The Author’s Corner with Edward Gray

TomPaineIronBridgeEdward Gray is Professor of History at Florida State University. This interview is based on his new book, Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge: Building a United States (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: There are really two answers to that question. The first is that I wanted to write a book about a familiar figure. My previous book was about the Connecticut traveler John Ledyard, somebody few had ever heard of. I got tired of trying to justify a book-length project on such an obscure person. The second is that I had been teaching Paine’s famous 1776 call-to-arms, Common Sense for years. When I finished the Ledyard book, I decided to re-read the rest of Paine’s oeuvre. That process led to my discovery of Paine’s interest in iron bridges. It seemed weird that at the height of his powers as revolutionary propagandist, Paine turned to architecture. A little further reading made it clear that for Paine, this interest was not just a typical enlightenment-era gentlemanly divergence. I began to wonder what this iron bridge business was all about? I didn’t find a satisfactory answer in any of the many Paine biographies or other studies of his life and thought. After a few summers fishing for clues in British archives, I concluded that there was a book to be written. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: Thomas Paine is not generally thought of as a state builder. But his iron bridge demonstrates that that is exactly what he was. 

JF: Why do we need to read Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?

EG: I think the book has a great deal of contemporary resonance. Politicians are constantly trumpeting the need for improved infrastructure. In general, they defend that need as an economic one: without adequate transportation infrastructure, America’s commercial primacy will suffer. What they don’t talk about, but what seems very much the case, and what obsessed Paine and most of his revolutionary contemporaries, is the fact that infrastructure has a political function as well. Insofar as the fractious United States constitutes a political community, it does so as a function of its capacity to draw together its distant and diverse parts. Whether Paine’s iron bridges or modern high-speed rail, functional and efficient infrastructure makes this possible.  

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EG: It happened in college. I tried out a bunch of different majors, but history appealed to me. Its best practitioners achieved a combination of literary ambition and empirical rigor that I found captivating. Initially, I was interested in French history. I wrote a few papers about Jews and Judaism in nineteenth-century France and then I got interested in the French Revolution. When I raised the possibility of going to grad school, one of my professors urged me to avoid all things French. This was in 1986 or 1987; the eve of the French Revolution’s bicentennial. Everybody, it seemed, was doing something on the French Revolution. Over the course of the next few years, I started reading books about the American Revolution. I discovered, in particular, Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic and that was that. 

JF: What is your next project?

 EG: I’m working on a history of the Mason-Dixon Line, from the seventeenth century through the Civil War Era. I’ve also been working on a smaller project about Henry Laurens’s 1780 imprisonment in the Tower of London. 

JF: Thanks, Edward!