Monday, May 2, 2011

The account of Thomas Paine's drunkenness by American portrait painter John Wesley Jarvis.

 In consideration of a recent question:

"Both Fruchtman and Keane mention Jarvis's account of Paine's drinking.
What's your opinion of Jarvis's assertions? Does Kaye get into it?"
The answer to this question goes all the way back to Cheetham's attack-bio of Paine -- yes, the one that he published immediately after Paine's death in order to avoid a libel or slander suit that Paine had threatened. In his malicious and defamatory biography, Cheetham wrote:
 "He did not constantly drink to excess, yet he frequently got excessively tipsy. Once Mr. Jarvis knew him to abstain from liquor two weeks. He had fits of intoxication, and when these came on, he would sit up at night, tippling until he fell off his chair. Disposed to listen to his conversation, Mr. Jarvis sat with him one night from twelve to three, doing all he politely could to keep him sober. At three he left him at his bottle. At four he returned to the room and found him drunk on the floor. Mr. Jarvis wished to raise him up, but Paine desired to lie still. I have vertigo, the vertigo, said he. Yes, said Mr. Jarvis, taking up the bottle and looking at its diminished contents, you have it deep -- deep!" [Cheetham, Life of Thomas Paine, 274-5]

Now, Jack Fruchtman wrote that "Jarvis thought he [Paine - author] sometimes drank too heavily, although he never accused him of being an alcoholic or drunkard." Jarvis was abstemious and religious, so he probably thought ANY elevated drinking was too much. And besides, as we shall see further along, Jarvis strongly repudiated Cheetham's account. What is interesting here is that Fruchtmans only citation for his allegation that "Jarvis thought he sometimes drank too heavily" was the Paine biography of Gilbert Vale [p.153] which makes no like proposition and it was Gilbert Vale who, more than any Paine biographer, repudiated the mythology of Paine's supposed drunkenness. While this would be loose scholarship in a more academic context, Fruchtman's bio is a popular work and cited more loosely as is characteristic of the genre.
John Keane's biography of Paine is perhaps the most intensively researched and cited of all Paine biographies and I have written elsewhere that it is an indispensable work for the library of any Paine scholar or enthusiast. It is not, however, without difficulties -- one of which is his frequent use of Cheetham's attack-biography without disclosure of its use or citation to Cheetham. I have documented a number of places where Keane resorted to Cheetham's account without disclosure or citation. The present account is one of them. On page 524 of his biography he repeated Cheetham's account almost word-for-word .... without any citation for his source. Did he simply overlook the citation to Cheetham's account? Keane's persistent use of Cheetham in his biography without attribution certainly gives the impression of a more systemic oversight or systematic omission. 

Cheetham's biography is not now nor has it ever been reliable. Cheetham was a convicted and notorious libeler who was in fact successfully sued for slander based on this very work. There is little doubt that he wrote his bio of Paine in order to curry favor with British Tories and American Federalists-- Cheetham fled to Britain largely in order to escape further lawsuits. Madame Bonneville, who Cheetham accused of having fathered at least one child by Paine, successfully sued Cheetham in an American court so hostile to Paine that the judge commented on the beneficial  effect he thought Cheetham's biography produced on the morals of society. 
 More importantly, Jarvis himself repudiated the entire account as related by Cheetham. The great American portraitist -- who painted, drew and sculpted some of our finest images of Paine -- lived until 1839. He was known for his wit, conversation and integrity -- and Gilbert Vale knew him personally. Vale was an experienced journalist and scholarly researcher whose investigation of the "black legend" of Paine's supposed drunkenness led him ultimately to write his own Life of Thomas Paine [1839]. Vale, whose credibility is without question, wrote that 
"Here he [Paine] soon recovered, and he and Mr. Jarvis became good companions; the one the greatest wit of the age, and the other, though now an old man, not deficient in sprightly thoughts or conversation , and abounding in information. Mr. Jarvis still speaks of their agreeable companionship with much gust, and relates a number of anecdotes highly characteristic; and he positively denies to us the language ascribed to him by Cheetham. As Mr. Jarvis was at this time in good circumstances, and received Mr. Paine as a companion, the Cheetham stories of Mr. Paine's dirtiness kill themselves, for it is absurd to suppose Mr. Jarvis would have had such a companion." 

In fine then, all of the accounts of Jarvis' testimony to Paine's drunkenness devolve on the discredited, litigated, and personally repudiated -- by Jarvis himself -- account of James Cheetham, the lying Tory expatriate.

