Erasure of Public Memory:
The Strange Case of Tom Paine in Washington, D.C.
Richard Robyn is Assistant Professor of Political
Science at Kent State University (Ohio) and director of its
Washington Program in National Issues. He received his PhD at
Kent State. He regularly teaches courses on American Politics
and international organizations. His research interests are
public memory, nationalism, identity issues and the European
Union. He has published in numerous journals on these topics.
His recent book is The Changing Face of European Identity.
Erasure of Public Memory:
The Strange Case of Tom Paine in Washington, D.C.
This paper examines the lack of recognition in Washington, DC - a
city of memorials - of one of the signal figures of the American
Revolution, Thomas Paine. This lack of recognition is made all the
more glaring in light of the fact that the aged author visited the
city in its earliest days and stayed for several months. Even with
this personal visit to the city, however, Paine's presence in the
nation's capital goes unmarked.
Some of the historical evidence of Paine's life and representation
in subsequent biography and history, aided by the literature on
public memory, will be presented to explore why Paine could have
been forgotten so completely. It is argued that this case of a
forgotten hero echoes our own contemporary culture wars over
religion and politics.
The nation's capital has innumerable monuments and commemorative
markers to a wide variety of important (and perhaps not so
important) public figures. Artists, poets, scientists, politicians,
statesmen and diplomats -- from the famous to the obscure -- have
been recognized with a statue or marker in a city that steeps itself
in them. In fact, Washington, DC, might rank among the first cities
of the world in commemorative statues and monuments.
In particular, the Founding Fathers have been well represented with
their own monuments because of their important contributions to the
establishment of this country. Besides George Washington and Thomas
Jefferson with their own world-famous major memorials, those
critically important to the founding of the Republic and recognized
with statutes include James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander
Hamilton, Benjamin Rush, John Witherspoon and many others. While
most of these statues were erected in past centuries when
memorializing individuals might have seemed to be more the order of
the day, as recently as 2002, signer of the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution and author of the Virginia Bill of
Rights George Mason received his own well-deserved recognition with
Not only are American-born historical figures from the
Revolutionary era recognized, but their foreign-born compatriots as
well. In one location alone, Lafayette Square across from the White
House, several are commemorated: Baron von Steuben, Thaddeus
Kosciuszko, Jean de Rochambeau and the square's namesake himself,
Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette.
Yet one of the Revolutionary era heroes who has gone unrecognized
with any memorial or historical marker of any sort to date is
arguably one of the most important of them all: Thomas Paine. The
author of Common Sense and other political writings critical to
public opinion during the early period of revolutionary fervor, and
who himself suffered with General Washington and the colonial army
in the early dark days of the war, is arguably as much a
revolutionary hero as any recognized now.
In fact, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that
Paine goes unrecognized in the city that owes its very existence (at
least in part) to his influence. Along with Common Sense and other
political writings, Paine had such an impact on public opinion at a
critical juncture of the early Revolutionary War that John Adams
once declared, "history is to ascribe the American Revolution
to Thomas Paine."  That Adams, a fellow Founding Father and
sharp observer of the times, said this even as he was no friend of
Paine's and in fact became a bitter political enemy in the early
years of the Republic, speaks volumes about the impact Paine had.
This lack of recognition is made all the more poignant in light of
the little-known fact that the aged author visited the city in its
very earliest days, when it was better known as the Federal City,
and stayed for several months. Yet with even this personal visit to
the city, long an accepted means of commemoration of some sort with
an historical marker, Paine's presence in the nation's capital is
As the director of an undergraduate academic/internship program in
Washington DC, I have spent countless hours with my students walking
the streets of the city, often drawing their attention to historical
markers and statues. Yet until recently, in reacquainting myself
with Paine's life through reading the fine biography Thomas
Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations
(2006) by Craig Nelson, I had not even realized that the famous
author had visited the nation's capital. It did not seem to me that
I had ever seen a marker or memorial to him.
Along with my students, I have explored this situation. We have in
fact found that there exists not one memorial, statue, or even an
historical marker in the nation's capital to commemorate this
important historical figure or his impact on American history and
Statues of Thomas Paine have been erected elsewhere in America, we
found, in places that he had frequented and lived. These include New
Rochelle, NY; Bordentown, NJ; and Morristown, NJ. Paine is
recognized with a bust at the New York University Pantheon of Heroes
in the Bronx, NY, and with a life-sized statue at Washington
Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania. Overseas, there is a statue
to Paine in his birthplace in Thretford, England, where he could
have been seen as a traitor for helping an important colony separate
from the mother country; and in Paris, France, where he is regarded
as a hero. Historical markers of numerous types have been placed at
significant locations for Paine: his birthplace, the places where he
worked in England, in Philadelphia where he published Common
Sense, in New York City at the Thomas Paine Park, and others.
