In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams judged the author of Common Sense as having “a better hand at pulling down than building.” Adams’s dismissive remark has helped shape the prevailing view of Tom Paine ever since. But, as Edward G. Gray shows in this fresh, illuminating work, Paine was a builder. He had a clear vision of success for his adopted country. It was embodied in an architectural project that he spent a decade planning: an iron bridge to span the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia.
When Paine arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1774, the city was thriving as America’s largest port. But the seasonal dangers of the rivers dividing the region were becoming an obstacle to the city’s continued growth. Philadelphia needed a practical connection between the rich grain of Pennsylvania’s backcountry farms and its port on the Delaware. The iron bridge was Paine’s solution.
The bridge was part of Paine’s answer to the central political challenge of the new nation: how to sustain a republic as large and as geographically fragmented as the United States. The iron construction was Paine’s brilliant response to the age-old challenge of bridge technology: how to build a structure strong enough to withstand the constant battering of water, ice, and wind.
The convergence of political and technological design in Paine’s plan was Enlightenment genius. And Paine drew other giants of the period as patrons: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and for a time his great ideological opponent, Edmund Burke. Paine’s dream ultimately was a casualty of the vicious political crosscurrents of revolution and the American penchant for bridges of cheap, plentiful wood. But his innovative iron design became the model for bridge construction in Britain as it led the world into the industrial revolution.
Ledyard was both a product of empire and an agent in its creation, Gray shows, and through this adventurer’s life it is possible to discern the many ways empire shaped the lives of nations, peoples, and individuals in the era of the American Revolution, the world’s first modern revolt against empire.
Beginning with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and using rarely seen first-hand accounts of colonial missionaries and administrators, the author shows that European explorers and colonists generally regarded American-Indian languages, like all languages, as a divine endowment that bore only a superficial relationship to the distinct cultures of speakers. By relating these accounts to thinkers like Locke, Adam Smith, Jefferson, and others who sought to incorporate their findings into a broader picture of human development, he demonstrates how, during the eighteenth century, this perception gave way to the notion that language was a human innovation, and, as such, reflected the apparent social and intellectual differences of the world's peoples.
The book is divided into six chronological chapters, each focusing on different aspects of the Euro-American response to indigenous languages. New World Babel will fascinate historians, anthropologists, and linguists--anyone interested in the history of literacy, print culture, and early ethnological thought.
Originally published in 1999.
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