Greenwich Village - Tom Paine, Infidel
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. . . I have as little superstition in me as any man living; but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent.—" The Crisis."
I WANT you to note carefully the title of this chapter. And then I want you to note still more carefully the quotatation with which it opens. It was the man known far and wide as " the infidel,"—the man who was denounced by church-goers, and persecuted for his unorthodox doctrines,—who wrote with such high and happy confidence of a fair, a just and a merciful God Almighty.
Before me lies a letter from W. M. van der Weyde, the president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. One paragraph meets my eyes at this moment:
" Paine was, without doubt, the very biggest figure that ever lived in ` Greenwich Village.' I think, on investigation, you will realise the truth of this statement."
I have realised it. And that is why I conceive no book on Greenwich complete without a chapter devoted to him who came to be known as " the great Commoner of Mankind." He spoke of himself as a " citizen of the world," and there are many quarters of the globe that can claim a share in his memory, so we will claim it, too 1
It is true that Thomas Paine lived but a short time in Greenwich, and that the long play of his full and colourful career was enacted before he came to spend his last days in the Village. But he is none the less an essential part of Greenwich; his illustrious memory is so signal a source of pride to the neighbourhood, his personality seems still so vividly present, that his life and acts must have a place there, too. The street that was named " Reason " because of him, suggests the persecutions abroad and at home which followed the writing of that extraordinary and daring book " The Age of Reason." The name of Mme. de Bonneville, who chose for him the little frame house on the site which is now about at 59 Grove Street, recalls his dramatic life chapter in Paris, where he first met the De Bonnevilles. So, you see, one cannot write of Thomas Paine in Greenwich, without writing of Thomas Paine in the great world—working, fighting, pleading, suffering, lighting a million fires of courage and of inspiration, living so hard and fast and strenuously, that to read over his experiences, his experiments and his achievements, is like reading the biographies of a score of different busy men!
He was born of Quaker parentage, at Thetford, Norfolk, in England, on January 29, 1737, and pursued many avocations before he found his true vocation—that of a world liberator, and apostle of freedom and human rights. One of his most sympathetic commentators, H. M. Brailsford, says of him:
" His writing is of the age of enlightenment; his actions belong to romance. . . . In his spirit of adventure, in his passion for movement and combat, there Paine is romantic. Paine thought in prose and acted epics. He drew horizons on paper and pursued the infinite in deeds."
Let us see where this impulse of romance and adventure led him; it was into strange enough paths at first!
He was a mere boy—fifteen or sixteen, if I remember accurately when the lure of the sea seized him. It is reported that he signed up on a privateer (the Captain of which was appropriately called Death!), putting out from England, and sailed with her piratical crew for a year. This was doubtless adventurous enough, but young Thomas already wanted adventure of a different and a higher order. He came back and went into his Quaker father's business—which was that of a staymaker, of all things ! He got his excitement by studying astronomy!
Then he became an exciseman—what was sometimes called "gauger "—and was speedily cashiered for negligence. Anyone may have three guesses as to his reported next ambition. More than one historian has declared that he wished to take orders in the Church of England. This is, however, extremely unlikely. In any case, he changed his mind in time, and was again taken on as exciseman. Likewise, he was again dismissed. This time they fired him for advocating higher wages and writing a pamphlet on the subject. The reform fever had caught him, you perceive, and he was nevermore free from it, to the day of his death.
He was a brilliant mathematician and an ingenious inventor. Brailsford says that ,his inventions were " partly useful, partly whimsical." They would be, of course. They included a crane, a planing-machine, a smokeless candle and a gunpowder motor—besides his really big and notable invention of the first iron bridge.
But that came later. Before leaving England, in addition to his other and varied occupations, he ran a " tobacco mill," and was twice married. One wife died, and from the other he was separated. At all events, at thirty-seven, alone and friendless, with empty pockets and a letter from Benjamin Franklin as his sole asset, he set sail for America in the year 1774.
