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Saturday, January 7, 2012

46 Pages: How Tom Paine turned the world upside down

By Jamie Lutton.

I have been holding my breath. I have been holding my breath since I was ten, and I read a Life magazine article about four students, demonstrators, shot by the National Guard for demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. My parents had not let me see the TV coverage.

I brought that article, cut carefully out, to show and tell that fall, in fourth grade.

I have longed for revolution, but I was raised by careful parents that saw the martial gleam in my eye. They had had one of  my older brothers jump the fence, leave college, and join the Socialist Workers Party,  to struggle against the war in Vietnam. This led my father, in particular, to raise me with an ironic sense of history, and to distrust revolutions, and talk of revolt.

In my adolescence I could find no clear banner to follow, and under my parent's tutoring, I became less of a firebrand. I was still intensely interested in the world, and distressed by injustice and suffering.

I expressed this passion by becoming a bookseller 29 years ago, with my own shop 25 years ago, but  I avoided modern history when I read history, averting my gaze from most modern revolts.
But then I read 46 Pages, a history of 1776 and the impact of Common Sense on the American Revolution, by Scott Liell.

Most modern struggles against tyranny, against fascism, against governments that fire on unarmed protesters fail because they lack words. This history book demonstrated this by examining the beginning of the successful revolt of the American Colonies against the British in the late eighteenth century. This revolt was successful mostly because of the writing of one man, in one slim pamphlet.  So, a successful revolution needs words, paragraphs, a compelling argument  story to unite people into focused action.  The hidden story of the success of the American Revolution is Common Sense, and the man who wrote it, and his story.

Hitherto, before this pamphlet of 46 pages was published, the common colonist, except for a few firebrands like John Adams, were angry with Parliament, but loyal citizens of King George III.  This 46 page pamplet, written by a new arrival to the colonies, a middle-aged, poor man who had failed at other endeavors.

Thomas Paine was a widower, a Quaker, a man without a university education. He had spent most of his life 'just making corsets.'  This pamplet inflamed the colonies to a man. It was read in all the colonies, going though many printings. It was passed from hand to hand, and read aloud to the illiterate or those to whom English was a second language - a great percentage of the colonies spoke German and Dutch - read by ragged solders under the banner of George Washington, read, and read, and talked about.

It made a strong and clever argument that now was the time to throw off the yoke of English Citizenship, and for the American Colonies to step forward into the world as a new nation, a free nation, without onerous taxes and foreign troops stationed unwillingly in civilian homes.

It carried the day.  Nearly half of the men (and women) of the thirteen colonies were, after reading this short document,  ready for the grueling task of throwing the English out and forming a new union. . . . .

Other writings followed by Thomas Paine - The American Crisis, written directly after this, in eight parts, read to the ragged soldiers as they fought British soldiers,  then, later, The Rights of Man to  embolden  the French, with known results.

Thomas Paine died in obscurity, and penniless. He gave away any money he ever made. Escaping by the hair's breadth from being  jailed in England when he went back after the Revolutionary War to foment revolution there, he was nearly executed during the Terror in Paris, then languished in a French prison, where American friends let him lie for many months .

But this book, 46 Pages, reproduces Common Sense, brings the American Revolution alive. The writing is crisp, and the author does not assume that the reader knows more than the brief sketch we learn in school of the events of the late 18th century.  The first half of the book lays the scene by giving a biographical sketch of Thomas Paine, and how he came to become a printer and write Common Sense.

Now I know why the thirteen colonies succeeded, and most other revolts of history failed. . . .

I am  no longer holding my breath. A great sorrow and perplexity  has been lifted from my thoughts.  I have seen clearly now, through this author's analysis of Common Sense.   I  know now that a successful revolution needs  clever and heartfelt words, sentences and ideas that can compel millions.  The words that are strong enough, good enough,  have not yet been written by the, say, Occupy Seattle people, nor the Tea Partiers.

They have been written before, by Abraham Lincoln,  Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi, dealing with similar problems. Revolution does not always mean unseating a government, but can mean unseating pernicious laws and the evil ideas that created them. But, often, a complete sweep is necessary.

I wait for events and hope that someone can rise up who can write like these men and seize the imagination of not just intellectuals, but common men and women of America. 

I leave most political writing to John Watkins, who has greater talent than I. Consider this small blog post *just* a book recommendation. I am developing a book of the 100 nonfiction books of the last 100 years or so,  that should be read for good citizenship and better understanding of the world.   But this book makes my top 25 nonfiction books of  American history, if they wish to know where they came from and  hope for better days, instead of despair.

1 comment:

  1. I'll read _46 Pages_.

    Considering the changes in technology, today's powerful words are likely to appear on YouTube.

    Here's my candidate for inspiring words for the next revolution: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRtc-k6dhgs

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