"Thomas Paine", 1791, by Laurent Dabos (National Portrait Gallery, London)
When Thomas Paine died in June 1809 only a dozen people came to his funeral. The burial service was held in Westchester County near the 250-acre farm gifted to Paine by the people of the state of New York in gratitude for his role in stirring the American Revolution. The site of Paine’s funeral wasn’t hard to find or difficult to travel to, yet not a single political leader attended.
Historian Richard Bell examines Paine’s meteoric rise to celebrity status during the American Revolution and his equally dramatic fall from grace in the decades afterward. Bell illuminates Paine’s humble origins and his extraordinary gifts for political argument. He explains why Paine’s Common Sense (1776) sold so many copies, and why so many people have since credited that little 46-page pamphlet with catalyzing a mass movement driven by the cause of independence.
Bell also explores the surprisingly bitter backlash Paine experienced when he later published the 1791 manifesto Right of Man in support of the social and political extremism of the French Revolution, and the Age of Reason, his 1794 defense of deism, reason, and free thought. Once lionized as our most relatable and revolutionary founding father, according to Bell, Paine died a pariah, too radical and uncompromising for the cautious new country he had helped call into being.
This program is presented in advance of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards on November 29.
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