Of course he went to the Quaker City, and speedily became the editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, through the pages of which he cried a new message of liberty and justice to the troubled Colonies. He, an Englishman, urged America to break away from England; he, of Quaker birth and by heredity and training opposed to fighting, advocated the most stringent steps for the consummation of national freedom. In that clear-eyed and disinterested band of men who conceived and cradled our Republic, Paine stands a giant even among giants.
Many persons believe that it was he who actually composed and wrote the Declaration of Independence; it is certain that he is more than half responsible for it. The very soul and fibre and living spirit of the United States was the soul and fibre and living spirit of Thomas Paine, and, in the highest American standards and traditions, remains the same today.
In 1775 he wrote " Common Sense "—the book which was, as one historian declares, the " clarion call for separation from England," and which swept the country. Edmund Randolph drily ascribes American independence first to George III and second to Paine. Five hundred thousand copies of the pamphlet were sold, and he might easily have grown rich on the proceeds, but he could never find it in his conscience to make money out of patriotism, and he gave every cent to the war fund.
This splendid fire-eating Quaker—is there any-thing stauncher than a fighting Quaker?—proceeded to enlist in the Pennsylvania division of the Flying Camp under General Roberdeau; then he went as aide-de-camp to General Greene. It was in 1776 that he started his " Crisis," a series of stirring and patriotic addresses in pamphlet form. General Washington ordered the first copy read aloud to every regiment in the Continental Army, and its effect is now history.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox has written of this:
"Many of the soldiers were shoeless and left bloody footprints on the snow-covered line of march. All were but half-hearted at this time and many utterly discouraged. Washington wrote most apprehensively concerning the situation to the Congress. Paine, in the meantime (himself a soldier, with General Greene's army on the retreat from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to Newark), realising the necessity of at once instilling renewed hope and courage in the soldiers if the cause of liberty was to be saved, wrote by campfire at night the first number of his soul-stirring Crisis.' "
It was before Trenton that those weary and disheartened soldiers,—ragged, barefoot, half frozen and more than half starved—first heard the words that have echoed down the years:
"These are the times that try men's souls!"
They answered that call; every man of them answered Paine's heart cry, as they took up their muskets again. It was with that immortal sentence as a war slogan, that the Battle of Trenton was won.
Is it any wonder that in England the " Crisis " was ordered to be burned by the hangman? It was a more formidable enemy than anything ever devised in the shape of steel or powder!
A list of Paine's services to this country would be too long to set down here. The Association dedicated to his memory and honour cites twenty-four important reasons why he stands among the very first and noblest figures in American history. And there are dozens more that they don't cite. He did things that were against possibility. When the patriot cause was weak for lack of money he gave a year's salary to start a bank to finance the army, and coaxed, commanded and hypnotised other people into subscribing enough to carry it. He went to Paris and induced the French King to give $6,000,000 to American in-dependence. He wrote " Rights of Man " and the " Age of Reason,"—and, incidentally, was outlawed in England and imprisoned in France! He did more and received less compensation for what he did, either in worldly goods or in gratitude, than any figure in relatively recent history.
America, though—I hear you say!—America, for whom he fought and laboured and sacrificed himself: she surely appreciated his efforts? Listen. On his return from Europe, America disfranchised him, ostracised him and repudiated him, refusing, among other indignities, to let him ride in public coaches.
So be it. He is not the first great man who has found the world thankless. Oddly enough, it troubled him little in comparison with the satisfaction he felt in seeing his exalted projects meet with success. So that good things were effectually accomplished, he cared not a whit who got the credit.
In reference to the charges against him of being " an infidel," or guilty of " infidelity,". he himself, with that straightforward and happy confidence which made some men call him a braggart, wrote :
" They have not yet accused Providence of In-fidelity. Yet, according to their outrageous piety, she (Providence) must be as bad as Thomas Paine; she has protected him in all his dangers, patronised him in all his undertakings, encouraged him in all his ways. . . ."
It is true, as Mr. van der Weyde points out in an article in The Truth Seeker (N. Y.), that a most extraordinary and beneficent luck,—or was it rather a guardian angel?—stood guard over Paine. His narrow escapes from death would make a small book in themselves. I will only mention one here.
