The Trouble With Tom

The Strange Afterlife And Times of Thomas Paine

by Paul Collins

Hardcover, 278 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Title
The Trouble With Tom
Subtitle
The Strange Afterlife And Times of Thomas Paine
Author
Paul Collins

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Book Summary

Follows the trail of the corpse of the author of "Common Sense," who was shunned as an infidel by the church, buried in an open field on a New York farm, and whose body was later dug up and moved to Britain years later by a well-meaning admirer who never got around to burying the remains.

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Excerpt: The Trouble With Tom

Chapter One The End

A taxi speeds through the rain, dashing water up onto the sidewalks of Bleecker Street like a flume ride. I run around the corner up to Grove and duck under the awning of number 59. It's a handsome building-devilishly handsome. If it were a man, and if I were gay, I'd have a crush on it.

Open its door and a swell of piano chords roar out into the downpour: "Raindrops on roses!" comes the cry from within. Creaking wooden steps descend into a low-ceilinged room packed with a mass of men and women-but mostly men-and twinkling over the bald and balding heads, as well as some immaculately groomed ones, there are glittering strings of electric Christmas tree lights. The swelling chorus of drunken voices bellow at a trim, dapper fellow banging away on a ploinkety old red piano:

... and whiskers on kittens, Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, Brown paper packages tied up with strings- These are a few of my favorite things.

The squeeze through the crowd toward the bar takes several minutes, and I catch a tiny squall of conversation between just about the only two men not belting out in their best baritone voices.

"I was innocent back then," one stirs his drink.

"Yeah," the other snorts. "Right."

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels; Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles;

I finally reach the polished wooden bar.

"What can I get you?"

Wild geese that fly with

"I'll have ..."

the moon on their wings-

"What?"

"I'll ..."

These are a few of my favorite things.

"Can't hear you."

I resort to telegraphing between syllables of singing, yelling:

"I. Want."

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,

"A. Hein. Eh. Ken."

"Oh. Kay."

He takes a couple more orders, and my beer arrives as the song ends in a final crashing chord and a cacophony of applause.

"Thanks." I hastily count out from my wallet. "Hey, I'm trying to find out a little about this building. Its history."

"It's got plenty of that."

"Yeah. I ..."

"There's a plaque out front, and ..."

I get no kick from champagne!

He finishes his sentence soundlessly beneath the barrage and gives a helpless shrug at the music. I ford upstream through knot after knot of men, drinking my beer wide-eyed. It's like one of those festive bar crowds you only see in old black-and-white movies: men hanging off each other and raising glasses and warbling. I'm probably the only guy here who doesn't know all the lyrics being sung, and the place keeps filling impossibly with even more people.

Several songs later I've drained my beer, and half trip over a stranger's shoes, out into the cold night air. It's stopped raining; a few stray drips shake down from the awning in a gust, and I crouch in the darkness to squint at the brass plate bolted into the brick wall of the ancient building.

THOMAS PAINE born 1737 died 1809 On this site. All Mankind Is My Country. To Do Good Is My Religion. I Believe in One God And No More. This plaque placed here by the Greenwich Village Historical Society June 9, 1923

It stares out into the darkness, as if to really say: what strange ends we come to.

It's a bar called Marie's Crisis now. Who'd imagine this as the place where his life came to a halt? There might have been so many other endings for the firebrand Common Sense rebel of 1776, the radical on the run from execution in London, the senator of revolutionary France. Paine alone claims a key role in the development of three modern democracies. He was a walking revolution in human form-the most dangerous man alive. But dead? The plaque here could be for anybody, anybody at all: a forgotten minister, perhaps, or long-dead mayor.

The letters of the sign drip with the windblown remains of the rain. My Country.

I turn and survey Grove Street in the darkness. Around here is the old Greenwich Village, a vision of New York in respectable brownstone, brick and wrought iron, the city you imagine from faded lithographs. And yet even here, things quietly change. All sorts of businesses have been housed in this building over the centuries; before this plaque was attached to 59 Grove Street, the place was a delicatessen. Imagine that: Edwardians buying ham sandwiches and deviled eggs where a Founding Father once fell. It's almost as strange as belting out show tunes over the spot.

But this is indeed where he died. It wasn't for a lack of trying at other addresses. I guess you could say that Thomas Paine has died over and over. He has died innumerable times in effigy at gatherings in the English countryside; he had the visage of his corpse stamped into British coins; his imminent death predicted among bloodthirsty French mobs, foreseen in the apartment of James Madison and in the back room of a New York baker, and witnessed in the boarding rooms of Grove Street. Some people have lived everywhere, but Thomas Paine is altogether more rare. He has died everywhere.

