John Keane | About the Book
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About the Book

Tom Paine: A Political Life

Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (2003)
Languages: English
ISBN-10: 0802139647
ISBN-13: 978-0802139641

“More than any other public figure of the eighteenth century, Tom Paine strikes our times like a trumpet blast from a distant world.” So begins John Keane’s magnificent and award-winning biography of “democracy’s greatest propagandist” (Library Journal). The author of the incomparable Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, Paine earned his reputation as a notorious Revolutionary pamphleteer only to become one of the most extraordinary figures of his day. Setting his thrilling narrative against both the American and French Revolutions, Keane splendidly melds the public and private sides of Paine’s life into a remarkable piece of scholarship.

Coming from humble beginnings in Thetford, England, Paine later bred intense public excitement with his every move. Among friends and enemies alike, he earned a reputation as the greatest political figure of his day and the author of the eighteenth century’s three bestselling books. Variously employed in England as a corset maker, ship’s hand, Methodist lay preacher, exciseman, and writer who dabbled in public affairs, he later became the key pamphleteer in the American Revolution and author of Common Sense, an intellectual cornerstone of American democracy. In Britain, his Rights of Man frightened the establishment. Paine was also twice invited to France, where he helped draft the 1793 constitution, narrowly escaped the guillotine during the Terror, and wrote the most explosive modern plea for secularism, The Age of Reason. Setting his compelling narrative against a vivid social backdrop, John Keane melds together the public and private sides of Paine’s life in a remarkable piece of scholarship, which is also thrilling to read. Meticulously researched and drawing on newly available material from the United States and Europe, this is the definitive biography of a man whose life and work have an uncanny resonance for our times.

Meticulously researched and including new material which reevaluates his pivotal importance in the development of democracy, this outstanding biography of Thomas Paine reveals a life riddled with tensions, discoveries, surprises, and spectacular achievements and failures.

Stressing the novelty and influence of Paine’s thinking, Keane, presents a contextual biography of revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine. In setting Paine’s life against the backdrop of revolutionary change, Paine’s republicanism is portrayed as stemming “from his firsthand experience of a maelstrom” of events, organizations, people, and ideas “excluded from the mainstream polite society.” Keane’s biography also includes more information on Paine’s times in England in France than most of the earlier biographies.

More information

-> John Keane delivered the 2009 Eric Paine Memorial Lecture, London, 28 March 2009 – Click here to listen to the recording of the lecture.

-> For the bicentenary of Tom Paine’s death, in New York City on June 8, 1809, Bloomsbury published a new edition of John Keane’s prize-winning biography. Click here the press release.

-> 7 November 2009 will be at Thetford in Norfolk, for the bicentenary of Tom Paine’s death. Professor Keane will mark the 2009 celebrations by planting a ‘Liberty Tree’ for posterity. At 8 PM he will be in the Carnegie Room, to speak of OLD AGE WITHOUT WRETCHEDNESS: PAINE’S VISION OF GROWING OLD. In this lecture, John Keane will explore Paine’s pioneering vision of a new politics for the elderly. Its relevance nowadays demonstrates clearly that Paine’s spirit is very much alive and that he still speaks meaningfully to us across two hundred years.
Click here to view the programme of the celebrations

-> John Keane’s biography of Tom Paine looks set to become a great motion picture epic, reports the Camden New Journal – Click here to read

-> Click here to read comments on Keane’s book and Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography. This a review by John Barrell, as it appeared in the London Review of Books, 30 November 2006

-> Remembering Tom Paine, The Conversation, 30 January 2013