So we know that there is no trace of public memory devoted to Paine
in Washington DC, as there are in other places. Our examination of
this motivated us to explore Paine's time in the city and to attempt
to find out more detail about this obscure period of American
history, specifically in trying to locate where exactly Paine stayed
when he was there.
We then went further into the topic, to examine the historical
record, especially as it relates to the treatment of Tom Paine and
his place in American and world politics, in trying to explain this
erasure of public memory in the nation's capital. It is so complete
that it seems somehow more than by mere accident or overlook. In the
following, I will present evidence, aided by the literature on
public memory, to examine why Paine could have been erased so
completely. The possible reasons why could also have an echo in our
own contemporary culture wars, often bitter and seemingly
unresolved, as Paine's impact and legacy have been complicated by
factors of religion, politics and the nature of American society.
Most Americans know little about Thomas Paine other than his
writing of Common Sense and perhaps other various pamphlets
supporting the revolution. He occupies a fleeting and somewhat
shadowy place in the pantheon of heroes of the revolution, a
brilliant writer perhaps but a rabble rouser also. We honor him for
his helping to instigate the revolution with stirring words ("these
are the times that try men's souls
") but worry that his
talent was only of a moment when fiery rhetoric was needed. So
little is known of his life or his later contributions to political
thought that we are left with the feeling that he might not have
succeeded at a non-revolutionary time when cooler heads were needed
beyond the war, to win the peace and then establish a working
government. And then there are these vague suggestions that he was a
drunk, a bankrupt, an atheist and a failure at anything else in life
other than pamphleteering. Altogether a rather shady character.
But the contributions of Thomas Paine to America and indeed the
greater humanity go far beyond political pamphlets on the revolution
Common Sense, as significant as that was, and he was far
from a shady character in person. His story is one of meteoric rise
to prominence and genuinely long-lasting impact on the political
developments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then an
equally precipitous fall from grace that started in his later life
and has extended through history even to this day. While he enjoyed
his brandy, there is no evidence that he drank to excess. While he
could have made a fortune with his writings, he gave much of it
away, especially to the cause of American Revolution. He died in
obscurity but apparently not poverty, with an estate that included
property. He was emphatically not an atheist but a deist, as we
shall see when we encounter his seminal work The Age of Reason.
He was also a man of great personal courage mixed with a generous
amount of "political incorrectness" in his personal and
professional dealings. He did not suffer fools gladly, and made his
views known with often little regard for the consequences. And the
consequences, as we shall see, were great indeed to his larger
Let us look at what those contributions were.
With Common Sense, published in early 1776, Paine instantly
became the best selling author of eighteenth century America. With
his later works, Rights of Man and The Age of Reason,
he became one of the best-selling authors of the nineteenth century
on the continent as well. More than this, however, with these works
he solidified his place as a deep and systematic thinker of the
Common Sense was a short book, but longer and more
substantial than what we may conceive of as a simple pamphlet, and
sold more than 100,000 copies within a few weeks of its publication.
In a total population of three million colonists in America, the
printed run of the pamphlet would eventually be the equivalent of
selling approximately 30 million copies today. It was written in the
early days of the war, when the rush of anger over Lexington and
Concord had faded and the reality had set in that the weak and
unorganized colonies might be attempting to take on in serious
warfare the greatest military power on earth. Public opinion was by
no means on the side of the rebels, and to argue for rebellion was
to take a great personal risk. One could have been arrested for
treason. In Common Sense, Paine argued in direct and
straightforward prose that was easily accessible to the common man,
putting the rebellion in simple terms. It was not so much a
rebellion against taxation, he wrote, as it was an attempt to
achieve the all-important goal of self-government: "The cause
of America is, in great measure, the cause of all mankind."
It was, in Nelson's words, "America's first self-help book"
for its guide to government without the need for a monarch. And who
better than someone from the mother country to tell the Americans
that they really had no need for the services of a king or, as Paine
called him, the "Royal Brute of Britain"? As it said in
the subtitle, the pamphlet was from the perspective of "an
Englishman", and Paine wrote with devastating wit and logic to
take apart the monarchy of his own country, pointing the way to
government of the people. "Should an independency be brought
we have every opportunity and every encouragement
before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of
the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
The pamphlet was an immediate success. It galvanized a quarrelsome
people, dispirited by early reversals in the war and uncertain about
the proper course of action for the future. Nothing could more
clearly convey this than to take a quick survey of opinion before
its publication. In November, 1775, two months before Common
- Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to a friend: "There
is not in the British Empire a man more cordially loves a union
with Great Britain than I do." Six months later he would
pen the radical Declaration of Independence.
