Linton’s Comments on Paine’s Habits

To the Editor of SCRIBNER’S MONTHLY:

SIR: The extensive circulation of SCRIBNER'S MONTHLY may, I hope, be

sufficient reason for your allowing me to correct a statement in your columns which is likely to produce a false impression.

The statement for which I complain is in the following sentence, at page 32 of the number for November, 1880, volume XXI., number I, article “Bordentown and the Bonapartes”: “His (Paine’s) favorite resort was the bar-room of the Washington House, and the visitors to that ancient hostelry are told that nothing but brandy and atheism passed his lips.” This is said to have been “during a period of several years”; and nothing in the context alters the bearing of the sentence. Of course I cannot dispute the statement of such tales being told to the Washington-House visitors: I only deny the truth of the tales.

Paine was neither brandy-drinker (implied drunkard) nor atheist. Against the atheism his own works are sufficient evidence. Throughout his writings, especially in the “Age of Reason” and his “Thoughts on a Future State”, is proof that, although not a believer in Christianity or the Bible, he was a steady theist, - what in those days was known as a deist, - as distinct from the Unitarian, who accepts the authority while denying the divinity of Christ. In his will, Paine expressly directs that his adopted sons shall be instructed in their duty to God.”

For his brandy-bibbing there is as little warrant as for the atheism. I have before me a letter of his, to a friend intending to visit him (it is dated some years later than the bar-room period, but there is no record of any variation in his habits), in which he says:

“When you come you must take such fare as you meet with, for I live upon tea, milk, fruit, pies, plain dumplings, and a piece of meat when I get it; but I live with that retirement and quiet that suits me.”

In truth, these aspersions of atheism and brandy, like the insolent appellation “Tom Paine” (to which even your contributor stoops, though he does not write Joe Hopkinson nor Jack Adams), deliberately intended to cloak him with an atmosphere of vulgarity, are but proofs of the reckless blackguardism of polemical writers of Paine’s time. It is not at the present more courteous day, at least not in America, that the author of “Common Sense” should be so treated.

Forty years ago I was employed to write Paine’s “Life”. Knowing nothing of the man, I was careful to examine everything I could find for or against him. I was also in communication with men who had known him personally. I found him to be that typical Englishman, honest, courageous, and constant, a lover of justice, a man of the real Old and New England stamp, religious according to his light, it may be pugnacious in attacking what to him seemed error, but at least more tolerant than his opponents, benevolent, and generous. Born of the lower classes, with only a grammar-school education, he must have made something of himself, must have also acquired some decency of behavior, to become the friend of Franklin, Jefferson, and Lafayette, and for a time the companion of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, living in the same house with him in Paris. Of him, Lord Edward writes, October 30, 1792, no such great while after the accustomed visits to the Bordentown bar:

“I lodge with my friend Paine. We breakfast, dine, and sup together. The more I see of his interior, the more I like and respect him. I cannot express how kind he is to me. There is a simplicity of manners, a goodness of heart, and a strength of mind in him that I never knew a man before possess.”

So also Colonel Burr, who knew him after his return to America; and who replied to an inquirer as to Paine’s habits (it was the inquirer himself who informed me), “Sir, he dined at my table”; adding: “I always considered Mr. Paine a gentleman, a pleasant companion, and a good-natured and intelligent man; decidedly temperate, with a proper regard to his personal appearance, whenever I saw him.”

Yes; this man, still pointed out to abhorrence as a coarse, brawling, brandy-tippling reviler of religion, was indeed a gentleman, a high-souled man of genius and philanthropic purpose, a man of remarkable probity and disinterestedness, a notably good man; and known now in the mud flung at him by calumniators, and heaped again by those who care not to learn the truth concerning him.

W.J. Linton