During his imprisonment in the Luxembourg Prison in Paris, Thomas Paine was one of the many who were sentenced to be guillotined at that period when the moral temperature of France was many degrees above the normal mark, and men doled out death more freely than sous. It was the custom among the jailers to make a chalk mark upon the door of each cell that held a man condemned. Paine was one of a " consignment" of one hundred and sixty-eight prisoners sentenced to be beheaded at dawn, and the jailer made the fateful chalk mark upon his door along with the others, that the guards would know he was destined for the tumbrel that rolled away from the prison hour by hour all through the night. But his door chanced to be open, so that the mark, hastily made, turned out to be on the wrong side! When the door was closed it was inside, and no one knew of it; so the guard passed on, and Paine lived.
It is interesting but difficult to write about Thomas Paine.
The trouble about him is that his personality is too overwhelming to be cut and measured in proper lengths by any writer. He does not lend himself, like lesser historical figures, to continuous or disinterested narrative. The authors who have been rash enough to try to tell some-thing about him can no more pick and choose the incidents of his career that will make the most effective " stuff " than they could reduce the phenomena of a cyclone or the aurora borealis to a consistent narrative form.
Thus : One starts to speak of Paine's experiences in Paris, and brings up in New Rochelle; one endeavours to anchor him in Greenwich, only to find oneself trailing his weary but stubborn footsteps in the war! And always and forever, Paine himself persists in crowding out the legitimate sequence of his adventures. No one can soberly write the story of his life; one can, at best, only achieve a diatribe or an apotheosis!
" The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness."
This quotation might almost serve as a text for the life of Paine, might it not? And yet—there are people in the world who wear smoked glasses, through which, I imagine, the sun him-self looks not unlike a muddy splash of yellow paint upon the heavens!
This is a book about Greenwich Village and not a defence of Thomas Paine. Yet, since the reader has come with me thus far, I am going to take advantage of his courteous attention for just another moment of digression. Here is my promise: that it shall take up a small, small space.
Small insects sting dangerously; and on occasion, a very trivial and ill-considered word or phrase will cling closer and longer than a serious or thoughtful judgment. When Theodore Roosevelt called Thomas Paine " a filthy little Atheist " (or was the adjective " dirty"? I really forget!) he was very young,—only twenty-eight,--and doubtless had accepted his viewpoint of the great reformer-patriot from that " hearsay upon hear-say" against which Paine himself has so urgently warned us. Of course Mr. Roosevelt, who is both intellectual and broad-minded, knows better than that today. But it is astonishing how that ridiculous and unsuitable epithet (a " trinity of lies" as one historian has styled it)—has stuck to a memory which I am sure is sacred to any angels who may be in heaven !
" Atheist" is a word which could be applied to few men less suitably than to Paine. From first to last, he preached the goodness of God, the power of God, the justice and mercy and in-fallibility of God; and he lived in a profound trust in and love for God, and a hopeful and courageous effort to carry out such principles of moral and national right-doing as he believed to be the will of his beloved Creator.
" If this," as one indignant enthusiast ex-claimed, " is to be an Atheist, then Jesus Christ must have been an Atheist! "
As incongruous as anything else, in the judgment of Paine, is the fact that he has, apparently, been adopted by the pacifists. The pacifists and —Paine!—Paine who never in all his seventy years was out of a scrap! They could scarcely have chosen a less singularly unfit guiding star, for Paine was a confirmed fighter for anything and everything he held right. And his militancy was not merely of action but of the soul, not only of policy or necessity but of spiritual conviction. When even Washington was inclined to submit patiently a bit longer, it was Paine who lashed America into righteous war. He fought for the freedom of the country, for the abolition of slavery, for the rights of women; he fought for old-age pensions, for free public schools, for the protection of dumb animals, for international copyright; for a hundred and one ideals of equity and humanity which today are legislature. And he fought with his body and his brain; with his " flaming eloquence " and also with a gun! Once let him perceive the cause to be a just one, and—I know of no more magnificently belligerent a figure in all history.
