Darrin M McMahon

Thetford’s Finest

Thomas Paine: Britain, America, & France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution


Oxford University Press 485pp £30 order from our bookshop

If there are some historians who emphasise persistence in the past and others who emphasise change, Jonathan Clark is decidedly of the former variety. He approaches history much like Galileo approached objects in space: inertia is the rule. Where some practitioners insist that the past is forever propelling us forward, Clark emphasises the ways it pulls at us from behind, slowing us down and affecting our course, even when we would turn in other directions.

It is, on the whole, a conservative approach, in the sense that it seeks to demonstrate what is preserved over time. And although there is nothing inherently political about such demonstrations, they readily become so in Clark’s hands. Unabashedly in his writings, and with a considerable measure of glee, he has sought to deflate radical pieties, both past and present. Now he brings that deflationary intent to what would seem an ideal subject, the life of a man who ‘has plausibly been presented as England’s greatest revolutionary’. Whereas E P Thompson famously vowed to rescue the nascent English working class from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, Clark vows cheekily to rescue Paine from posterity’s ‘enormous approbation’.

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