The City of New Rochelle, the last home of Thomas Paine, is beginning to undergo something of an economic renaissance. A number of the City’s tremendous historical resources however, remain neglected.
The Thomas Paine Museum on North Avenue — once the centerpiece of an international effort to recognize and promote the importance of Thomas Paine – has been vacant for years and is headed for sale and destruction.
Today, many scholars consider Thomas Paine to be one of the most important figures in American history and internationally important as a theoretician of democracy. Born poor in England in 1737, Paine read widely (thanks to public libraries) and attended public lectures in London. In 1774, penniless and unemployed at the age of 37, he went to see Benjamin Franklin, the representative in London for several American colonies. He sought to inquire about the possibilities for him in the English Colonies.
Franklin was sympathetic. He wrote a letter of introduction to his son-n-law in Philadelphia where Paine obtained a position on a local newspaper. His crisp writing style brought some success and he became a keen observer of the debates in the Continental Congress over whether the Colonies should have the right to be represented in the English Parliament. Having the perspective of an impoverished Englishman recently arrived in America, Paine developed distinct views on this subject which were different from those of most colonists at the time.
In Common Sense he argued that Americans should not seek to have the rights of Englishman, but should become a separate nation free and independent of Britain, ruled by a democratic government. Within six months Common Sense sold about 150,000 copies. Independence from England, which had barely been mentioned before its publication, became a more popular view. Almost overnight, Paine became a key leader of the budding American Revolution. When the Patriot army was on its last legs outside Trenton, Washington called on Paine to write to his dispirited troops. In Crisis, he exhorted them to carry on and is remembered today for writing: “these are the times that try men’s souls.” It’s been said he was an important source of morale at the Battle of Trenton.
For his services, in 1784 New York State awarded Paine a 300-acre farm seized from a Loyalist in New Rochelle. He stayed there only briefly before returning to England, where he was indicted for sedition. Barely escaping arrest in England, Paine went to Revolutionary France where he published Rights of Man. He was now given a heroes’ welcome. Several cities vied to have him represent them and he became a leader of a moderate faction in the French Assembly.
During the Reign of Terror he proposed to spare the life of King Louis XVI and was arrested for treason and sentenced to death. He hoped Gouverneur Morris, George Washington’s Ambassador to France, would convince the French to free him as an American citizen. Morris however, said he was not an American citizen because was born in England and voted in the French Assembly. Just as he was about to be executed, Thomas Jefferson’s newly appointed Ambassador James Monroe obtained his release. It’s said Napoleon Bonaparte carried Rights of Man with him everywhere, but Paine was vilified for his attacks on organized religion in Age of Reason, which he wrote in jail in France.
In 1801, Paine returned to the United States and to the farm in New Rochelle. The village was largely controlled by Federalists who challenged his right to vote in local elections on the grounds he was not a citizen, citing Gouverneur Morris’s argument. Paine protested unsuccessfully to the Westchester courts and complained to Jefferson and Governor George Clinton to no avail. (The final court decision was ultimately reversed in 1945.) Afterward Paine’s health failed, he rented his farm and moved to Greenwich Village where he died in 1809.
Although he had hoped to be buried in a Quaker cemetery, this was refused over religious objections and he was buried on the farm in New Rochelle. It’s said just ten people (and no significant political leaders) attended his funeral. The New York Post eulogized him by saying he “had done some good, and much harm.” Believing the United States did not appreciate Paine, Englishman William Cobbett dug up his bones in 1818 and took them to England.
After his death Paine was largely forgotten, but recognition of his importance would grow over the next 200 years. As one of his biographers said, “although we know not where his bones rest, his principles rest not.” As interest in democratic government spread internationally in the nineteenth century, increasingly Paine’s works were looked upon as seminal. In addition to his advocacy of democracy over monarchy he strongly opposed slavery and advocated for the rights of women, making him a thinker ahead of his time.
Memory of Paine in New Rochelle
In 1839 what is believed to be the first monument to Paine was erected on New Rochelle’s North Avenue (it was renovated last year with a grant from the Pomeroy foundation). In 1884, the writer, abolitionist, and confidant to Abraham Lincoln Dr. Moncure Conway wrote the first full-length biography of Paine and helped establish the Thomas Paine Historical Association to promote the memory of Paine and his work (now one of the oldest historical societies in the country). Since then, Thomas Paine societies have formed in cities throughout the United States and Europe. In 1909, citizens of New Rochelle rehabilitated the Paine farm house and built a park around it (most of the old farm has now been developed as residences). The following year, the building was opened as a historic house museum by the Huguenot and New Rochelle Historical Association.
Ultimately the relatively small space of the building was deemed too small to accommodate its many visitors. In 1925, the Thomas Paine Association undertook to construct a building adjacent to accommodate the increasing visitors, to house exhibits of Paine memorabilia, and provide lecture space. The effort attracted Paine enthusiasts from around the nation, including Thomas Edison. Edison and his father had admired Paine’s ideas. Thomas Edison turned the first spade of earth for the Thomas Paine Museum in 1926.
As democracies eclipsed monarchies throughout the world in the 20th century, Paine’s reputation continued to grow. In 1942, during a low point of the Second World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a notable “fireside chat” radio speech which called on Americans to remember Paine’s inspiring role before the Battle of Trenton. The following year a wing was added to the Thomas Paine Museum to house the Hufeland Memorial Library. For many years every fourth grader in the New Rochelle visited the Paine house (now called the Thomas Paine Cottage) and the Museum. Signs entering town once proclaimed “New Rochelle – Home of Thomas Paine.”
In 2009, Thomas Paine societies across the country gathered at the Cottage and Museum to mark the 200th anniversary of Paine’s death, but cracks were already forming. The Museum no longer enjoyed the community support it once had and the building was falling into disrepair. Conflicting aims of the Paine house and museum’s limited stakeholders fostered internal conflicts. In order to raise funds to maintain the Museum’s aging structure, some sought to sell parts of it’s collection. Others hoped to move the collections from New Rochelle, to a better supported institution. In a compromise it was agreed to move some of the collections to a newly established Thomas Paine Institute at Iona College.
Although the Thomas Paine Cottage remains in operation, a few years ago the Thomas Paine Museum closed altogether and now stands vacant. The Museum’s demise represents an abandonment by the community of New Rochelle of a major historical resource. It’s a failure of citizens and their elected government – a franchise Paine himself helped create, but to which he was denied.
There is perhaps some hope. Three of the seven incumbent members of the New Rochelle City Council will be retiring on January 1st. They will be replaced by three women previously unaffiliated with City government. Now is the time to for concerned members of the public in New Rochelle and throughout New York State to make their concerns known.
As Paine said in Common Sense, it is “time to begin anew.” It is common sense that there be a new approach with respect to the Paine Museum that is in accordance with the City’s history, and the memory of Thomas Paine.
Illustration: portrait of Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos for the purpose of engraving.