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Letters to American History: April '00 Letters

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2000 
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THE REAL THOMAS PAINE?

In his article on Thomas Paine ("Revolution with Pen & Ink," February 2000), William Kashatus is to be lauded for shedding some light on the enormous role Thomas Paine played in the American Revolution–a role shamefully ignored in this country. The author is quite correct in depicting a man dedicated to revolution and the liberty of the common man.

Mr. Kashatus falls into the trap that has caught many a historian, however, a trap set by the monarchists and British agents more than 200 years ago. With the exception of an excellent biography to be published this year by Harvey Kaye, all recent biographies of Paine repeat the gross slanders used by Britain and Paine's anti-democratic enemies in America.

Paine did not "care little about his appearance"; he was always neatly dressed, managing to be the guest of the richest men wherever he went. The man who looked after him late in life, Mr. Staple, said, "he was always clean and well-clothed." Paine was not "hardened from years of drinking"; his drinking was a lie spread by his enemies and carried on by lazy historians. He was not "temperamental, obnoxious . . . and difficult to like"; in fact, he was just the opposite. His close friends, including Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson, held him in the highest regard as a man of great principle.

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How does this misinformation come to be so often regurgitated? Through articles like Mr. Kashatus' that take the vicious attacks and slanders of monarchists and elitists against the man who threatened their positions and make them "fact."

The characterization by Mr. Kashatus that "Paine wasn't a constitutional theorist" also requires correction. He had as much to do with creating the modern democratic states as tearing down the old monarchists ones. He was the main writer of the French Constitution and had a major role in the Pennsylvania Constitution, which became a model for other American constitutions. His works on government were in fact the backbone of the age of democratic revolutions, works copied by men like Jefferson. There were indeed conflicts over unicameral legislatures and other provisions defeated by the Federalists, but these conflicts represented not "a dismal failure" of Paine but a struggle to implement the mechanisms of democracy that at times came up short.

Paine's troubles with the ruling elite began not when he wrote The Age of Reason but when he wrote Common Sense, when men like John Witherspoon and John Adams attacked him for daring to speak about equality and democracy. Adams is portrayed in this article as the wise sage, but in fact he came down against democracy and therefore against much of what Paine stood for. When they couldn't defeat the ideas, they attacked the man with false and vicious lies.

The time is approaching when Paine will stand not only as a preeminent founder of the democratic tradition in this country but the philosophical and theoretical leader of the age of democratic revolutions–an age still unfolding.

Gary Berton
President, Thomas Paine National
Historical Association
New Rochelle, New York

 

William C. Kashatus replies: Gary Berton raises serious questions about accuracy in the interpretation of Thomas Paine's life and writings. The fundamental issue concerns the ability to distinguish the real Tom Paine from nearly two centuries of slander that have been thrust upon his reputation, beginning shortly after his death in 1809. Underlying Mr. Berton's criticism is a basic misreading of my essay. He apparently believes that my intention is to perpetuate the "vicious attacks and slanders" of Paine's anti-democratic enemies in Britain and America. In fact, I distance myself from those critics time and again, not only acknowledging Paine's unique role in "mobilizing popular support for the American cause," but celebrating his "powerful expression of the American mind" as well as his "faith in the ability of the common people to determine their own political destiny."

When Paine made a conscious effort to dress and behave respectfully, he could be quite the gentleman, as Mr. Berton claims. However, there are just as many accounts that identify his unattractive appearance and intemperate nature. For example, the Marquis de Chastellux, who visited Paine in 1780, remarked that his "dress was in much disorder," and he was wearing a "wig more tattered than glorious." Even Madame Bonneville, who cared for Paine during his final years, remarked in 1802 that "drinking spirits has made his entire face as red as fire and his habits of life have rendered him so neglectful in his person that he is generally the most abominably dirty being upon the face of this earth." These accounts were not written by Paine's anti-democratic enemies but rather by individuals who greatly admired his thinking.

Mr. Berton also insists that Paine was a constitutional theorist of the first order having "much to do with creating the modern democratic state." In fact, Paine's emphasis on a simple unicameral structure of government not only challenged the basic constitutional paradigm upon which our federal constitution was created but was soundly rejected by Gouverneur Morris, one of the designers of that constitution, as a "crapulous idea."

While I, too, admire Thomas Paine, as a professional historian I also have a responsibility to address the complete individual, not just the commendable aspects of his life.

William C. Kashatus
Chester County Historical Society
West Chester, Pennsylvania

ON THE TRAIL IN

NEW JERSEY

In your brief notice about the Millennium Trails ("History Today," December 1999), you mentioned only the American Discovery Trail and Boston's Freedom Trail. I want to call your attention to the historical riches of New Jersey's millennium trail, the Highlands Trail. Intended to link the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, the Highlands Trail is about two-thirds of the way to its goal.

Iron mining and smelting were major industries in the New Jersey Highlands during Revolutionary times and into the nineteenth century, spurring the development of canals and railroads. The Highlands Trail passes major sites, including Long Pond Ironworks, and dozens of smaller mines and exploratory pits. It follows a section of the nineteenth-century Morris Canal and the High Bridge Branch of the Jersey Central Railroad. In addition, the trail passes close to Ringwood Manor, one of many New Jersey residences used as headquarters by George Washington during the Revolution. Hikers also pass dozens of old stone walls that indicate the former agricultural nature of the forested land.

Bob Moss
Chairman, Highlands Trail Committee
New York, New York

 

LEFT-HANDED COMPLIMENT

The photomontage of the century is certainly interesting and moving (February 2000). It is regrettable that the artist mistakenly pictured two great athletes, Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King, as left-handed.

Jon H. Hammer
Tarrytown, New York

Editor's reply: It's true that, for compositional reasons, artist David Peters reversed the images of Robinson and King (though he did switch back the "B" on Robinson's cap and the number on his jersey).

 

WRONG HOCKERSMITH

I read with interest your story of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan's escape from an Ohio jail ("The Great Escape," February 2000). Your account named one of the escapees as Captain James Hockersmith, but the soldier involved in the escape was, in fact, Captain Lorenzo Dow Hockersmith. I have a booklet written by Captain L.D. Hockersmith of his adventures while riding with Morgan. There was no James Hockersmith with the Morgan Raiders. There was a James Hockersmith, brother of Captain L.D. Hockersmith, but he rode with the Union 10th Kentucky Cavalry.

As a member of the Hockersmith family, I update our family genealogy on a regular basis and have in my possession the official Confederate record of Captain L.D. Hockersmith.

La Wanda Hockersmith Douglas
East Prairie, Missouri

Editor's reply: Ms. Douglas is right. We regret the error, which was introduced during editing. *



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