A Paine in the ass for modern America

How did the ‘Father of the American Revolution’ become the crazy uncle of American history?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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There is something undeniably sad about the Thomas Paine Cottage in New Rochelle, New York. Fifteen miles outside of Manhattan, in a town that is half black youth, half preppy students (Iona College is here), the cottage where Paine once lived stands as one of the few permanent monuments to him in the United States.

He might have been the greatest radical in that age of epoch-exploding radicalism – the eighteenth century – whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense inspired and energised the American Revolution. Yet one of only a handful of likenesses of Paine in the US, a country he helped to give birth to, is the 100-year-old waxwork dummy sitting forlornly at a desk in a corner of this cottage, looking for all the world like Denis Norden in britches rather than an eighteenth-century firebrand. ‘Let me just fix his hair’, says John Wright, keeper of the cottage. ‘The schoolkids are a bit rough with him.’

It breaks my Paineite heart. George Washington has an entire city named after him. Thomas Jefferson has a magnificent memorial and library in DC. John Adams has a statue in Boston and busts across America. Yet without Paine, a 37-year-old former corset-maker from eastern England when he landed in America in 1774, it is unlikely there would have been a successful revolution against British domination, or it would certainly have taken a different course. As a bust of Paine at a quiet, people-free crossroads outside the cottage reminds us, Joel Barlow, the eighteenth-century American diplomat and poet, once said that ‘Without the pen of Paine, Washington would have wielded his sword in vain’.

And what thanks does he get? An ageing dummy with bad hair. And a statue in New Jersey. We’re still a long way from Napoleon’s proposal – that ‘a statue of gold should be erected to Paine in every city in the universe’.

It’s almost as if Paine is treated as the crazy uncle of American history. The waxwork dummy certainly looks like a crazy uncle, wonky and wasted. Never officially accepted as one of the Founding Fathers, Paine is memorialised here in New Rochelle – a pleasant enough if super-sleepy town – rather than in DC or Boston or the heart of NYC.


And what thanks does he
get? An ageing dummy…

Cottage keeper Wright says the political elbowing aside of Paine started in his own lifetime. He lived in this cottage in New Rochelle towards the end of his life, before his death in 1809, on a farm given to him by the state of New York for his services to American liberty. ‘His finances were a disaster’, says Wright. Having donated his royalties from Common Sense to Washington’s armies in the war for independence (and let’s not forget that Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in its first three months of publication, in a country of only two million free citizens), and unable to secure a pension from the new American government, the ageing Paine was reduced to sponging meals off the locals. ‘Here is a kettle from a nearby bar, which was used to make tea for Paine’, says Wright. It’s next to a stove that has a plaque saying: ‘This stove was presented by Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Paine, hero of the revolution.’ Paine was being kept warm by the charity of his former comrades in the fight for a republic.

Saddest of all, there is a framed letter on the wall that Paine wrote to officials in DC in the early 1800s enquiring why he had been denied the right to vote in New Rochelle. ‘Respected friends…’, it begins. Admittedly it was mainly Paine’s fault he couldn’t vote. Having been made a French citizen for his equally immense services to the French Revolution, and having later declared himself a ‘world citizen’ (‘my country is the world, my religion is to do good’), no one was really sure where he had voting rights. Still, Paine was annoyed to be told he wasn’t officially a US citizen, as well he might have been – he virtually invented the idea of American citizenship.

What’s more he hated living in New Rochelle. ‘Hated it’, says Wright, as he peels wax off a table in the Paine living room. ‘It was too quiet for him.’ At every opportunity, despite being in his latter years, Paine would travel to Manhattan for a coffee (‘or something stronger’, says Wright) and argue about politics in various clubs and pubs. When he died at the age of 72 in 1809, there were seven people at his funeral in New Rochelle. ‘[It would] wound any sensible heart’, said one of the attendees, ‘to contemplate who it was, what man it was, that we were committing to an obscure grave on an open and disregarded bit of land’.

Paine’s fate, his ending up as a naff waxwork at a table in a little-visited part of New York rather than as a statue of gold in DC, is about far more than bad luck or bad finances – it reveals something important about the nature of the United States itself.

