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World of Paine

Mar 02, 2012 12:30AM, Published by Community News Service, Categories: Community

By Diccon Hyatt

Bordentown may be the one place in the world where the most progressive of America’s founding fathers gets his due.

After all, most of the great colonial revolutionaries didn’t advocate for abolishing slavery. Most of them never spoke out in favor of women’s rights. Most of them thought only landowners should be allowed to vote.

Many today wave away these shortcomings by saying that abolitionism, feminism and universal suffrage were ideas whose time had not yet come.

But those excuses ring hollow if you read the writings of Thomas Paine, the author of the radical pamphlet “Common Sense” that was the best-seller of 1776. At different times, Paine wrote in favor of women’s rights, fulminated against slavery and proposed a form of government that would have been more democratic than the one that was eventually adopted.

Yet Paine is one of the most overlooked historical figures from that time.

“He was really kind of a forgotten founding father,” said Doug Palmieri, president of the Thomas Paine Society of Bordentown.

Palmieri is one of a handful of citizens who are trying to make sure Paine gets the credit he deserves. The Thomas Paine Society was founded 10 years ago by Bordentown resident Mae Silver to promote the memory of the city’s most famous resident. Paine bought a seven-acre plot of land in Bordentown City and lived there for a time. It was the only land in the world that globetrotting Paine ever purchased. Paine was born in England and lived in Philadelphia, New Jersey and France during his adventuresome life.

Yet Bordentown is one of only two communities in the U.S. and five in the world that have seen fit to honor Paine with a statue.

Palmieri makes a good case that Paine deserves more recognition than he has gotten, in Bordentown and beyond.

Palmieri pointed out that Paine’s pamphlet promoting independence, Common Sense, came at a time when many Americans were “on the fence” about separation from Britain, and when many still wanted to reconcile with the king.

“Common Sense just wiped all that away,” Palmieri said. “Paine went right after the monarchy.”

About 500,000 copies of the inflammatory work were made over the course of the war. Paine’s eloquent rhetoric convinced many Americans that the future of their country should not be as part of the British Empire. Published in 1776, the pamphlet set the ideological tone for the rebels, and made a revolution of what could have been a mere civil war.

Paine even took the profits he made from the pamphlet and gave them to George Washington to buy tents and coats for the soldiers. He marched along with the Continental army in its darkest days, and was there at Valley Forge. The pamphlets he wrote in the Revolution’s first turbulent year, The American Crisis, were so inspirational that Barack Obama quoted them in his 2009 inaugural address.

In the end, Paine died penniless and nearly friendless in a tiny apartment in New York. His bones were dug up, sent back to England and lost. The only statues of him anywhere in the world are in Bordentown; Morristown; New Rochelle, New York; Paris and Thetford, England, his birthplace.

Paine’s radical opinions on a variety of subjects were so far ahead of their time that he became an outcast. A deist, he attacked organized religion, writing in The Age of Reason: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Missionaries pestered him to the end, hoping to convert him to one religion or another.

The qualities that made Paine so hated by the end of his life are what Palmieri admires about him.

“He had the courage of his convictions and he wrote what he liked, and let the chips fall where they may,” Palmieri said.

The Thomas Paine Society of Bordentown is headquarterd in Palmieri’s bookshop at 200 Farnsworth Ave., where there is a bookshelf of Paine’s work for sale. The proceeds from those books benefit the society. Also in the store is a tattered 1776 copy of the second printing of Common Sense.

The society does demonstrations of colonial printing techniques, shows visitors their 1776 Common Sense copy and throws a birthday party for Paine every Jan. 29. Last year, the party included a parade down Farnsworth Avenue, led by Sam Davis, a Chestertown resident and George Washington re-enactor.

Washington was an admirer of Paine, and so is Davis.

“Thomas Paine was very important to General Washington and the cause, so I really believe in what he did and I believe in him as a person who supported the cause of freedom and liberty,” Davis said.

Davis, who has been a member of the society for three years, has proposed moving the statue of Paine to a more prominent location in town. The statue was erected in 1997 by the Bordentown Historical Society where Prince Street dead-ends near the waterfront. Davis said the statue deserves to be in the middle of town where everyone can see it. He has proposed moving it to the coner of Farnsworth and Chesterfield-Bordentown Road.

“I would like to put him out front where everyone could see him and pay homage,” Davis said.

Davis, who is a former history teacher and current disciplinarian at Trenton Central High School, said he has always admired Paine.

“He is truly a true American, even though he wasn’t born here. He gave us the just reason to move on and to combat the rule of England and tyranny.”

Davis also wants to make the birthday celebration bigger and better, and have a Thomas Paine re-enactor next time.

Another member of the society is Debra Cramer, a descendant of Bordentown founder Joseph Borden. Cramer said she was mostly interested in Paine because of his connection to Bordentown, and was interested in preserving his legacy.

Of the physical remnants of Paine’s Farnsworth Ave. property, not much remains. He owned a plot of land with a small cottage on it, but is thought to have rented it out while staying in rooms belonging to a wealthy friend down the street. One wall remains of the building Paine owned which is now a dentist’s office. The cottage may or may not have been moved down the street. An original gazebo stands on the property where Paine stayed.

To Cramer, it is obvious that Paine’s legacy has been sadly neglected. She said when she quizzed her daughter about her elementary school history classes, she was saddened to learn that Paine was never even mentioned.

Palmieri said the Thomas Paine society has had only modest activities in the last several years for financial reasons. It had a resurgence in 2009 when Obama read Paine’s words to the whole nation, but has dwindled since then, he said.

Davis said he hoped to raise more money this year and make something of a comeback. It’s the least that today’s Americans could do to honor one of the most ahead-of-his-time founding fathers.

“He deserves all the respect in the world because he was probably the first person who fought for civil rights,” Davis said.

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