- George Washington toasted King George III at dinners.
- Joseph Warren, a Boston radical who was killed at Bunker Hill
later in 1776, wrote, "An independence from Great Britain
is not our aim. No, our wish is, that Britain and the colonies
may like oak and ivy, grow and increase in strength together."
What had moved each to the momentous decision to separate from
England and commit to a war for independence, to risk their lives
and, in the case of Warren, to give his later at Bunker Hill? There
may have been many reasons for each individual, but in no small part
it was a reading of Common Sense. Across the colonies,
Americans by the thousands learned from their reading of it and made
their own choices, many frightened by his words and not in support
of independence; many others the opposite. As Washington said to his
secretary Colonel Joseph Reed, the book was "working a powerful
change there in the minds of men" .
With Common Sense and the later American Crisis
series of essays, Paine became the first to propose American
independence in writing, an accomplishment that is still undervalued
for its impact on the course of the revolution or for its
implications for his own personal safety when it became known who
the author of such a treasonous work was. To Paine also goes the
honor of the first published use of the name "United States of
America", which he coined in American Crisis II when he
suggested the Federal Union of States . Joel Barlow later summarized
Paine's significance for the cause: "Washington's sword would
have been wielded in vain had it not been supported by the pen of
It may be enough for one man to name a country, lay out its
founding principles and helpfully urge a people toward revolution
and self-government, but Paine went further. One might say he was a
true child of the Enlightenment for his remarkable commitment to
freedom for all people, regardless of race, gender or social status.
He was among the first in America to propose in print the abolition
of slavery. His essay, "African Slavery in America," was
written in 1774 and published on March 8, 1775 when it appeared in
the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser, well in
advance of the organized mass abolitionist movement of the
In his writings, he pointed out the reality of human brotherhood,
advocated justice for women and proposed the education of children
of the poor at public expense. His pamphlet Agrarian Justice
is recognized by none other an authority than the Social Security
Administration as the first published advocacy of old age pension.
In international affairs, he proposed arbitration and international
peace and could be said to be one of the first to suggest a great
republic of all nations of the world, the forerunner of the United
Nations  . He was one of the first to urge the purchase of the
great Louisiana Territory. He suggested protection for animals in an
age in which cruelty to animals was legendary.
Paine's rise to prominence as one of the most celebrated writers
and thinkers of his time is all the more remarkable when considering
that he came to America at the then-advanced age of 37 (in an age
when life expectancy was not much more than 40 years), a little more
than one year before he published
Common Sense, and that until his emigration to America he
was entirely unknown, a rather undistinguished Englishman. Although
he had done some writing on political issues, he was not a writer by
training or profession, indeed had little formal education beyond
grammar school. He had instead led a decidedly checkered career: a
sailor, teacher, shopkeeper, corset maker, tobacconist, even a tax
collector on behalf of the king's government (irony indeed). He
could fairly be described as a failure at most of those ventures.
As with many of his generation, he was largely self-taught. He
honed his rhetorical skills in the coffee-houses of England where
like-minded amateur political philosophers gathered to discuss
everything from international news to local gossip and to debate
potentially incendiary topics such as Enlightenment thoughts and
monarchical rule. He was caught up in the revolutionary fervor of
the times. Failing at so many occupations and excited by events in
America, he decided to come to the colony to be a part of this
attempt to oppose tyranny. He had met Benjamin Franklin in London
and from him took away an added enthusiasm for the revolutionary
cause and, more importantly perhaps, letters of introduction to some
of the more important persons of Philadelphia. Upon arrival in that
city in 1774, he worked a variety of jobs but was eventually hired
to assist a bookseller with a new magazine. There he found his
writer's voice and before long was producing a succession of short
pieces in support of the kinds of progressive causes alluded to
earlier, including the idea of self government.
Joining the continental army in the fall of 1776, Paine would do
what he could for the cause: less as an admittedly unsoldierly
soldier but more as a supporter of his friend General Washington, as
a financier (he donated all proceeds from Common Sense to
the continental army) and as one of the first war journalists in
history, certainly the first embedded journalist. His dispatches
from the army as it alternatively attacked and retreated from the
British, were some of the finest reporting on the war, eagerly read
in the colonies.