And yet note here the splendid, the illuminating paradox: Paine abhorred war. Every truly great fighter has abhorred war, else he were not truly great. In 1778, in the very thick of the Revolution, he wrote solemnly:
" If there is a sin superior to every other, it is that of wilful and offensive war. . . . He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death." (A copy of this, together with the President's recent message, might advantageously be sent to a certain well-known address on the other side of the world!) Yet did Paine, with this solemn horror of war, suggest that the United States stop fighting? No more than he had suggested that they keep out of trouble in the first place. Paine hated war in itself; but he held war a proper and righteous means to noble ends.
Consistency is not only the bugbear of little minds; it is also the trade-mark of them. Paine also detested monarchies. " Some talent is (required to be a simple workman," he wrote; "to be a king there is need to have only the human shape." Of Burke, he said: " Mr. Burke's mind is above the homely sorrows of the vulgar. He can feel only for a king or a queen. . . . He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird."
Yet when he was a member of that French Assembly that voted King Louis to death, he fought the others fiercely,—even though unable to speak French,—persistently opposing them, with a passionate determination and courage which came near to costing him his life. For, as Brailsford says, " The Terror made mercy a traitor."
Are these things truly paradoxes, or are they rather manifestations of that God-given reason which can clearly see things as they are as well as things as they should be, and see both to good and helpful purpose?
In 1802 Paine returned to America, just sixty-five years old. He had suffered terribly, had rendered great services and it was at least reason-able that he should expect a welcome. What happened is tersely told by Rufus Rockwell Wilson:
" When, at the age of sixty-five, he came again to the nation he had helped to create, he was met by the new faces of a generation that knew him not, and by the cold shoulders, instead of the outstretched hands, of old friends. This was the bitter fruit of his ` Age of Reason,' which remains of all epoch-making books the one most persistently misquoted and misunderstood; for even now there are those who rate it as scoffing and scurrilous, whereas its tone throughout is noble and reverent, and some of the doctrines which it teaches are now recognised as not inimical to religion."
Brailsford, of a more picturesque turn of phrase, says that " slave-owners, ex-royalists, and the fanatics of orthodoxy " were against him, and adds:
. . . The grandsons of the Puritan Colonists who had flogged Quaker women as witches denied him a place on the stage-coach, lest an offended God should strike it with lightning."
The state of New York, in a really surprising burst of generosity, presented him a farm in New Rochelle, and then, lest he imagine the Government too grateful, took away his right to vote there. They offered the flimsy excuse that he was a French citizen,—which, of course, he wasn't,—but it was all part of the persecution inspired by organised bigotry and the resentful conservative interests which he had so long and so unflaggingly attacked.
And so at last to Greenwich Village! Though I cannot engage that we shall not step out of it before we are through.
Thomas Paine was old and weary with his arduous and honourable years when he came to live in the little frame house on Herring Street, kept by one Mrs. Ryder.
John Randel, Jr., engineer to the Commissioners who were at work re-cutting New York, has given us this picture of Paine :
" I boarded in the city, and in going to the office almost daily passed the house in Herring Street " [now No. 309 Bleecker Street] " where Thomas Paine resided, and frequently in fair weather saw him sitting at the south window of the first-story room of that house. The sash was raised, and a small table or stand was placed before him with an open book upon it which he appeared to be reading. He had his spectacles on, his left elbow rested upon the table or stand, and his chin rested between thumb and fingers of his hand; his right hand lay upon his book, and a decanter next his book or beyond it. I never saw Thomas Paine at any other place or in any other position."
In this house Paine was at one time desperately ill. It was said that the collapse was partly due to his too sudden abstinence from stimulants. He was an old man then, and had lived with every ounce of energy that was in him. The stimulants were resumed, and he grew somewhat better. This naturally brings us to the question of Paine as an excessive drinker. Of course people said he was; but then people said he was a great many things that he was not. When his enemies grew tired of the monotony of crying " Tom Paine, the infidel," they cried " Tom Paine, the drunkard " instead.
Which recalls a story which is an old one but too applicable not to be quoted here.
It is said that some official--and officious—mischief-maker once came to Lincoln with the report that one of the greatest and most distinguished of Federal generals was in the habit of drinking too much.
" Indeed?" said Lincoln drily. " If that is true, I should like to send a barrel of the same spirits to some of my other generals."
