One Life: Thomas Paine, the Radical Founding Father at the National Portrait Gallery

This “One Life” exhibition will be located in a single gallery devoted to Thomas Paine (1737–1809). Two hundred years ago, on June 8, 1809, Paine, scorned by his old associates and fallen from popularity, died in poverty. However, 33 years earlier, Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” had inspired Americans to declare independence. His exhortation, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” invigorated General George Washington’s dispirited troops in December 1776.

Thomas PaineThis exhibition tells the tumultuous life story of Paine through paintings, engravings, documents and caricatures and includes the Portrait Gallery’s recently acquired portrait of Paine by the French artist Laurent Dabos. Other images illustrate how prominent caricaturists of the period depicted Paine, while copies of his most important publications, the inexpensive pamphlets that were passed hand to hand, demonstrate how the documents influenced American culture at the time. These items are on loan from the American Antiquarian Society, the American Philosophical Society and the Library of Congress.

The story in the exhibition begins when Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774; continues through his years in England, where his anti-monarchy diatribe, the “Rights of Man,” brought charges of seditious libel; and continues to revolutionary France, where he barely escaped the guillotine and penned “The Age of Reason,” a bold attack on organized religion. His story ends in New York with a painting by John Wesley Jarvis depicting a defiant-looking Paine. Even though 2009 marks the 200th year since his death, Paine’s writings continue to influence American culture and politics. His words were evoked by Ronald Reagan as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and by Barack Obama in his 2009 inaugural address.

Thomas Paine (February 9, 1737 – June 8, 1809) was an author, pamphleteer, revolutionary, radical, inventor, intellectual and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was born in England and lived and worked there until age 37, when he emigrated to the British American colonies, in time to participate in the American Revolution. His principal contributions were the powerful, widely-read pamphlet Common Sense (1776), advocating colonial America’s independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and The American Crisis (1776–1783), a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series.

Later, Paine greatly influenced the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), a guide to Enlightenment ideas. Despite not speaking French, he was elected to the French National Convention in 1792. The Girondists regarded him as an ally, so, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, regarded him as an enemy. In December of 1793, he was arrested and imprisoned in Paris, then released in 1794. He became notorious because of The Age of Reason (1793–94), the book advocating deism and arguing against institutionalized religion, Christian doctrines, and promoted reason and freethinking, for which he would become derided in America.

In France, he also wrote the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income.

Paine remained in France during the early Napoleonic era, but condemned Napoleon’s dictatorship, calling him “the completest charlatan that ever existed”. At President Jefferson’s invitation, in 1802 he returned to America.

Thomas Paine died at 59 Grove Street, Greenwich Village, New York City on June 8, 1809 at the age of 72. Ostracized for his religious views, only six people attended his funeral. He was buried at what is now called the Thomas Paine Cottage in New Rochelle, New York, where he had lived after returning to the USA in 1802. His remains were later disinterred by an admirer, William Cobbett, who sought to return them to the UK and give him a heroic reburial on his native soil. The bones were, however, later lost and his final resting place today is unknown.

National Portrait Gallery
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Image: Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), oil painting by en:Auguste Millière (1880), after an engraving by William Sharp, after a portrait by George Romney (1792). 16 x 12 inches (406 x 305 mm). National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 897