Following the successful resolution of the revolution, he went back
home to England where, it might be expected, his reception was
mixed. As one who had played one of the more important roles in the
loss of the prized colony of America, he was naturally loathed by
the government, then led by First Minister William Pitt the Younger.
However, his immense popularity with the general populace made it
hard to move against him, had the government wanted to take any
But events in France proved to be decisive, along with Paine's
inability to stay out of public debate for long. With the fall of
the Bastille and the gathering storm of revolution in France,
Paine's friend Edmund Burke, formerly a champion of the American
cause, abandoned his liberal positions and his compatriot, to take a
decidedly conservative hard line against the French attempt at
revolt in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Paine answered back with his Rights of Man, a treatise on
self-government that took on Burke in particular and extended the
argument further into the realm of rights for all in
self-government. While not calling for revolt in England, Paine's
treatise advocated for the kinds of rights and self-government that
would worry anyone supportive of monarchical rule.
Still, Pitt did not move against Paine. Instead, he instigated a
surreptitious campaign of slander against him that in many ways
continued long after his death. Much of the unfavorable picture we
have of Paine dates from the attacks and scurrilous biographies
published during this "state supported libel" . So
complete was British control of the press on the topic of Tom Paine
at the time that no other competing biographies were attempted. This
was a devastating blow to his reputation that would last more than a
hundred years, despite the rare even-handed biographies that were
written after his death and before the more numerous balanced
reexaminations of his life finally undertaken more recently.
With his later Rights of Man, Part the Second, Paine
finally made it clear where his political sympathies lay and
precipitated the kind of direct government action that would change
his life again and forever. In this update of Rights, he
enumerated the inutility of monarchy in general and criticized the
British crown in particular. This was too much for Pitt, who put out
the word that Paine would be arrested for treason. Tipped off by
friends, Paine escaped to France. He was never to return to his home
In France, Thomas Paine embarked on the second part of his
revolutionary career. As eventful as the first part of his life had
been, with failures and spectacular successes, his later years were
to be equally portentous. He would become, along with only one other
-- the Marquis de Lafayette -- the only persons of historical
significance who participated in key ways in the two most important
revolutions of the 18th century, the American and French.
At first received as a hero, he was elected deputy to the National
Convention and, despite his not speaking French, was immediately at
the center of the maelstrom of political and revolutionary fervor in
Paris. Allied with Lafayette and the Girondins, the less radical
faction of the Convention, Paine argued on behalf of democratic
revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy but at the same time the
humane treatment of the king. Initially in control of the
Convention, the Girondins found before long that events were
spiraling out of control and making political stances precarious at
best. He and his friends ran afoul of Robespierre and the
Montagnards, the more radical elements of the revolution, chiefly
over treatment of the king. In a speech to the Convention, Paine
advocated for his banishment to America, "where he may learn,
from the constant aspect of prosperity, that the true system of
government consists not in kings, but in fair, equal and honourable
representation". He lost on a vote that condemned Louis XVI to
death. A year after the debate and during the Reign of Terror, a
frenzied time exacerbated by foreign armies that encircled France
aiming to restore the monarchy, Paine himself was arrested along
with many foreigners, suspected of treason for failing to support
the revolution. He was condemned to the Luxembourg Prison and
eventually sentenced to die.
The incredible reversal of fortune happened as he was writing his
last great work, The Age of Reason. Started in the heat of
the revolution as he saw with growing concern the excessive zeal of
many secularist revolutionaries to tear down any manifestation of
religion in society, Paine instead enunciated the need for sober
appreciation for the work of a deity in the world, while at the same
time extensively criticizing the dogma of Christianity. Far from
being a "dirty little atheist," as Theodore Roosevelt
later described him, Paine clearly in The Age of Reason set
out a modern defense of belief in a deity and in an afterlife. As he
stated in the beginning of The Age of Reason, "I
believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond
While brilliant and original in much of its expression, the book
nonetheless sets out a conception of deity that accorded well with
the Enlightenment ideas of natural philosophy: a "watchmaker
god" who created the world but then has little more to do with
it after that. This god - often referred to as "The Supreme
Architect" or "Providence" -- has a plan for the
world that can be discerned through reason and science. It was
certainly not the interventionist god conceived by some mainstream
Christian sects. But it was not far from the beliefs of several,
among them the Unitarians. Nonetheless, it was radical enough for
the British government to ban it after it had become a best-seller
on the continent, and to imprison his publisher in England.