The old man sat by a front window in Greenwich Village, visible from the street, watching the world and the country he had created passing him by. Here he sat: he who was the first to coin the phrase United States of America; who made from his own pocket the first deposit in what became the Federal Reserve; who shivered at Valley Forge, using a drumhead as a desk, penning the words These are the times that try men's souls. He who had made the country, and baptized it. The most hated man in America.

The country's rebellion eventually ended, but Paine's never did. After the Revolution he'd moved back to London to work as an entrepreneur, only to find that he could no longer view his old country in the same light. He wrote to George Washington in 1791: "I began to feel myself happy in being quiet; but I now experience that principle is not confined to Time or place, and that the ardour of seventy-six is capable of renewing itself." The monarchy chafed at him still, and so he rubbed the royal nose into The Rights of Man-a new Common Sense to prod the English into overthrowing their king. This time the troublesome Paine was chased to the Dover docks, and carried aloft at the other side of the Channel by the cheering revolutionaries of France.

But then he attacked the wrong sort of king.

He'd been in poor health for years, ever since nearly dying in a French prison at the height of the Terror. And now the old man was suffering from a series of strokes. He was arthritic, abscessed, tired. Tired of being attacked by gout, tired of being attacked by the slow rot of sores and ulcers, tired of being attacked by everybody and everything all the time. Of all the books and pamphlets he'd written, it was really just one that had done the damage: The Age of Reason. He wasn't attacking every God in it, he always hastened to point out to enraged evangelical Christians-just their God. "Belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man," he explained. He'd been raised a Quaker, after all: like many Friends, he simply sought a gentler and more rational moral system of good works. But Paine returned to America in 1802 to find roads placarded with portraits of him being seized by the devil. Back at his farm in New Rochelle, Paine was denied the vote by a county registrar who contemptuously informed him that he was "not American." The registrar clearly had a fine sense of irony, seeing as how he himself had been a Tory during the war. Renting out his upstate farm for desperately needed cash, the ailing Paine began staying with sympathetic friends in the city in 1805-and perhaps had taken to, as one friend grieved, looking for "consolation in the sordid, solitary bottle."

Well, not so solitary these days: I hear a slipped glass smash on the floor inside the bar, followed by mocking applause and a rim-shotting blorp off the piano. This house at what is now 59 Grove Street-there was neither grove nor street back then-this was merely the final deathbed of many. When he first arrived and was casting about for a place to stay, Paine helped himself to the guest room at the home of local religious reformer Elihu Palmer. Palmer was delighted to have his hero as a guest. But Paine, the reformer warned a mutual friend, was not long for this world-"His health I think is declining."

Palmer died six months later. Paine kept living.

As reformers are prone to do, Palmer died nearly broke; his widow had to sell off their furniture, and joined Paine to cram into the house of an old acquaintance over on 36 Cedar Street. Paine was lonely and needed nursing, as the widow Palmer scrawled in a September 1806 letter: "He says I must never leave him while he lives he is now comfortable but so lame he cannot walk nor git into bed without the help of two men."

He did still have some visitors to break up his loneliness, though. His old friend John Stewart was in the city for a while, and-how time was changing him! Strange to think of all that had passed since their days together in London, reading the day's papers and philosophizing until the wee hours of the morning at the White Bear coffeehouse on Piccadilly. Back in 1790, Stewart had been perhaps the only man in London who could draw more stares than Paine himself. Tall, muscular, and exotic, Stewart had lived the kind of life found only in adventure fiction. He'd shipped out to Madras as a young clerk for the East India Company in 1763, only to decide that-as he announced brusquely in a letter to company directors-he was "born for nobler pursuits than to be a copier of invoices and bills of lading to a company of grocers, haberdashers, and cheese-mongers." And he was right: joining an Indian prince as a secretary, he rose through the ranks to become an army general and a prime minister-before, incredibly, throwing it all over to walk on foot through the mountains of Persia and Turkey, the deserts of Arabia and Egypt, deep into Ethiopia and into the terra incognita of central Africa, and then back around the Adriatic and Mediterranean to Paris. When he reached London, he was dubbed by the incredulous press "Walking Stewart." Never was there a more apt name; for he later hiked through Lapland and down into central Asia, and after sailing to New York walked all the way down to Paraguay. Walking Stewart became, as his friend Thomas De Quincey put it, the first circumambulator of the globe. Stewart attributed his survival to two things that struck anyone else back then as incomprehensible: a vegetarian diet, and an utter refusal to ever carry a weapon.

