Sunday, August 5, 2012

Was Thomas Paine depressed, drunk and diseased?

A 2011 article on a BBC website claims that

"Paine ... died in miserable circumstances in New York in 1809, having spent his last years in America often depressed, drunk and diseased."

The author of the BBC article is not the first historian to accept the common nineteenth-century account of Paine's circumstances and passing at the end of his life. Most of Paine's chief biographers -- including Conway, Keane and others -- have repeated it with little amelioration or critical analysis.

My reading of the historical data is that history and historians have fallen for what amounts to anti-Paine propaganda popularized in the Federalist and conservative press before, during and subsequent to Paine's death.

The fact is that Paine died a wealthy man. Paine's biographers have documented his financial worth at between $11,500.00 and $15,000.00 US at the time of his death ... a substantial amount at that time. Land accounted for about $10,000.00 of it, as I recall, but he was far from poor.

Nor was he any more or less alone than any of us are at the time of death.

Many of Paine's closest friends and associates were guillotined in the French Revolution and others died of old age and illness before him. He lived to a ripe old age in spite of serious infirmity brought
about by the ruination of his health during imprisonment. There is no reason to believe that he was  more "depressed" than any other elderly, dying person. In fact, those who actually knew him during the period spoke of his clarity, kindness, resignation and firmness of mind.

Nobody who actually knew him says he was drunken.

That accusation comes solely from his political enemies, chiefly James Cheetham whose notorious attack biography of Paine was an early milestone in yellow journalism. In the early 1800s, the story of Paine's drunkenness was so nearly universal that his early biographer Gilbert Vale accepted it when he first set out to write a biography. But in the course of research for his Life of Thomas Paine, Vale met many persons who actually knew Paine (John Fellows, Aaron Burr, the artist John Wesley Jarvis among them) and universally denied the allegation that Paine was drunken, filthy or particularly diseased. If you've not read Vale's account, it is a fascinating read.

Paine drank far less than either Washington or Jefferson. And yet we find no accounts of "Washington's filthy drunkenness" anywhere. Jarvis, with whom Paine lived in his old age, said that he himself drank FAR more than Paine and the New Rochelle store clerk who drove Paine's carriage and actually sold him his liquor and assisted him when he was ill says he never once saw Paine drunk ... ever. This at a time when Federalist sources say he was soused. Don't forget that for the temperance advocates of Paine's and later ages, just one drink was debauchery itself. Paine was known at that time to purchase about a quart of BRANDY per week for himself and friends and to take a glass of brandy and water after what we now call lunch and one again after supper. The fact
is that prudish, evangelical, pro-temperance and most of all FEDERALIST writers attacked Paine's personal character in order to blunt his political influence .... just as they do today.

This is not to say (begging your pardon) that Paine farted roses and butterflies. He was a human being ... which is to say, a complex being. Gilbert Vale had it about right:

"We are not, however, about to write a eulogy; to enhance his virtues, or to suppress his faults, or vices. Paine was a part of human nature, and partook of its imperfections; and our purpose is to fairly represent him as he was; but the greater part of Paine's life was public and as such we know of no man who had greater virtues or less vices."

What Vale found and documented in his own research on Paine -- and no biographer has added substantially or significantly to Vale's account -- was that virtually all of the received accounts of Paine's drunkenness traced back to James Cheetham's smear. Cheetham was a convicted libeler. Paine threatened to sue him when alive. Cheetham waited to write his defamatory historical novel until after Paine's death ... in fact, immediatelyafter Paine's death in order to maximize his sales.

Janet Mirsky and Allan Nevins, in their distinguished biography of Eli Whitney noted Whitney's disgust with Paine's shaking hand and drooping lip as he raised a glass of wine. Mirsky and Nevins, however, suggested that Whitney the Federalist and temperance advocate .. ignorant of medicine ...
mistook Paine's palsy. He had recently hurt himself in a fall down a flight of stairs after what he described as a "fit of apoplexy" that left him without the ability to speak or use his hands for some days. This was almost certainly a stroke. Mirsky, Nevins and other credible medical observers believe that he may have had Parkinson's and the conservative Whitney's disgust was prejudicial and medically oblivious.

A question: wouldn't it be more balanced, judicious and historically reasoned to say with Gilbert Vale that

"... he died in peace, in a good old age, the firm and consistent friend
of liberty."

and that to write otherwise is to perpetuate what was originally a politically motivated slander?

© Kenneth W. Burchell 2012, All Rights Reserved.

[note: the blogger has written the author of the BBC article and awaits reply. Interested persons can find another elaboration of this argument in the introduction to my six-volume, fully edited collection of contemporary American replies to Thomas Paine: and my critique of a more recent shibboleth on Paine's supposed depression is here ]


  1. I rather think that Gilbert Vale was overstating the case here. We do have the testimony of Paine’s co-executor, Thomas Addis Emmet, who strongly suggests that Paine had debts and very little in the way of liquid assets at the time of his death. This is in a letter to James Monroe in the New York Public Library. Paine, as we well know, was reluctant to sell his land because he meant to leave it to his legatees (the Bonneville family and his loyal friend, Clio Rickman). All this to say that Paine had reason for his financial anxiety and frugal living toward the end of his life.

    Mariam Touba

  2. Thanks for your comments, Mariam. It may be that Vale's evaluation of Paine's balance sheet was exaggerated a bit; but not by much. If he died land-wealthy and cash poor, he shared the fate of millions of Americans who haven't been endlessly slandered for it. The Monroe debt may or may not have been legitimate or pursued for petty reasons. In either case, Paine died worth around $11500.00 converted to today's dollars at about $210,000.00. He was a long ways from impoverished. His bed and board were paid weekly and not in arrears at his death. I'm sure you'll recall that he had already sold a house and north section of the farm in order provide for his care. None of this detracts so much as an iota from the proposition that Paine died the friend of mankind and equal rights; that personal calumny was used as a club with which to bludgeon his political and social influence; and that it is an exaggeration and historical disservice (if not a travesty) to characterize Paine's final years in America (1802-1809) as "depressed, drunk, and diseased."

  3. Not many people of his generation lived as long or lived that long without suffering from affirmities of old age. From all I have read over the years, Paine's health never returned after his period of imprisonment in France.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Ed.

    There is no doubt of your broad medical conclusions. The cause was a combination of physical and emotional stresses. Imagine watching your fondest friends marched before you to a guillotine outside the window ... day after day, week after week.

    Almost everyone dies alone. I often ask mature audiences how many of them know someone who has died. They all know someone. Many hands go up. Then I ask them how many of them died with more than two or three people around them. The hands go down. Point made. Gilbert Vale demonstrated beyond a shadow that Paine was regularly visited by respectable and occasionally prominent individuals ... many of them Paine's beloved friends. Conway recapitulated and updated Vale's research. The whole account of his wretched last days is a despicable calumny from beginning to end. What began as a Federalist effort to blunt his ideas and influence has, in our time, been taken up by the "knock down the great man" team and conservative Christian elements. Amazingly enough, he is still regularly slandered from pulpit and radio station.

  5. By the way, I ran across some interesting information on this topic today in my notes on Vale's THE BEACON. The figure is more accurately $12,000.00 in 1809 dollars and if Paine was in such straightened circumstances, why is it that Gilbert Vale located money still deposited in Thomas Paine's name in a New York bank in 1838? See THE BEACON, 2:12 (January 20, 1838).


Keep it courteous and respectful, please.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.