While in his own prison in Paris and watching his friends taken to
the guillotine one by one, Paine escaped execution through a
remarkable twist of fate that seems in keeping with such an
extraordinary life. The usual way for a prison guard to indicate an
inmate for execution was to mark his cell door so the executioner's
cart would pick up the condemned for the final journey to the
guillotine. Because Paine was suffering from a fever, his cellmates
had asked that their door be opened to circulate air. On the morning
of July 24, 1794, an employee of the prison came by and marked the
inside of the door for all those inside to be taken for execution.
That evening his cellmates told the warder that Paine had recovered
enough to have the door closed, which was dutifully done. Thus, the
next morning when the cart came by for the condemned, they missed
taking all those inside Paine's cell. Before the mistake was noticed
and rectified, the government of Robespierre was toppled, and he
himself executed four days later.
With the help of newly arrived Ambassador James Monroe, Paine was
finally released from prison. His ten months in the Luxembourg
prison had taken its toll on his health and psyche. Nursed back to a
semblance of health in the care of the Monroes, Paine was determined
to leave France. "This is not a country for an honest man to
live in," he told an old friend at the time. "They do not
understand anything of the principles of free government
know of no Republic in the world except America, which is the only
country for such men as you and I. It is my intention to get away
from this place as soon as possible .
Paine's return to America and visit to the new capital
Plainly looking for an opportunity to return to America, Paine
wrote to his old Revolutionary War comrade-in-arms Thomas Jefferson,
then newly elected President of the United States and taking up
residence in the President's House in the new capital of the
republic. Jefferson replied with an invitation to return to the
country he helped found.
When Paine had left America in 1787 following the revolution, he
was famous, successful and revered as one of the key Founding
Fathers of the new Republic. When he returned less than twenty years
later, however, he was a much older man, crippled by his time in
prison, and facing a very different public.
In fact, he returned to a hornet's nest of partisan political
sniping. The America of 1802 was in the early stages of the Second
Great Awakening of religious fervor. It was also a time of great
political partisanship that saw the first serious divisions into
parties, the Federalists versus the Republicans, culminating in 1800
in one of the most contentious elections in American history, with
Jefferson and the Republicans triumphing over Adams and the
Age of Reason gave enough excuse for the religiously devout
to hate him. The Federalists also attacked him for his ideas of
government, for his association with the French Revolution, and for
his friendship with President Jefferson.
Also still fresh in the minds of the public was his Letter to
Washington, published six years before his return. While in
prison in Paris, Paine had pleaded for assistance from the then-US
Ambassador Gouverneur Morris and had written to his old friend
George Washington, then serving his first term as the first
president of the United States. No help was forthcoming, for reasons
that are still not completely clear. In his bitterness for what he
saw as a betrayal of their friendship, he had turned on Washington.
Following his release from prison, he composed an incendiary open
letter to the then-president.
Thus the stage was set for a contentious visit to the nation's
capital. Jefferson apparently was aware of this possibility even
before Paine's arrival. Although presumably the President's House
was large enough to accommodate a visitor, the president apparently
decided against that and sent an aide to secure quarters in a nearby
hotel. At least one historian records that hotel residents refused
to remain if Paine stayed there and only the intercession of the
president's aide and the fact that he was to register under an
assumed name assuaged their fears.
Paine visited the Federal City from November 1802 to February 1803.
He stayed at "Lovell's Hotel", described by Craig Nelson
as "the only hotel in the Federal City" at the time.
During the three months he stayed in Washington, Paine was a guest
of President Jefferson in the White House. He likely wanted a job in
the administration but Jefferson thought he was a bit too
controversial in his opinions and held him off. Eventually Paine
left and went to New York, where he died a few years later, in 1809.
However brief Paine's stay in Washington DC, the experience formed
a critical part of his later life. It also reveals much about the
young America and its warring factions and the kind of culture wars
that resonate even to this day. Paine's visit formed what Jefferson
historian Dumas Malone called the "first cause célèbre
of Jefferson's administration" It was not made easier by
Paine's inability to stay out of political debates of the day. Far
from being a silent witness to national political events, in his
brief stay in Washington Paine jumped in with enthusiasm, perhaps a
bit too much for the tricky times in which he had landed. He wrote a
series of open letters that were published in the National
Intelligencer, the leading newspaper of the new capital, that
excoriated the Federalists in general and Adams in particular. In
return, the Federalist press lambasted him and Jefferson. As one
wrote in a Federalist newspaper about Paine coming to Washington, "he
dines at the public table and, as a show, is as profitable to Lovell
as an Ourang Outang, for many strangers who come to the city feel a
curiosity to see the creature" .
