The founding father wrote famous words in New Jersey


Then there’s Thomas Paine – the founding father they don’t talk about.

He’s not on Mount Rushmore. He’s not in the musical “Hamilton.” But of all the patriots of the 18th century, he is perhaps the one who speaks the most about our time. This is a permanent reproach to the other founders: a rebel among rebels.

“He advocated a unity based on reason, science and enlightened thought,” said Margaret Downey, founding member and president of the Thomas Paine Memorial Association. “He was a truth-teller. He didn’t hold back on his social reforms.”

Accordingly, Paine was the most controversial of the founders of his day. But at the same time, he is also one of the few to have arrived in the 21st century with little or no baggage. Above all, he was on the right side of history. “He was an honorable man, a man of no shame,” Downey said.

Paine is worth learning about these days. And Downey knows exactly how to do it.

Saturday, January 29 – Paine’s de facto birthday (technically it was February 9, but became January 29 after the British Calendar Act of 1751) – a International Thomas Paine birthday celebration on Zoom will feature an array of stars and scholars. Actor John de Lancie, comedian Julia Sweeney, Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD 8th District), historian Christopher Cameron are among those who will attend the free event, open to all (pre-registration required), starting at 4 p.m. EST.

The Zoom presentation is also a fundraiser. The money from the donations will go towards the Association’s big project: a $400,000 statue of Paine, sculpted by Pennsylvania artist Zenos Frudakis (also part of the program), which would be placed in Washington, D.C., somewhere on Capitol Hill. Hill, hopefully.

“Paine’s common sense and reason were not only important in his time, but are extremely relevant to ours as well,” Frudakis said.

The group hopes to raise up to half the money from Saturday’s event; the Stiefel Free Thought Foundation will triple any donation between now and January 29.

“We’re aiming for the moon here,” Downey said.

On the way to bronze

Downey’s nonprofit group isn’t the first to come up with such an idea.

A firebrand statue that spoke of “the time that tries the souls of men” and “soldiers of summer and patriots of the sun”, still under construction for Monument Park in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Sculptor David French of Beacon, New York, secured the commission.

“We’re still waiting for the sculptor to finish,” said Fort Lee Historical Society member Tom Meyers.

There is also a statue of Paine in Morristown, New Jersey – although whether Paine ever set foot there is questionable – and in Bordentown, where he owned a home and was a periodic resident between 1783 and his death in 1809 , was discussed.

It was at Fort Lee, watching from the stockades in the company of General George Washington and General Nathanael Greene (Paine was his adjutant), that the author of “Common Sense” witnessed the fall of New York and the rout of Washington’s troops by the British. , in August 1776.

While retreating with Washington’s men via New Bridge Landing to River Edge, Paine wrote the first of his series of pamphlets, “The American Crisis”.

“These are the times that try the souls of men.” Thus, famously, began Pamphlet No. 1. Washington gathered his discouraged men and had it read aloud. It had a galvanizing effect; many have re-engaged. On December 25, Washington crossed Delaware, took Trenton and Princeton, and began the American return. Paine’s catchy words had a lot to do with it.

“He wrote very simple English, using language that people could understand and relate to,” Downey said.

But Paine, born Thomas Pain in England in 1737, was also the most radical of the founders. As such, he had a strained relationship with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the rest of the 1776 crew. “He was ahead of his time,” Meyers said.

He advocated for women’s rights, religious freedom, public education, social security. He was an abolitionist. Anticipating Ta-Nehisi Coates by 250 years, he called for reparations.

“I think, sir, that you cannot do yourself and your country a greater honor, nor your unfortunate countrymen a greater act of justice and mercy, than by freeing your slaves and paying their annual salary of 81 to date”, he wrote to his slaver friend Thomas Jefferson in 1808 (the anticipation of 1781 was the year of Yorktown, when the Americans won the war).

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The letter was signed, not Thomas Paine – his paternity was only recently determined – but “A Slave”.

“If we had listened then, we wouldn’t have such controversy today,” Downey said.

That was not all. “A Slave” went on to call for unrepentant slave owners to be “hanged in gibbets for an everlasting monument; and a terror to tyrants”.

Fight words

Such feelings endeared him to Jefferson (the two stopped talking) and many generations of historians, who portrayed Paine as unhinged, a dangerous radical. Nor were they appeased by Paine’s “The Age of Reason” (1794) which denounced religious superstition and advocated deism – the belief in a hands-off God who does not intervene in human affairs.

“Deists don’t believe in a God who writes a so-called holy book in the hands of humans,” Downey said. “According to Paine, the beauty you see all around you, in nature, is the language of God.”

Many founders were deists. But such a bold and open statement of principles was menacing. Many distanced themselves from Paine – including George Washington, who refused to intervene when Paine was imprisoned by Robespierre in 1793, during the French Revolution. In 1796 Paine did something almost unthinkable. He turned against the father of the country.

“Traitor in private friendship” and “hypocrite in public life”. That’s what Paine called Washington, a living god for most people in the 18th century.

“I also declare myself opposed to almost all your administration; for I know she has been deceitful, if not even treacherous,” he says.

It takes guts. Paine, who has been written out of history textbooks for hundreds of years, is also a longtime favorite of freethinkers and rationalists. Among them is Downey. When she moved to Pennsylvania in 1991, she began researching Thomas Paine historical sites. “There was nothing,” she said.

So she joined another educator to put them there. Thanks in part to her, Philadelphia now has a Thomas Paine Place, a Thomas Paine Plaza, and a marker commemorating the printing press where “Common Sense” was published.

In 1991, she founded the Pennsylvania-based Free Thought Society. He formed his own Thomas Paine Foundation/Memorial Committee in 1993.

The result of these efforts is the Thomas Paine Memorial Association, incorporated this year. And hopefully, before long, he’ll unveil his statue in Washington — the city named after the man Paine wasn’t afraid to call out.

“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” So said Thomas Paine in 1791. And these days, especially – when many of us feel like we’re dealing with it – Downey thinks we should listen.

“I think it’s such a unifying message,” she said. “This message must be heard in these times which test the souls of men. and the soul of women.”

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for For unlimited access to its insightful reports on how you spend your free time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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