Tom Paine's Iron Bridge

Building a United States

Edward G. Gray (Author)


The little-known story of the architectural project that lay at the heart of Tom Paine’s political blueprint for the United States.

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.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • April 2016
  • ISBN 978-0-393-24178-5
  • 5.8 × 8.6 in / 256 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

“Fascinating and important: Gray gives us Paine as we have never seen him before…as committed to building a new order as he was to tearing down the old.” — Kathleen DuVal, Wall Street Journal

“Ed Gray deftly reveals Paine as a polymath who designed innovative bridges as well as radical politics. Vividly written and rich with insight, Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge illuminates the nexus of politics, science, and aesthetics in the Age of Revolutions.” — Alan Taylor, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Internal Enemy

“If you thought nothing more could be said of Thomas Paine, you were wrong. Ed Gray’s new book is a game-changer. An iron bridge, a unified economy, a legislative heart of the union: Ed Gray demonstrates as never before Paine’s greater vision.” — Ray Raphael, author of A People’s History of the American Revolution

“In his engaging new book, Edward Gray introduces us to Thomas Paine, the visionary nation-builder. Paine’s design for an iron bridge to transcend the new nation’s divisions was in its way as revolutionary as his call for an independent American republic in Common Sense.” — Harvey J. Kaye, author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America

“Americans want to see the nation’s adolescence as a time of infinite possibility, and so did Thomas Paine. But Edward Gray’s engrossing account of Paine’s lifelong fixation on bridge-building reminds us that a host of human vices, from religious bigotry to political and sectional bias, were always there, waiting as patiently as the wolf at the door.” — Woody Holton, author of Abigail Adams

“Another gem from one of America's most imaginative historians.” — Gordon S. Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution

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