Hitchens’s Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography is not, in fact, his latest book. (Who can keep up?) Though just out on this side of the pond, it was published a year ago in Britain, well before the blockbuster God Is Not Great. Hitchens tells us that modern revolutions eat their children—and the progeny almost included Thomas Paine. Paine wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, his critique of revealed religion and defense of deism, in a rush. He did so, as he tells us in the preface to the second part of that work, because, suspected by the Jacobins for his respect for the rule of law, he thought that his arrest was imminent—as indeed it was. On December 23, 1793, just six hours after finishing the book’s first part, he was arrested on the orders of the Committee of General Security and carted off to Paris’s Luxembourg Prison, where only by a stroke of good luck did he avoid the stroke of the guillotine. The Girondin Paine got out of prison only after Robespierre’s death, and thanks to the exertions on his behalf by the American ambassador, James Monroe.
One of Paine’s best quips (it’s not all that good) in Rights of Man is the little pun that he inserted in his account of the French nobility’s having become despised for its imbecility, thanks to the inevitable result of the principle of heredity. Such, says Paine, is “the general character of aristocracy, or what are called the Nobles, or Nobility, or rather No-ability, in all countries.” Hitchens seems to prefer another Paine quip to the same effect—that the idea of hereditary legislators is as absurd as the idea of hereditary mathematicians—but Paine most likely didn’t coin this one himself, since Franklin used it to describe the House of Lords in his Journal of Negotiations in London, written while aboard ship to America in March 1775. On equality and the hereditary principle, Franklin, Paine, and Hitchens are three peas in a pod.