A Royal Paine

240 Years of Free Thought and Common Sense

By John Strausbaugh

A neon sign hanging from the wall of the townhouse at 59 Grove Street in the Village advertises the presence of Marie's Crisis Cafe, the small piano bar in the basement. Lower down on the wall, a plaque from 1923 explains that Thomas Paine, maybe the freest thinker of his age, died there in 1809. The Crisis in the cafe's name is in his honor. The Marie is for Marie Dumont, the original owner.

Two hundred and forty years ago this month, Paine published the most influential pamphlet of its time, Common Sense, a direct call to revolt against the British Crown. "Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices... Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one..."

Common Sense is said to have sold a then unthinkable one hundred and fifty thousand copies, a massive best-seller for its time. It was universally discussed and argued. Washington read it to his troops. William Blake cheered Paine as the man who could "overthrow all the armies of Europe with a single pamphlet." The Declaration of Independence followed that July.

Paine had arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1774, just in time to help light the spark of the Revolution. He was in his late thirties, a man of restless intelligence who had not yet found his footing in the world. He'd followed his Quaker father into the corset-making business for a while, gone to sea, taught English, and most importantly worked as a tax collector, where he saw firsthand the "numerous and various distresses" taxation imposed on the poor. He was also an amateur scientist and inventor, which led to his meeting Ben Franklin in London. With encouragement and a letter of introduction from Franklin, he left England for the American colonies, where he plunged straight into the independence movement.

Paine enlisted in the revolutionary militia in August 1776 and began writing his series of pamphlets, The Crisis, to rally support for the war. ("These are the times that try men's souls...") When the war was won in 1783, however, his influence waned. Temperamentally unsuited to bureaucratic life, he held and lost a few minor positions in the Americans' new government. In 1787 he left for England and France. He was in Paris to rejoice when Louis XVI abdicated in 1789. Back in England in 1792, he wrote his hot-tempered The Rights of Man as a retort to "the nonsense, for it deserves no better name" of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke, fearing that the violence of the French revolt might ignite similar actions in England, argued that a people had no right to depose their hereditary monarch. "All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny," Paine thundered back. "To inherit a government, is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds."

The British Crown banished him for treason. He went to France, where he was promptly invited to join the National Convention -- and promptly imprisoned (gently, under house arrest in a former palace) for speaking out against Louis' execution. "Kill the King," he argued, "but not the man."

Next he turned his focus to religion. He worked on The Age of Reason during his ten months' confinement. "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of," he declares at the outset. "My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches... appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

This won him no new friends back in god-fearing America, where he returned, sixty-five years old and in fragile health, in 1802. "When President Thomas Jefferson invited Paine to the White House, one Federalist newspaper vilified him as 'irreligious, depraved, unworthy to associate with the President of the United States,'" one historian notes.

For his service to the nation he'd been given a small, formerly Tory-owned farm in New Rochelle, but his neighbors despised him and possibly plotted to do him bodily harm. His health failing, in 1806 he moved into the city, where a friend, the portrait painter and proto-bohemian John Wesley Jarvis, put him up in his home on Church Street. In 1808 Paine moved out to a house on Herring (now Bleecker) Street. Greenwich Village was still more countryside than city, with large estates, farms and some small hamlets stitched together by the meandering lanes and paths that would become the Village's famously confusing knot of streets. As Paine's condition deteriorated, an old friend, a Madame Bonneville, had him carried in an armchair to a small backhouse behind the wood-frame house that stood at what's now 59 Grove. (It was knocked down in the late 1830s, when the current building was erected.)

He died there within a month, on June 8, 1809. Few noticed that a hero of the Revolution had passed. One of his few obituaries was in the New-York Evening Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists for whom the post-Revolution Paine had been an irritant. According to the Post he had "lived long, did some good and much harm." He was interred on his farm, with fewer than ten people in attendance.

The indignities didn't end there. In 1819 William Cobbett, a British radical and journalist, exhumed Paine's corpse and took it to England, where he intended a proper memorial. He was refused permission, and stored the remains in his attic. It's said that after Cobbett's death in 1835 his son sold Paine's remains piecemeal -- a hand here, the jawbone there -- to fans in England and France.


Published January 21st, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.