Tom Paine and William Cobbett were at the heart of the revolutionary changes which swept over the North Atlantic world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Both men came from the ranks of the "common people" in England, both found their identity as political writers in North America, and both eventually became central figures in the English popular radical movement. David Wilson places the parallel careers of Paine and Cobbett in their Anglo-American context, not only discussing the relationship between their ideas, but examining how their early experiences affected their success in America and the way in which their perceptions of America were woven into their political writings in England.
Wilson traces four major themes in the thought of Paine and Cobbett: the relationship between British radical ideas and American revolutionary ideology; the eighteenth-century revolution in rhetorical theory; the effect of the American and French Revolutions on British popular radicalism; and the American attempt to turn the United States into a new "empire of liberty". He challenges the view that Paine created a new literary style for a new audience of artisans and labourers, arguing instead that this style was part of a broader revolution in rhetoric, and discusses the interconnections between Paine's English and American careers. Wilson shows that the tension between the ideal and the real is central to understanding Cobbett. He analyzes Cobbett's American experiences, and examines the role of Paine's writings and the United States in Cobbett's subsequent career as a radical in England.
The epilogue returns to the differences and similarities in Paine's and Cobbett's careers, examines their strategies for change, and discusses their ambiguous legacies to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.