Modern America’s tortured relationship with Paine, its inability to count him as a Founding Father (in 1997 the History Channel caused quite the stir by including him in that select number), really expresses its inability fully to see through the American revolution, to realise what the historian Harvey J Kaye described as ‘the promise of America’ in his brilliant 2005 book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Paine makes modern American leaders uncomfortable because they recognise that without his clear-eyed radicalism, the United States might not have come into existence in the way that it did – and they also recognise, and are often responsible for the fact, that the content of his clear-eyed radicalism has not been genuinely realised: his belief that the ‘so-called lower orders, not just the high-born and propertied, had the capacity both to comprehend the world and to govern it’ (1).

It is impossible to overstate the enormity of Paine’s contribution to modern world history. More than anything the story of Paine reveals the importance of ideas to the project of changing the world. In both America and France in the late 1700s, sections of the population were agitated by British rule and monarchism respectively. And it was as a result of Paine’s injection of ideas, his inflammatory pamphleteering, that this anger became transformed into a war for independence in America and a revolution for a new kind of republic in France. Not for nothing has Paine been described as ‘possibly the most influential writer in modern human history’ (2).

Prior to the publication of Paine’s Common Sense in America in January 1776, only around a third of the delegates to the Continental Congress, the political body of the American Revolution, supported separation from Britain. The rest wanted only for the ‘mother country’ to grant its American subjects more rights and to ease the tax burdens. As late as 1775, the year before Common Sense was published, George Washington was still toasting George III after dinners and Thomas Jefferson said: ‘There is not in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do.’

Paine changed all that. This Englishman, not yet 40 and of no significant social standing, argued in Common Sense for the immediate and complete separation of America from Britain. ‘Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of one over the other was never the design of heaven.’ Ridiculing Britain’s hereditary principle and imperfect democracy, Paine urged Americans to ‘make a true revolution of their various struggles’ (3), and to create a single nation state with a government constituted for ‘respublica… or the public good’, in which there should be a Bill of Rights and ‘above all things, the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience’ (4).

Americans read it in their thousands. A New Yorker wrote to his local newspaper: ‘This animated piece dispels, with irresistible energy, the prejudice of the mind against the doctrine of independence, and pours in upon it such an inundation of light and truth as will produce an instantaneous and marvellous change in the temper, in the views and feelings of an American.’ Within months, Jefferson made his Declaration of Independence, and Paine joined Washington’s armies against Britain as a kind of intellectual soldier, writing a 13-volume series called The American Crisis in the bloody era of 1776 and 1777. If Common Sense helped to give rise to the desire for independence, The American Crisis sustained it in the face-off with the ‘mother country’. ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’, wrote Paine (as quoted by Obama in his inauguration address in 2009).

Not content with having created an intellectual ‘land-flood that sweeps all before it’ in America, as one of his readers put it, Paine later went to France and stirred things up there too. His defence of the French Revolution, The Rights of Man, published in 1791 (part one) and 1792 (part two), was burnt by conservatives in Britain, and devoured by radicals in France. Paine later co-authored the French revolutionaries’ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and was elected to the French National Convention (where he had to have his speeches read out by other people, on account of the fact that he didn’t speak French). It is testament, perhaps, to the more radical nature of the French Revolution that there is a gold statue of Paine in Paris, rather than just a badly dressed waxwork.

Paine’s writings are imbued with a passion for unfettered democracy and liberty for the individual, with a faith in human agency and the exercise of individual autonomy. In his belief that ordinary people – or as he preferred, ‘workingmen’ – had the capacity and the wherewithal both to understand and govern the world around them, Paine, in Harvey J Kaye’s words, was building on traditions of radicalism to ‘transform the very idea of politics and the political nation’. And his very peculiar place in American history, says Kaye, speaks to the ongoing contradiction between the ‘promise’ of America (liberty and representation for all) and the ‘reality’ (numerous checks on the democratic process and on freedom). The problem with Paine is that his writings energised and emboldened the American Revolution, but now exist as a permanent reminder of the failure to push through and deepen that revolution. And so he’s left here, a dummy at a table in New Rochelle, the awkward uncle to the Founding Fathers.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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