Where did Paine stay?
With my students, I have attempted to pin down precisely where
Thomas Paine stayed when he was in Washington. Where was "Lovell's
Lovell's has long disappeared into obscurity. William Lovell was
apparently part of a small but hearty group of entrepreneurs, from
shopkeepers to hoteliers, who braved the tough conditions of the
early days of the new capital and attempted to make a go of their
enterprises. While plans for a growing capital were big, and plainly
there would be needs of newly arriving members of the government and
their families and staffs, conditions for businesses were rough.
According to one of the leading eighteenth century historians of the
early days of the city, Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, it was much more
frequent to see failed enterprises on the auction block for sale
than for them to make a thriving business that would last for many
Early hotels often grew out of taverns and boarding houses (also
called "ordinaries"). Bryan's survey of the hotels in
Washington around the time of Paine's arrival confirms that Lovell's
was one of the earliest. But it was by no means the first hotel in
Washington D.C. It might have been among the first and at that time
the only hotel in the area of the President's House, but it was not
the only one in the entire city. At that time, two virtually
separate hamlets were growing up in the city, one in the area of the
chief executive's residence and the other near the newly built
Old copies of the
National Intelligencer in the Library of Congress give some
clues as to where Lovell's might have been located. An ad that first
appeared in the November 3, 1802, issue of the National
Intelligencer and submitted by one William Lovell announced that
a "Union Tavern and Washington Hotel" had just opened. The
hotel was described as on Pennsylvania Avenue, "first home east
of the President's and one mile from the Capitol". Lovell adds
reassuringly that the avenue has "pavement all the way".
Bryan's history of the early capital confirms this and
provides some detail:
The erection of a building that came into use as a rival tavern
to the Little Hotel on F Street, was begun by William Lovell in
June, 1800, in the square to the south. It was located on the
north side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th streets,
and adjoining the alley on the west. The place was known as the
Union Tavern and Washington Hotel, and also as Lovell's
... Farther west on [Pennsylvania] avenue at Nos. 1417-1423 was
the two-story and attic hotel of William Lovell .
This block of the city, between 14th and 15th Streets and noted on
early maps as "Square 225", is now the location of two
present-day hotels, The Hotel W (formerly the Hotel Washington) and
The Willard Hotel. As my students and I discovered by walking the
block, however, the present-day numbering system doesn't correspond
exactly to the numbers that Bryan pointed out existed at the time,
and there is no "alley" that bisects the block. Where were
numbers 1417-1423 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Unfortunately, the histories of both the contemporary hotels, as
detailed as they are, especially in the case of The Willard with an
illustrated history and its informative exhibition in its rear
lobby area, only go back as far as the early days of the modern
hotels in the mid-eighteenth centuries. They couldn't help us to
locate the tavern hotel that existed in the area in 1802.
Perhaps maps would help. As we discovered by visiting the excellent
resources of the Library of Congress Map Division, the earliest maps
of Washington DC were surveyors' tracts that blocked out the
streets, broad avenues and public buildings of the city as it was
being formed. In fact, as Geography and Map Reference Specialist Ed
Redmond related (2007 email correspondence and later discussion),
the record shows that private buildings such as hotels and homes did
not appear on maps of Washington until the middle of the eighteenth
century, too late for the brief career of William Lovell and his
hotel and tavern.
However, a further searching through the maps in the collection
revealed one that has proved useful: Artemus Harmon's (1931) "Historical
Map of the City of Washington, View of the City and Location of the
Houses in the Year 1801-02". This map, apparently drawn up many
years later from descriptions of residents of the time, is large and
indicates private buildings as well as public ones. It also shows
one building in the middle of the Pennsylvania Avenue side of block
225, precisely the possible location of Lovell's.
My students helped in general in some of the research, although
mostly contributing helpful suggestions in discussions over the
general direction of the "Paine Project", as we came to
label it. One student, however, eagerly took on more research
footwork, especially as I felt we needed to confirm ownership of the
Lovell's Hotel. This student, Steven Scerbovski, made several forays
into the musty records of deed ownership at the National Archives
and the DC Recorder of Deeds. At first nearly discouraged by the
state of the records, which are indeed musty and with rather
misleading bibliographic records and indexing, Steven stuck with the
work in true historian fashion. He confirmed that William Lovell did
indeed purchase the property for the hotel and that it was indeed
deeded on May 21, 1800, although this is a full year before Bryan
fixes it. In addition, an interesting sidenote is that Lovell
purchased it from James Hoban, the architect of the White House,
among other iconic buildings in Washington. Another interesting
outcome of this research is finding that the property was in fact
rented from Hoban and not bought outright.
