Lecture Date: January 26, 2023
The Virginia Partners Bank Lecture
I first became interested in the story of Thomas Paine when I learned that his bones were missing. I had always thought of him as a minor footnote to history, but then discovered that in his own time, he’d been such an towering figure that one of his disciples, William Cobbett, enraged that Americans weren’t giving Paine his due as a founding father, stole the bones out of his grave and shipped them to England. After Cobbett’s attempts to create a glorious Paine monument were thwarted by the crown, however, he began selling the bones to make money, which means that today, if you become publicly known as a Paine scholar, you will get phone calls and emails offering you femurs and tibias, and you will also learn that not only are Paine’s bones missing, but so are almost all of his papers, destroyed in a fire at a St. Louis Missouri storage facility.
The fundamentals of Paine are that he wrote the second most influential book in American history after Uncle Tom’s Cabin; that he is an historic American for helping start the Revolution and an historic Englishman for helping start the Labour Party, that he was at one time so famous, his colleagues included everyone from Washington to Robespierre; and that his life spanned one of the great epics in history, that incredible upheaval of the Enlightenment and the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions. Yet, because so much is missing, the life of Thomas Paine is filled with mysteries, which all would-be biographers are forced to solve at their peril.