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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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The College Where You Can Minor in Paine

This summer Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, established the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies, even offering undergraduates the possibility of minoring in “Paine Studies.” At one point in his well-traveled life Paine lived nearby, and the city is home to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association.

However, that organization fell on hard times, and its collection was in danger, as the Associated Press reported:
…many of the prize pieces spent recent years locked in a huge safe in a back room at the historical association’s 1925 building in New Rochelle as members tried to protect them from deteriorating conditions, said Gary Berton, a former president.

“I was horrified,” said Brad Mulkern, now the president and executive director of the association, recalling his first visit to the building. “The roof had holes in it, it was leaking through the ceiling. ... I just couldn’t believe stuff that was so priceless was so exposed. I mean, this is Thomas Paine, the man who called for revolution!”

The association’s board sold some valuable pieces to raise money for repairs, which brought complaints and an investigation by the state attorney general’s office. Eventually, the collection was sent to the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.
It took a legal decision to clear the material to go to Iona, which was building a modern library to house such documents and other artifacts.

The library’s Thomas Paine National Historical Association collection now includes “over 300 items created in the 18th and 19th centuries comprised of monographs, pamphlets, booklets, periodicals, tokens, letters, and ephemera, as well as the only surviving personal effects of Paine.” In other words, his eyeglasses, his death mask, and locks of his hair. The library has also hosted a series of exhibitions of this work since 2011.

TOMORROW: Peeking in on the current exhibit.


Anonymous said...

About a month ago, I read a bio of Paine that included 'Common Sense' and some of his other works. I found his postwar decline disappointing...

J. L. Bell said...

Imagine how he felt! Though Paine scholar and fan Ken Burchell has argued that aspects of Paine’s decline were greatly exaggerated.

Jimmy Dick said...

Why would it be a decline? I think he wrote his best stuff after the Revolution.

J. L. Bell said...

I think there are two reasons authors portray Paine's post-Revolutionary life as a decline.

First, he was politically less successful. The French Revolution didn't work out as well for him or the people. He burned some political bridges in the U.S. of A. and ended up with much less influence here.

Second, for some authors Paine's political radicalism, religious unorthodoxy, and/or attacks on President Washington made him dislikable. Yet they couldn't repudiate his writings during the Revolutionary War. So they presented his story as a sad decline from his wartime peak.

I think Paine really did suffer from a loss of standing in the U.S., but it looks like early biographers and later historians exaggerated his plight at the end of his life. He appears to have lived rather comfortably then, perhaps disappointed that not all his dreams panned out—but after all he did dream big.

Daud Alzayer said...

I'm sure I'm not the only one who flinched when Mulkern said, "this is Thomas Paine, the man who called for revolution!" As if Paine was the lone voice crying in the wilderness.

Not to discount Common Sense, but more than one person "called for revolution" in order for it to happen.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Paine came late to the North American movement against Parliament's taxes, after many people were already demanding some big changes in colonial government. On the other hand, he quickly became a leading voice in advocating independence and republicanism. Not the only voice, but an important one.

My experience tells me not to hold someone wholly responsible for a quotation in a newspaper. We don't know the context or accuracy of that quote. But it's the sort of thing a Paine fan might well say.