From the research we conducted during the spring semester of 2008
on our Paine Project, therefore, we could confidently say that the
old Lovell's Hotel in which Thomas Paine resided during his stay in
Washington DC was on the present-day property of The Willard,
specifically the premises of the Occidental Restaurant.
It was here in November of 1802 that one of the signal figures of
the Age of Enlightenment and a prime motivating force behind the
American Revolution, Thomas Paine, rode in a carriage from his
landing point in Baltimore. It was here he stayed for three months,
and made his forays into the rough world of early Washington, DC.
One can imagine that it was rough going physically for the
unfinished streets and rude furnishings of a capital city in the
making, at that point little more than a frontier town being carved
out of the Maryland and Virginia tidewater country. Paine must have
picked over muddy and rutted streets as he walked to the President's
House for his meetings and dinners with his old friend Thomas
But it was also a rough world for the political infighting that was
then a part of the Washington scene. Politics on the grand national
scale visited itself onto the small world of the frontier capital.
Almost certainly as a result of this, other than his visits to the
President's House or to the National Intelligencer, Paine apparently
ventured out infrequently. He was seldom a part of the budding
social scene of Washington.
How is it possible that an historical figure of such importance to
a country would be so shamelessly forgotten in its capital city?
Even in a city in which he himself visited on a long-forgotten time
in its earliest days? What can explain this level of erasure of
Lively subliteratures have grown up in at least the fields of
political science and history to examine "public memory",
or how societies construct their pasts. Unlike the private memory we
all have, or what we recall from our own individual past, public
memory is "what a society remembers collectively or, after most
private memories have faded or disappeared, the way it constructs
the past from many sources"
Hobsbawm and Ranger have, among many others in these fields
(see for example Bodner , Kammen , , and Young ),
shown that the process of "invention of tradition" is a
conscious process by which elites and popular movements create a
politically usable history.
The process of public remembering involves the active construction
of memorials, whether in the form of commemorative markers, statues
or the like. In this way we as a society recall the most important
parts of our past that is rapidly and inexorably slipping away. How
does an entire society recall its past? As Young writes, "Public
memory flows from private memory as well as from the official memory
promoted by those we might call the 'keepers of the past'."
Important "keepers of the past" can be historians or
political scientists; more often than not for public memorializing,
however, they may be simply those that can marshal the funds
necessary for expensive statues or pave the way for bureaucracies to
approve the erection of markers: politicians, government officials,
or other elites of civic society.
All human interaction is complex, and active remembering of any one
event or historical figure necessarily involves the forgetting of
certain other events or people that may not fit a preferred
historical narrative. Young writes about the Boston Tea Party
and how at various times in American history the recalling of this
historical event has been more or less active and has been marked by
certain preferred ways of thinking about such an unusual event that
could be seen as either an important, thoughtful act of political
rebellion or a radical and illegal prank.
Loewen also notes this periodicity of commemoration, that markers
are rarely of one time and place but are themselves affected by
changing time and perspectives:
Every historical site tells two different stories about
two different eras in the past. One is the manifest narrative -
the event or person heralded in its text or artwork. The other is
the story of its erection or preservation. The images on our
monuments and the language on our markers reflect the attitude and
ideas of the time when Americans put them up, often many years
after the event. Americans have typically adjusted the visible
past on the landscape to make what we remember conform to the
needs of the time.
Michael Kammen has similarly been concerned with how "tradition"
and its opposite, amnesia, have been a part of the reconstruction or
invention of the American past. His focus is on the motivations of
the keepers of the past to construct historical narratives, and
finds that it is often a quarrel between traditionalists and
modernists, or the "party of memory and the party of hope",
frequently embodied at a particular time of recalling in which
elites and populists struggled over preserving a memory. Because
this construction can be costly in terms of money, time, or energy,
those that construct do so out of a certain interest that motivates
them. At times this motivation may be at odds with the historical
record. As Loewen writes, following an extensive examination of the
public memorials of America and their inaccuracies, "some
elements in our society have a vested interest in retaining and
retelling certain falsehoods about our past
process of public amnesia could easily apply to Paine: "
courageous souls who challenged the United States to live out the
meaning of its principles lie forgotten or even reviled" ,
as Paine seems to be now in the nation's capital.
