He should have been dead from the start. He’d been cheating Death almost from the beginning: at the age of nineteen, leaving his parents’ home for the first time, Pain – he’d not yet added the final e to his name—set out for London and was recruited at dockside for service on a privateer ship called the Terrible, commanded by one Captain Death…And there is something curiously familiar in that account, isn’t there? For we all nearly board a Terrible we all look back in relief that we did not. We always slip free of Captain Death one more time . . . until, of course, we don’t.
I fell in love with Paul Collins’s history writing with last year’s excellent historical true crime Blood & Ivy. I immediately looked for his older titles, and although a history of Thomas Paine and his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense isn’t exactly my go-to reading material, I was willing to try. Collins wrote such stylish, compelling history with an attentive eye for the small but amusing or telling detail and that style can make just about anything interesting. And I had no idea that Paine’s afterlife had enough quirkiness surrounding it to deserve book-length treatment.
The Trouble with Tom is Collins’s effort to trace the elusive narrative of the last scorn-filled years of Paine’s life and the weirder turns the story took after his death in 1809. By following the details of where some of his dismembered body ended up, Collins finds jumping-off points for exploring why there was so much controversy over Paine’s work in both the US and Europe, and why what he did still matters today.
We think of Common Sense as being the most withering attack ever upon that favorite bogeyman of Americans, mad old King George. Yet when you read it closely, you find this remarkable fact: not once is the name George III uttered. What Paine wrote was an attack on all kings, all illegitimate authority, on all the great and petty brutes of the world.
The story is that a onetime enemy, William Cobbett, who’d since come around to Paine’s theories and become a sort of superfan, dug up Paine’s body from its resting place on his New Rochelle, New York farm (Paine was denied a Quaker churchyard burial thanks to his ideas about religion). Cobbett transported it to Paine’s native England, where he intended to inter it more honorably. That never happened though, and the remains somehow, mysteriously, went missing after Cobbett’s death. An intriguing history mystery began.
Collins set out on a research quest to uncover the fate of Paine’s bones. The book blends travelogue, mini history lessons, a slice of biography, and a well-incorporated memoir element.
His writing can be everything I love – unexpectedly humorous while educating, able to engage in parts of history that may not be the most exciting but come alive in Collins’s hands, and satisfyingly comprehensive in covering tangential elements to a story. Collins plucks all the weird trivia too often lost in the telling of mainstream history but that makes the past worth knowing – here, it includes a look at phrenology, perplexing Victorian beliefs and products, and Muggletonians, an obscure religious sect or “lazy cult”, in Collins’s telling.
He also emphasizes why Common Sense was such an important work, a worthwhile topic to explore. I better understood its significance here than I did when encountering it in school.
“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense,” John Adams later mused, “the word of Washington would have been raised in vain.” This was no small admission coming from Adams, since he’d initially condemned Common Sense as “a poor ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass.”
Side note: Is there anything better than old-timey insults, especially from ex-presidents?
But…Who cares now? Why should this still matter, this tax and sovereignty polemic from centuries ago? Lots of political writers have written lots of bestsellers, and a few have even managed to tear the nation from its moorings … So why this one: what made it special? Why make this one pamphlet the epitaph on his grave? Perhaps the clue lies in plain sight. Though Common Sense was a forty-six-page pamphlet, its animating spirit may be found within its first sentence: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
Forget what you thought was wrong, Paine says, and forget what you thought was right: produce proof that they are so. And if there is one word that expresses what the achievements of the Enlightenment are about, it is that one. Proof.
We’re also treated to the oddity that is William Cobbett – radical anti-authoritarian newspaper editor, Paine’s frenemy turned graverobber, and the last known possessor of his bones. In setting the context of why certain actions and theories were deemed radical in Paine’s day, Collins demonstrates his enviable skill in writing history so amusingly: “It seems hard to reconcile the notion of a seed merchant and garden writer with a political firebrand today – you don’t exactly go to the Burpee rack at the hardware store to get riled up about anything. But soil was political in Cobbett’s time.”
The Trouble with Tom is capable of being both unbelievably fascinating in parts and unengaging in others. It’s uneven. I was also frustrated because at times I lost the thread and couldn’t figure out what exactly was going on – where were we now, when, with who, and why? Maybe it’s my fault – I got bored but kept reading without paying close enough attention. But the narrative skips around without enough clear reasoning, explanation or followup on what’s come before. When we’re dealing with some dry corners of political history, it does suffer from such a busy structure, especially disappointing since his storytelling is so delightful elsewhere.
A fascinating story, some illuminating and brilliantly, hilariously told bits of history, but an inconsistent style and a little too much going on. The tale here is bizarre and compelling, just perhaps not Collins’s strongest work, or at least a book to needs more than one reading. 3.5/5
The Trouble with Tom:
The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine
by Paul Collins