Yes, they'd made quite a pair back then. Paine, a failed grocer and customs officer who had moved to America and overthrown the monarchy, and Stewart, who paraded through Piccadilly in Armenian garb, his mannerisms mixed with those of all the exotic lands he'd walked through, and his speech and accent now a mlange from the innumerable languages he'd learned. It was muttered among onlookers that Paine had become some sort of inventor, going about trying to sell iron bridges-and Stewart, well, nobody knew quite what to make of him at all. The man wouldn't talk of his fantastic travels; instead, he was always distributing bizarre pamphlets he'd privately printed, bearing titles like The Roll of a Tennis Ball Through the Moral World. The few who could read past their strange diction and publication date-for Stewart had invented his own calendar-found all sorts of curious ideas inside. Stewart found it incomprehensible that women put up with child care, and believed the state should establish daytime nurseries so that mothers and fathers might work or improve their minds. He saw nothing wrong with prostitution, and considered it a typical city business like lamp-lighting or driving a taxi, indeed, he saw little wrong with sex, and so believed that there should be "promiscuous intercourse ... that the population might not become redundant."

And now, as they sat aged in Manhattan, Paine and his old friend still warmly disagreed on many issues: Walking Stewart had always been dubious of Paine's cries for overthrowing kings, and he thought Paine's support for voting rights was absurd. What would it come to, Stewart scoffed-giving the vote to women and apprentices as well? And while Stewart was a confirmed atheist, Paine still believed in a God-in an animating moral force, if you will-he just didn't believe in the Bible or in clergy.

But they were both misunderstood geniuses of a sort; Paine found his books banned in England and despised in America, and Stewart brooded over the fate of his own pamphlets as well. He had a notion, he said, of preserving them for posterity. Stewart bid his readers, when done reading him, to bury his books in their gardens at a depth of seven or eight feet. They were to tell no one else of the location; but then, on their deathbeds, they were to breathe the secret to a trusted few. These fellows would keep the secret burial place until their deathbeds years later, and would communicate it again-down through the centuries, and the millennia, a secret society of philosophers passing down at death the sacred memory of the locations of Stewart's writings. Oh-the Circumambulator then feared-but what if someday my works prove unreadable because the English language itself has moldered away by then? He thereupon decided that first his readers should translate the works into Latin, then bury them.

Paine watched his strange friend return to England. Poor John! A traveling ascetic whose only real pleasure had been in music-the man was going deaf now. Their times were drawing near ... too near, in fact. Word came back from across the ocean months later that Stewart's ship had been dashed to pieces on its way to Liverpool. It sounded like he hadn't survived, hadn't even had the chance to pass on his secret burial spots to his brotherhood.

Paine waited and gazed out the windows of Cedar Street. When? When would it be his turn? He had his usual modest supper of bread and butter, and then climbed the weary stairs yet again, when ... when ... he had the sensation of a bullet passing through his head: his body crumpled and toppled down the stairs, and he lay lifeless on the floor, with neither pulse nor breath.

Not yet.

Death came: but then it went away. He resumed breathing, and his brain-struck not by a bullet, but by a stroke-began to register sights and sounds again. What was curious about the whole experience, Paine marveled afterward, was how calm he felt.

His host felt rather less philosophical about it all. Instead of dying like a gentleman, Paine was lingering on and on. By the time the old rebel left in November 1806, his former friend was so irritated that he dunned Paine for twenty-two weeks of back rent.

If you wanted to transport yourself back to a precise time and place for the birth of American culture-that is, of North American art distinct from that of Europe-you might find yourself passing the ailing Paine on these streets one cold Saturday afternoon in 1807. On January 24 of that year, the first issue of a brilliantly insouciant new magazine hit the streets of Manhattan: Salmagundi, its title page read. It immediately declared on its first page that it would give no hint of its staffs identity. "It is nobody's business," it proclaimed, snapping its fingers in readers' faces. No matter: few had heard of the puckish young Washington Irving anyway. His subscribers read delightedly about the doings and sayings of nearly everyone of note in Manhattan, and the first number wasted no time in skewering the fashions of the season. "I was, however, much pleased to see that red maintained its ground against all other colors," the fashion column dryly commented, before wickedly explaining: "because red is the color of Mr. Jefferson's *****, Tom Paine's nose, and my slippers."

As the founding smartasses of American literature came gloriously alive that winter day, the elderly subject of their derision was slowly dying. His nose grew ever more red and disfigured with a skin condition that gossips ascribed, only half unfairly, to brandy. Local children running underfoot sang:

Tom Paine is coming from far, from far; His nose is like a blazing start!

(Continues...)