J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

House of Paine

On 19-20 Oct 2012, Iona College in New Rochelle, New York will host the International Conference of Thomas Paine Studies. Its announcement says:
Iona College will host a gathering of national and international scholars for presentations and discussion on the life, legacy and ideas of a long neglected Founding Father of the United States, Thomas Paine. In addition to 34 papers delivered in 12 sessions of scholarly presentations, the conference will feature a keynote speech by Lewis Lapham and a presentation of the play Citizen Paine, as well as receptions at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association Building and the Thomas Paine Cottage. The conference is open to scholars, students, and the general public.
The link above offers more information on the conference, including schedule, possible accommodations, and registration forms.

There’s a meme among Paine scholars and fans that he’s been “long neglected” or “forgotten.” I don’t buy it. There’s been a steady stream of Paine biographies, studies, and collections for decades. Only a handful of Revolutionary figures have more name recognition than Thomas Paine, especially when we consider that he played no major role in the run-up to the Revolution, the military victories, or the federal government.

In the past decade alone, we’ve seen the following books about Paine:
  • Kenneth W. Burchell, Thomas Paine and America, 1776-1809 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009).
  • Joyce Chumbley and Leo Zonneveld, Thomas Paine: In Search of the Common Good (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 2009).
  • Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London: Routledge, 2003).
  • Paul Collins, The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005).
  • Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).
  • Jack Fruchtman, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
  • Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).
  • Jane Hodson, Language and Revolution in Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine, and Godwin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).
  • John P. Kaminski, Citizen Paine: Thomas Paine’s Thoughts on Man, Government, Society, and Religion (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
  • Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005).
  • Ronald Frederick King and Elsie Begler, Thomas Paine: Common Sense for the Modern Era (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 2007).
  • Edward Larkin, Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004).
  • Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking Press, 2006).
  • Mark Philp, Thomas Paine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • Sophia A. Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  • Vikki J. Vickers, “My pen and my soul have ever gone together”: Thomas Paine and the American Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  • Bernard Vincent, The Transatlantic Republican: Thomas Paine and the Age of Revolutions (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005).
Not to mention a dozen or more titles for young readers.

Let’s compare Paine to, say, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, the most influential American political essay before Common Sense. In addition to writing that book and “The Liberty Song,” Dickinson was an important delegate to the Continental Congress, top official of Pennsylvania’s wartime government, and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Dickinson was on the losing side of the debate over the Declaration of Independence but on the right side of the debate over slavery.

In the past decade only two new books focused on Dickinson: Jane E. Calvert, Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and William Murchison, The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson (Wilmington, Del.: ISI, 2012).

So where’s the stronger case for a Founder being “neglected”?


Unknown said...

Founding Father? I think not; but a truly interesting figure. For sometime now I have tried to unearth the link between publisher/printer Robert Bell and Thomas Paine.

J. L. Bell said...

I think Paine qualifies as an American Founder because of the influence of his wartime writings, his work for the Continental Congress, and his part in setting up Pennsylvania’s first independent government. But I don’t confine my definition of the Founders to just those men who signed one of the four major founding documents, as some do.

I also want to clarify that I'm not arguing that Paine is overstudied. He's clearly an influential writer who was active during interesting times in three different countries. I just don’t think he’s neglected or forgotten.

Pacificus said...

Wow, I'm really surprised that you didn't mention John Keane's "Tom Paine: A Political Life" in your list of Paine histories. Were you not aware of it? It was published in 2003.


Unknown said...

Awesome blog post title...

J. L. Bell said...

I didn’t list John Keane’s book on Paine because it was first published in 1995.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we could do some sort of weighted average: Jane Calvert's book is one of only two on Dickinson, but it costs more than $100 in paperback and more than $50 as an ebook (imagine my surprise). So,in some ways, Dickinson is highly valued.