© Kenneth W. Burchell 2011, All Rights Reserved.


  1. Great article. I always have trouble with people assuming Paine was a drunk (among other things) based on these citations. It's great that you have spelled it out. It also tells us something about history and how lies have a tendency to be repeating down through history, sometimes intentionally sometimes unintentionally. This is exactly the subject of something I am writng for our Paine's Pamphlet Newletter which is meant to explain the purpose of our Thomas Paine Library which will be to offer books about and by Paine but also books contradicting the accepted history or with different view of history. Would it be possible to include your article in the newsletter with an attribution to you?
    Best wishes,

    Alaine Lowell
    Executive Director, Thomas Paine Society

  2. Hi. No, even though he was related in some way to Methodist founder, John Wesley, I don’t think a contemporary would call artist John Wesley Jarvis “abstemious.” At best, when he knew Paine, Jarvis was a “bohemian bon vivant,” but, by the time he was called to provide recollections of Paine, he was notoriously dissipated. Nonetheless, the point was that, being slightly outrageous, he was considered honest.

    Actually, I’m of the opinion that one doesn’t have to be an agnostic amid all the conflicting evidence about Paine’s drinking. When one carefully sorts through it, it does seem to fit into patterns. I find little to doubt that Paine could be considered an alcoholic in the late 1790s, as he was recovering (and relapsing) from his prison illness. There’s quite a bit of reliable testimony and inferences to this, plus Paine’s own admission to his friend Clio Rickman upon leaving Europe in 1802. What seems equally clear is that he returned to the United States as a recovered (or “recovering,” to use the modern term) alcoholic, a testimony to his overall resilience. Did Paine slip a bit in his last years in New York and New Rochelle? Perhaps a bit, but I think it was more of a question of his having such a reputation and looking the part, rather than consistent heavy drinking in his old age.

    Mariam Touba
    Reference Librarian
    New-York Historical Society

  3. Miriam, your comments appreciated as always. Thanks to Cheetham, other Federalists and clerical enemies, this question will probably always follow Paine around. Like Gilbert Vale, I believe the evidence indicates that Paine drank at about the rate typical for his period -- perhaps a bit less -- and find the evidence for excess unconvincing. If Paine drank a bit more after watching his friends led off to the guillotine, I believe it reasonable to be neither surprised nor critical. That's all the Rickman reference alludes to. With respect to Jarvis, avante garde dress does not equal bibulous excess, but I could easily be mistaken -- I'm no specialist on him -- but I seem to remember Vale (again) saying that Jarvis' reputation was for sobriety. You comment reminds me, though. I've been planning to acquire a bio of Jarvis and do some reading on him!! Thanks again -- your views are always thoughtful and welcome.

  4. Thanks, but I have another comment (I spend a lot of time with these old New Yorkers): James Cheetham may have thought of returning to England, but he died suddenly in New York in September 1810, not long after losing the libel case and losing valuable political patronage from Clinton clan.

  5. Served him right! But his damnable book lives on. There's a lesson here somewhere.

    And apologies for the misspell on your given name!! 8^(

  6. In Cheetham's recounting , it mentions a Mary Dean having an altercation with Paine in the house that she and her husband ( Andrew Dean , to whom Paine had written a famous letter and with whom Paine had often parked the Bonneville kids)rented from Paine. Paine had been abusive to Mary Dean's daughter, Chastity Dean and Mary, having had enough of Dean's behavior , went at him . This Mary Dean was my great great great grandaunt, sister to my 3rd great grandfather, Andrew Renoud/Arnow. Also, the young lad that was present when the attempt was made on Paine's life was William Dean , Mary's son.

  7. Jon, thanks for your comment and for sharing your family genealogy. The fact is that Cheetham was a convicted libeler and an infamous liar. None of us were there, but given Paine's record of decency and humanity, I believe it very unlikely that he behaved in any way improperly towards any of the Deanes. The letter you mention, written to Mr. Deane, was penned JUST before Paine's death ... at the end of his life ... and he addressed Andrew Deane is the warmest and most cordial terms calling him "respected friend," "my friend," and "yours in friendship" while noting their cordial relationship in his letter. The contents of the letter indicate that Mr. Deane was left in some kind of charge or overseer capacity over the Bonneville children ... perhaps Mrs. Bonneville, too. So there must have been a good deal of trust and respect between them. It also seems perfectly clear that whatever incident the libeler Cheetham (Paine called him "cheat 'em") fixed upon, Cheetham most likely selectively quoted or outright misquoted Mrs. Deane ... as he did so many.


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