If Thomas Paine did drink to excess—which seems extremely doubtful—it's a frightful and solemn argument against Prohibition!
Mrs. Ryder's house where Paine lived was close to that occupied by his faithful friend Mme. de Bonneville and her two sons. Paine was de-voted to the boys, indeed the younger was named for him, and their visits were among his greatest pleasures. And, by the bye, while we are on the subject, the most scurrilous and unjust report ever circulated against this great man was that which cast a reflection upon the honourable and kindly relations existing between him and Mme. de Bonneville.
In the first place, Paine had never been a man of light or loose morals, and it is scarcely likely that he should have changed his entire character at the age of three score and ten. Mme. de Bonneville's husband, Nicholas, was a close friend of Paine in Paris, and had originally intended to come to America with Paine and his family. But, as the publisher of a highly Radical paper—the Bien Informe—De Bonneville was under espionage, and when the time came he was not permitted to leave France. He confided his wife and children to his friend, and they set sail with his promise to follow later. He did follow, when he could—Washington Irving tells of chatting with him in Battery Park—but it was too late for him to see the man who had proved himself so true a friend to him and his.
The older De Bonneville boy was Benjamin, known affectionately by his parents and Paine as " Bebia." He was destined to become distinguished in the Civil War—Gen. Benjamin de Bonneville, of high military and patriotic honours.
I said we couldn't keep to Greenwich—we have travelled to France and back again already!
You may find the house if you care to look for it the very same house kept by Mrs. Ryder, where Thomas Paine lived more than a century ago. So humble and shabby it is you might pass it by with no more notice than you would pass a humble and shabby wayfarer. Its age and picturesqueness do not arrest the eye; for it isn't the sort of old house which by quaint lines and old-world atmosphere tempt the average artist or lure the casual poet to its praise. It is just a little old wooden building of another day, where people of modest means were wont to live.
The caretaker there probably does not know anything about the august memory that with him inhabits the dilapidated rooms. He doubtless fails to appreciate the honour of placing his hand upon the selfsame polished mahogany stair rail which our immortal " infidel's " hand once pressed, or the rare distinction of reading his evening paper at the selfsame window where, with his head upon his hand, that Other was wont to read too, once upon a time.
Ugly, dingy rooms they are in that house, but glorified by association. There is, incidentally, a mantelpiece which anyone might envy, though now buried in barbarian paint. There are gable windows peering out from the shingled roof.
Some day the Thomas Paine Association will probably buy it, undertake the long-forgotten national obligation, and prevent it from crumbling to dust as long as ever they can.
The caretaker keeps pets—cats and kittens and dogs and puppies. Once he kept pigeons too, but the authorities disapproved, he told me.
" Ah, well," I said, " the authorities never have approved of things in this house."
He thought me quite mad.
Let us walk down the street toward that delicious splash of green—like a verdant spray thrown up from some unseen river of trees. There is, in reality, no river of trees ; it is only Christopher Street Triangle, elbowing Sheridan Square. Sub-way construction is going on around us, but there clings still an old-world feeling. Ah, here we are—59 Grove Street. It is a modest but a charming little red-brick house with a brass knocker and an air of unpretentious, small-scale prosperity. It has only been built during the last half-century, but it stands on the identical plot of ground where Paine's other Greenwich residence once stood. It wasn't Grove Street then; in fact, it wasn't a street at all, but an open lot with one lone frame house in the middle of it. Here Mme. de Bonneville brought Thomas Paine when his age and ill health necessitated greater comforts than Mrs. Ryder's lodgings could afford.
Here he spent some peaceful months with only a few visitors; but those were faithful ones. One was Willett Hicks, the Quaker preacher, always a staunch friend; another was John Wesley Jarvis, the American painter—the same artist who later made the great man's death mask.
It was Jarvis who said: " He devoted his whole life to the attainment of two objects—rights of man and freedom of conscience."
And, by the bye, Dr. Conway has declared that " his ` Rights of Man' is now the political constitution of England, his ` Age of Reason' is the growing constitution of its Church."
