collins describes him, was basically a walking revolution.  He played an active, perhaps even decisive role in two revolutions, in America and France, and was deported before he could start a third one in England.  His pamphlets were short, readable, clear and incendiary.  Common Sense, published in January 1776, may have sold as many as a million and a half copies in an America which suddenly came to the shocked realization that it was time to throw off British rule.  His Rights of Man had as powerful an affect on the French Revolution, which Paine narrowly survived, escaping the guillotine a few days after Robespierre’s beheading.  Napoleon loved that pamphlet, but Paine turned on him as well, calling him ‘the completest charlatan in the world.’  Paine burned his American bridges as well, with an open letter to George Washington in which he suggested that the most important question about Washington was whether he was a man who had abandoned all principles, or a man who never had any.  Meanwhile, Paine had offended all Christian clergy, by writing the three-part Age of Reason, arguing for Deism and against Christianity.  He might have found a home in England, but he’d burned those bridges too, with a pamphlet called Observations on the Construction and Operation of Navies with a Plan for an Invasion of England and the Final Overthrow of the English Government; the title, I think, speaks for itself.

Paine finally returned to America to die.  By the end, he was drinking heavily, and broke.  He had a small farm in New York state, and that was finally when he was buried.  For awhile.  Because Thomas Paine didn’t stay buried.  And that, not his life, but the final disposition of his remains, is the subject of Collins’ book.

Yeah, it’s a book about Tom Paine’s bones.  But really, it’s also a history of the entire Progressive movement. It’s a history of phrenology, and transcendent thought, of Emerson and Thoreau, of early feminism and political radicalism and publishing, of sex education and Darwinism and mid-19th century Christianity.  It is, to a very large degree, a history of Moncure Conway.

I bet you’ve never heard of Moncure Conway.  Most people haven’t. I hadn’t, not at all, not a bit, until I read this book.  And in a sense, Moncure Conway (probably the best of Tom Paine’s biographers, the most complete and thorough and disinterested), shouldn’t be well known.  He was a man who stayed in the background, a man who was friends with remarkable men, but not personally remarkable.

In fact, Moncure Conway was a sort of real-life Forrest Gump/Zelig.  He was close friends with Emerson and Thoreau.  He was Thackeray’s drinking buddy.  He was Mark Twain’s agent.  He essentially discovered Walt Whitman, and spent many hours chatting with him.  He was the first Christian minister in America to read Darwin’s Origin of Species–he got an advance copy–and surely the first to cite it approvingly in a sermon, and he was a frequent and welcome guest in Darwin’s home.  And through most of it, he was conservator of Tom Paine’s bones.

But not the only one.  The extraordinary radical publisher Thomas Carlile makes an appearance.  So does Thomas Wakley, founder of the Lancet, the first medical journal in history.  So the pseudo-science of phrenology and the pseudo-religion of spiritualism.  Books were published describing seances in which the authors describe having communicated with the shade of Tom Paine.  And the bones became increasingly scattered.

I don’t want to give it away.  Let me just say that Paul Collins has written a great book, cheeky and funny and smart and thoughtful, part detective work, part travelogue, part history of progressivism and progressive publishing, and part history of one of our most neglected Founders.  I recommend it highly.


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