- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

“Cruden’s Concordance,” which is four times as long as the Bible to which it is an index, dictionary and guide, has never been out of print since its first edition appeared in 1737. The extraordinarily unlucky but resilient Scotsman who compiled it is now the subject of a sympathetic biography by Julia Keay that reads like fiction, Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Whose Cruden’s Concordance Unwrote the Bible (Overlook, $23.95, 288 pages, illus.).

While studying for the clergy in Aberdeen, young Alexander Cruden apparently fell in love with the daughter of a local pastor. For reasons that remain murky (from her research the author concludes that the girl had an incestuous relationship with her brother), Cruden was thrown into Aberdeen Tolbooth, a combined prison and asylum, where he remained for “probably weeks, possibly months.” When he emerged, his hopes of ever becoming a minister were gone, and so he boarded a ship to London and began a new life as a tutor and proofreader.

The stigma of having once been branded a madman never left him, and even after he single-handedly created his amazing “Concordance,” he ended up being incarcerated several more times, more or less because adversaries could commit him as a “reputed lunatic.” Ms. Keay does not spare the details of the straitjacketing, forced feeding and purging to which “lunatics” were subjected in the 18th century — Cruden escaped from one private institution by sawing off the part of the bedstead to which he was chained and climbing out a window.

Cruden repeatedly took his persecutors to court, but although he had many supporters, he never won his case for various reasons, including his refusal to explain the circumstances of his original committal in Aberdeen. (The author suggests that he kept silent to protect the young lady’s reputation.) Cruden’s exposure of the appalling treatment given to inmates in public and private institutions for the insane, however, eventually spurred some improvement. Having been made bookseller to Queen Caroline upon publication of his “Concordance,” Cruden, later in life, applied to be appointed the official “Corrector of the People” to “stop profane swearing and Sabbath breaking.” According to Ms. Keay, an early biographer thought that this project was the maddest thing Cruden ever did. But then, at age 56, he impetuously wooed a maiden lady whom he’d never even met, and who refused to meet him. He was saved from further embarrassment or worse by the task of producing a second edition of his “Concordance,” for which he received 500 pounds. When he presented a copy to George III, the king rewarded him with another 100 pounds. Financially secure at last, he turned his attention to saving a wrongly condemned sailor from hanging, and found such satisfaction in his triumph that he took up the cause of other Newgate prisoners. He visited the prison often, became an advocate for better prison and madhouse conditions, and protested the death sentence for people who had stolen small sums of money. Cruden produced a third edition of his “Concordance” in 1769, and died in London in 1770. He left all future royalties to Aberdeen’s town council to purchase religious books for local citizens and institutions.

The American Revolution poses challenges to historians of the left. That conflict was led by plantation owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, abetted by urban professionals like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Unlike the later French and Bolshevik revolutions, class played a relatively minor role in the American Revolution. Indeed, a few tax concessions by George III and we might still be British colonies.

Given its shortage of heroes, a favorite of the political left has long been Thomas Paine, the eloquent pamphleteer of the Revolution, who is now the subject of a second book by Harvey J. Kaye, professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Hill and Wang, $25, 307 pages, illus.). The author freely acknowledges his liberal perspective. In his view, “America’s working classes — farmers, mechanics, laborers, seamen, and slaves — would make the American Revolution a revolution.”

Paine, an American original, was in fact born in England, where he earned a meager living as corset maker and grocer, among other occupations. He went through two childless marriages. In these threadbare years Paine became an omnivorous reader, and decided to try his luck in the New World. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, age 37, and sought to earn a living as a journalist. Impressed by America’s potential, and imbued with an egalitarian philosophy, Paine quickly took up the patriot cause. His first important pamphlet “Common Sense,” published anonymously in January 1776, urged an immediate declaration of independence by the American colonies. By breaking away from a corrupt monarchy, Paine argued, America could set an example to the world. He was soon identified as the author of “Common Sense” and became something of a celebrity.

Paine served briefly with Washington’s army in its retreat across New Jersey in the fall of 1776. His second pamphlet, published in December 1776, began with the famous lines, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Paine was, in modern parlance, a propagandist, but as such he performed an essential service for the American cause.

Paine had few friends, for he could not criticize policies without impugning the motives of those who held them. He denounced Washington, who had strongly supported him during the war, as “treacherous in friendship … and a hypocrite in public life.” Needing work, Paine became involved in the design of an iron bridge, a project that led Paine to return to England. There, stirred by the onset of the French Revolution, Paine wrote a new treatise, “Rights of Man,” in which he defended that revolution and argued that man’s “natural rights” to liberty, property and freedom from oppression could only be guaranteed by a republic.

Paine’s attacks on the British monarchy led to his expulsion from England in 1792, but he initially found a warm welcome in revolutionary France. As that revolution became radicalized Paine was jailed as an enemy of the state, but he was released a year later after intervention by the American minister, James Monroe.

Paine returned to America, where his last seven years were marked by poverty, alcoholism and a social ostracism occasioned in part by his outspoken deism.

Whereas most historians view Paine as little more than a skillful polemicist (Theodore Roosevelt dismissed him as that “filthy little atheist”), Mr. Kaye sees him as the prophet of a new America, pointing the way toward the rise of the common man. Paine may not deserve the degree of respect that Mr. Kaye accords him. Nevertheless, he was a true revolutionary, a passionate link between the American and French revolutions.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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