NY college houses endangered Thomas Paine writings

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. (AP) — He helped inspire the American Revolution, but Thomas Paine suffered a broad range of indignities afterward: Political cartoonists lampooned him, he was denied the right to vote and a coin was minted that pictured him in a noose.

After his death, his body was dug up and lost and the gravesite was paved over.

As for his writings and personal effects, “His archives, like his bones, have been scattered,” one scholar said.

But now a historic endangered collection, including first editions of “Common Sense,” Paine’s eyeglasses and locks of his hair, has found a safe new home at Iona College in the New York City suburbs, barely a mile from what was once Paine’s farm.

When the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies formally opens Sept. 9 at Iona, it will be a widely welcomed resolution to a battle over the fate of the memorabilia.

“I’m just delighted,” said Martin Levitt, library director at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which also has a world-class Paine collection. “Paine is the most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers, sort of the black sheep, and making more of his lifetime work available to scholars is going to be a tremendous improvement.”

Paine is best known for writing “Common Sense,” a hugely popular pro-Revolution pamphlet that was credited with building enthusiasm for the war and encouraging volunteers for the Continental Army. And his “Crisis” writings helped stiffen American resolve during the difficult war.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” he wrote during the first winter of the Revolution.

But despite the success of the war, Paine’s popularity soon plummeted over his part in the French Revolution, his writings against organized religion and his letter denouncing George Washington and federalism.

Theodore Roosevelt called Paine a “filthy little atheist,” though modern scholars say he believed in God — but not churches. “My religion is to do good,” he wrote.

“He’s still being argued about today,” said Scott Cleary, faculty director of the new institute.

The collection, 300 or so pieces amassed since 1884 by the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, is to serve as the basis of courses and conferences at Iona, which has already established a minor in Thomas Paine Studies.

Daniel Guiney, an Iona senior from Hastings-on-Hudson who took one of the new Paine courses last year, said, “I kind of stumbled onto it, but I really got the Paine bug. … I’m almost sorry I’ll be graduating soon because I’d like to do the minor.”

The collection will be accessible to students and outside scholars and to the public in rotating displays in Iona’s sleek, climate-controlled Ryan Library.

In contrast, many of the prize pieces spent recent years locked in a huge safe in a back room at the historical association’s 1925 building in New Rochelle as members tried to protect them from deteriorating conditions, said Gary Berton, a former president.

“I was horrified,” said Brad Mulkern, now the president and executive director of the association, recalling his first visit to the building. “The roof had holes in it, it was leaking through the ceiling. … I just couldn’t believe stuff that was so priceless was so exposed. I mean, this is Thomas Paine, the man who called for revolution!”

The association’s board sold some valuable pieces to raise money for repairs, which brought complaints and an investigation by the state attorney general’s office. Eventually, the collection was sent to the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.

The move to Manhattan didn’t sit well with some in New Rochelle, Paine being a local boy. Meanwhile, just down the street from association headquarters, Iona was undertaking an archive to store its collection of Irish history. The college people and the Paine people got together and the idea of an institute was born — and court approved.

“It was just serendipitous,” Mulkern said. “Before, I was heartbroken. Now, I couldn’t be happier. It’s a win for the community, it’s a win for Iona and it’s a win for Thomas Paine.”

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