Not long ago I decided to explore the section of my public library where the biographies, autobiographies and memoirs are kept. While rummaging through the stacks I came across Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography. I was drawn to the book for several reasons. One, even though Hitchens is an opinionated and curmudgeonly pain in the neck, I’ve admired his intellect and his writing abilities, (his recent book God is Not Great made my “honorable mentions’ list last year). Two, published in 2006, it’s part of the “Books That Changed the World” series published by Atlantic Monthly Press and two books from that series, (The Bible by Karen Armstrong and The Qur’an by Bruce Lawrence), I thoroughly enjoyed. Lastly, I have found memories from my days as a college student reading Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary War-era classic Common Sense when it was assigned reading in my History of American Radicalism class. So, for those reasons, and perhaps others, I grabbed Hitchens’ book. Unfortunately, after finishing it last week or so, I’m kind of left with mixed feeling. Hitchens’ book excels on some levels, fails on some, and therefore in the end slightly underdelivers.
The book is a kind of extended historical essay, or “biography” of Paine’s Rights of Man which Paine wrote in France while he was a representative in the newly formed revolutionary parliament. Since one can’t write a decent biography of Rights of Man without including a biography of the book’s author, thankfully Hitchens spends considerable time discussing the life of Thomas Paine; a former corset maker and customs agent with almost no formal education who nevertheless educated and inspired millions with his revolutionary writings. Drawing from his deep well of personal experience in addition to the King James Bible and the writings of Milton, Shakespeare and the political philosophers of his day, Paine’s Rights of Man defended the rights of citizens to overthrow corrupt and oppressive monarchies. In doing so, Paine countered the arguments of men like Edmund Burke and others who defended the monarchical system and were dead set against the French Revolution.
I enjoyed Hitchens’ treatment of Paine, especially his discussion of the various influences on his life. I was also amazed to read just how close Paine came to being beheaded during the Revolution’s reign of terror. But the sizeable chunk of the book devoted to the war of ideas between Burke and Paine came off as a tad dry and boring. Fortunately, Hitchens is an intelligent and clever writer and his good writing for the most part helped carry the day. But in the end, just like a paper I wrote for that above mentioned college history class, I would have given Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography the letter grade of a C +.