Thomas Paine: Patriot And Provocateur

January 18, 2005
May 29, 2005

Known by Americans chiefly as the pamphleteer with a great turn-of-phrase who wrote Common Sense, Thomas Paine could be found in Philadelphia decisively turning the debate toward American independence, retreating with George Washington's troops in "the times that try men's souls," in Paris experiencing many of the crucial events and tragedies of the French Revolution, and back in his native England as the very focal point of the debate on political reform. In all these places, Paine called upon ordinary citizens to question not only traditional ideas of government and society but also accepted notions of God and Bible-based faith. Paine's personal story ends in New York City and in nearby New Rochelle where he lived his last years in near poverty and ostracism, but he would inspire reformers well beyond his death. This gallery exhibit, on view from January 18–May 29, 2005, will bring forth the great pamphleteer's published works along with letters, caricatures, and commentary drawn from The New-York Historical Society Library's rich holdings.

Highlighting the exhibition will be a plaster bust and an oil portrait of Paine by John Wesley Jarvis. Both works were created by the then up-and-coming portraitist as a gesture of friendship for Paine. The artist took in the elderly writer as a housemate and friend during the latter's otherwise difficult last years in New York City. The bust, executed from a death mask also in our collection, was donated by Jarvis upon his own election to The New-York Historical Society in 1817. The painting, the only surviving oil portrait of Paine from life, was considered long-lost until discovered in 1949 and reported in The New-York Historical Society Quarterly. Now owned by the National Gallery, it is being lent to the exhibition in order to reunite the bust and painted portrait for the first time since they left the artist's studio nearly two hundred years ago.

The display will feature a selection of Paine's letters, some as yet unpublished, that reveal his personal approach to the great crises and personalities of the day. They include his persistent and imaginative suggestions for aiding the American Revolution in its lowest days, his handwritten account of his own services to the cause once it was won, and his own convoluted but humanitarian scheme to save a friend, the Irish rebel, Napper Tandy, by appealing to a former enemy, Charles Cornwallis.

Paine's fame as pamphleteer will be demonstrated by examples of his many publications that address the timeless question of the efficacy of violence in promoting reform and the challenge of maintaining human rights in times of war and revolution. The exhibition will include a rare first edition, first issue of Common Sense. It will also display some of the British pamphlet literature generated by the publication of Rights of Man and document Paine's subsequent conviction for sedition that outlawed him from his native England. The Anti-Levelling Songster of 1793 is devoted to anti-Paine songs written for the occasion and it will be paired with samples of hostile, Paine-inspired British caricatures.

The first of Thomas Paine's controversial anti-Biblical tracts, The Age of Reason, will be shown in the context of when it was written, as Paine watched his humanitarian hopes for the French Revolution crumble and as he awaited his own imprisonment during the Reign of Terror. The negative reaction to the deistical Age of Reason in some religious quarters was exploited by Paine's political adversaries and contributed to his ostracism upon his return to New York after his eventful sojourn in Europe. This hostility multiplied with Paine's death in 1809 and colored much of the nineteenth-century view of him. Others of the period embraced Paine's memory as a pioneer in free-thinking, reform, and political engagement by the common person. To illustrate this dichotomy, Theodore Roosevelt's printed epithet, "the filthy little atheist," will be displayed along side of Walt Whitman's published tribute. Now recognized for his contribution to the language and dissemination of rights and democracy in addition to his considerable role in American independence, Paine carries a more positive, if muted, legacy today. The exhibition will invite viewers to contemplate this legacy as well as to learn more about a most eventful life lived out in extraordinary times.

Creative: Tronvig Group