In passing I must once again quote Mr. van der Weyde, who once said to me: " I often wonder just what share Mary Wollstonecraft had with her ` Rights of Women '—in the inspiration of Paine's ` Rights of Man.' He and she, you know, were close friends."
Another friend was Robert Fulton of steamboat fame. I have truly heard Paine enthusiasts declare that our " infidel " was the authentic inventor of the steamboat! In any case, he is known to have " palled " with Fulton, and certainly gave him many ideas.
There were, to be sure, annoyances. He was, in spite of Mme. de Bonneville's affectionate protection, still an object of persecution.
Two clergymen were especially tireless in their desire to reform this sterling reformer. I believe their names were Milledollar and Cunningham. Janvier tells this anecdote:
" It was during Paine's last days in the little house in Greenwich that two worthy divines, the Rev. Mr. Milledollar and the Rev. Mr. Cunningham, sought to bring him to a realising sense of the error of his ways. Their visitation was not a success. ` Don't let 'em come here again,' he said, curtly, to his housekeeper, Mrs. Hedden, when they had departed; and added: They trouble me.' In pursuance of this order, when they returned to the attack, Mrs. Hedden denied them admission—saying with a good deal of piety, and with even more common-sense: If God does not change his mind, I'm sure no man can! "
Apropos of the two houses occupied by Paine in our city Mr. van der Weyde has pointed out most interestingly the striking and almost miraculous way in which they have just escaped destruction. Paine's " Providence " has seemed to stand guard over the places sacred to him, just as it stood guard over his invaluable life. A dozen times 309 Bleecker Street and 59 Grove Street have almost gone in the relentless constructive demolition of metropolitan growth and progress. But they have not gone yet!
I have said that the Grove Street house stood in an open lot, the centre of a block at that time. Just after Paine's death a street was cut through, called Cozine Street. Names were fleeting affairs in early and fast-growing New York, and the one street from Cozine became Columbia, then Burrows, and last of all Grove, which it remains today.
Here let us make a note of one more indignity which the officially wise and virtuous ones were able to bestow upon their unassumingly wise and virtuous victim.
The Commissioners replanning New York desired to pay Paine's memory a compliment and on opening up the street parallel with Grove, they called it Reason Street, for the " Age of Reason." This was objected to by many bigots (who had never read the book) and some tactful diplomat suggested giving it the French twist—Raison Street. Already they had the notion that French could cover a multitude of sins. Even this was too closely suggestive of Tom Paine, " the infidel," so it was shamelessly corrupted to Raisin! Consider the street named originally in honour of the author of the " Age of Reason," eventually called for a dried grape!
This too passed, and if you go down there now you will find it called Barrow Street.
On the 8th of June, 1809, Thomas Paine died.
The New York Advertiser said: " With heart-felt sorrow and poignant regret, we are compelled to announce to the world that Thomas Paine is no more. This distinguished philanthropist, whose life was devoted to the cause of humanity, departed this life yesterday morning; and, if any man's memory deserves a place in the breast of a freeman, it is that of the deceased, for,
"`Take him for all in all, We ne'er shall look upon his like again.'"
The funeral party consisted of Hicks, Mme. de Bonneville and two negroes, who loyally walked twenty-two miles to New Rochelle to see the Iast of the man who had always defended and pleaded for the rights of their pitifully misunderstood and ill-treated race.
To the end he was active for public service. His actual last act was to pen a letter to the Federal faction, conveying a warning as to the then unsettled situation in American and French commerce. Just before he had made his will.
It is in itself a composition worth copying and preserving. Paine could not even execute a legal document without putting into it something of the beauty of spirit and distinction of phrase for which he was remarkable. He had not much to leave, since he had given all to his country and his country had forgotten him in making up the balance; but what he had went to Mme. de Bonneville, for her children, that she,—let me quote his own words, ". . . might bring them well up, give them good and useful learning and instruct them in their duty to God and the practice of morality."
It continues thus :
" I herewith take my final leave of them and the world. I have lived an honest and useful life to mankind; my time has been spent in doing good and I die in perfect composure and resignation to the will of my Creator God."
Such was the last will and testament of " Tom Paine, Infidel."