Why even be concerned about this at all? What effect does
memorializing have on the public? Loewen answers that it is
important for several reasons: for the important role that history
plays in human culture; because memorializing can make us feel good
about our ancestors, our historical figures and therefore ourselves
(and that elites, who more often have the means to erect monuments,
might feel good about their positions of power and wealth, which is
why most markers are erected, or others left out); and to help hold
societies together, providing a shared community of values. "In
conclusion," he writes , "what a community erects on
its historical landscape not only sums up its view of the past but
also influences its possible futures."
Amnesia and Thomas Paine
Even a cursory reading of the historical record in the case of
Thomas Paine convincingly demonstrates that his reputation has
undergone a dramatic change over time. Yet, while he has been
vilified by some - including critics as powerful as presidents such
as Adams and Theodore Roosevelt -- and forgotten by most, the
trajectory has not always been in the negative. As Harvey Kaye
has shown, at different times in America's history and for those
that represent different political viewpoints - from conservative to
liberal - Paine has been taken as a hero. For some on the left,
Paine represents a forceful advocate for self-government as the
means to empower the poor, the disenfranchised, minorities and
women; for conservatives and libertarians, his allegiance to
individual liberties is inspiring. His fearless fight on behalf of
the American colonies and their cause for independence unites most
factions of American political thought. His patriotism is
Has there been no attempt to memorialize Thomas Paine in the
nation's capital? As we discovered in our research, there has in
fact been at least one major attempt, and in the not so distant
In 1991, a bill was introduced in Congress to authorize
the Thomas Paine National Historical Association U.S.A. Memorial
Foundation to construct a memorial to Thomas Paine in the District
of Columbia. This bill became Public Law 102-407 in 1992 and was
followed by another act of Congress in 1994 approving an Area I
[on or near the National Mall] location for a Memorial to Thomas
Paine, in accordance with the Commemorative Works Act (the
National WWII Memorial was also included in this act).
Neither a site nor a design was ever selected for the memorial and
the authorization expired, after one 1999 reauthorization, in 2003.
Congress had provided no funds for the establishment of the memorial
and apparently the effort to raise the money needed was too great,
and public support for the building of more memorials on the Mall
too little, especially as the momentum to construct the World War II
Memorial gained ground around that same time.
A key, however, to the original passage of this bill was that it
had truly bipartisan support, from the liberal Ted Kennedy to the
conservative Jesse Helms , illustrating the potential reach of
Tom Paine. Does the failure of this attempt, added to the fact that
no other memorial to Paine has ever been erected, show that his
reputation has effectively been damaged in America's culture wars?
Is Thomas Paine just too "hot" to handle? One would hope
While he may have been too much a radical and free-thinker for some
in the past, it seems that a resurgence of interest and appreciation
of Paine is occurring now. We may be in a period of greater
appreciation of his impact and importance in our history. A few of
the biographies that have been quoted from here are an indication of
Writing of the need to revisit history in our pubic memorials,
Loewen observes, "Altering the landscape
expanding our public history by telling about the past from
'new' perspectives. In the process, new markers and monuments will
establish new stories and extol heroes - factually based, with feet
of clay when appropriate, but role models nonetheless. 'American
history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more
terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,' wrote James
Pierre L'Enfant, the architect of Washington, DC, hoped that the
squares of the city of the nation's capital would have memorials and
statues that "perpetuate not only the memory of such
individuals whose counsels or military achievements were conspicuous
in giving liberty and independence to this country, but also those
whose usefulness hath rendered them worthy of general imitation, to
invite the youth of succeeding generations to tread in the paths of
those sages or heroes whom their country has thought proper to
celebrate." Thomas Paine would seem to fit the public
memorializing that L'Enfant envisioned.
As I tell my students, whenever you think of the United States of
America or hear the chant "USA., USA", think of Tom Paine,
for he is the one who coined the term. Whenever you consider the
country and its independence and the origins of self-government in
the modern world, think of the contributions that Thomas Paine made.
And whenever you visit the nation's capital, and marvel at its
monuments, consider that this most important of persons to its
existence is not mentioned anywhere. Across the landscape of
Washington, DC, not a mention, completely erased from our public
I am grateful to the students of the Cultural Heritage component of
Kent State University's 2008 and 2009 Washington Program in National
Issues for their comments and suggestions in the research of this
article, and in particular to Steven Scerbovski for his work, as
referenced in the article. In addition, I am grateful to Kim
Gruenwald, Ken Bindas, and Bill Miller for their comments on avenues
of research and/or on earlier drafts of this article.
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