"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."

Erasure of Public Memory:
The Strange Case of Tom Paine in Washington, D.C.

Richard Robyn


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 a memorial.

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." [1] 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 unmarked.

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 government.

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.

Paine's contributions

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 and 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 reputation.

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 first order.

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"[2] 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 about … 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."[3]

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 Sense:

  • 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."[4]

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"[5] .

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 Paine."

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 nineteenth century.

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 [7] . 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 Life

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 action.

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"[8] . 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[9] 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 country.

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 this life."

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 … I 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 .…"[10]

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 Federalists.

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"[12] 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[13] 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"[14] 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"[15] .

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 Hotel"?

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 years.

Early hotels often grew out of taverns and boarding houses (also called "ordinaries"). Bryan's survey[16] 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 Capitol building.[17]

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 Tavern.[18]

... Farther west on [Pennsylvania] avenue at Nos. 1417-1423 was the two-story and attic hotel of William Lovell[19] .

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[20] 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 Jefferson.

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.

Public memory

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 public memory?

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"[21]

Hobsbawm and Ranger[22] have, among many others in these fields (see for example Bodner[23] , Kammen[24] ,[25] , and Young[26] ), 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'."[27] 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[28] 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.[29]

Michael Kammen[30] 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 …"[31] This 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"[32] , 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[33] 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[34] , "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[35] 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 unquestioned.

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 past:

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).[36]

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.[37]

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[38] , 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 not.

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 that tide.

Writing of the need to revisit history in our pubic memorials, Loewen observes, "Altering the landscape … involves 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 Baldwin."[39]

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."[40] 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 memory.


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.


  • Bodnar, John. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Bryan, Wilhelmus Bogart. A History of the National Capital from its Foundation through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914-16.
  • Bryan, Wilhelmus Bogart. "Hotels of Washington Prior to 1814". Records of the Columbia Historical Society 7, 1904 .
  • Carr, Richard Wallace and Marie Pinak Carr. The Willard Hotel: An Illustrated History. Washington, DC: Dicmar Publishing, 2005.
  • Conway, Moncure Daniel. The Life of Thomas Paine. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1892.
  • Del Veccio, Thomas. Tom Paine: American. New York: Whittier Books, 1956.
  • Hawke, David Freeman. Paine. New York: W.W.Norton, 1974.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.
  • Hobsbawm, E. J., and T. O. Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Jusserand, J. J. With Americans of Past and Present Days. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916.
  • Kammen, Michael G. Mystic Chords of Memory : The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1991.
  • Kammen, Michael G. A Season of Youth : The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1978.
  • Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.
  • Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Grove Press, 2003.
  • Loewen, James. Lies Across America. New York: New Press, 1999.
  • McCartin, Brian. Former director of the Thomas Paine Historical Society Museum. Personal phone interview. June 2, 2009.
  • Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805. Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1970.
  • Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking, 2006.
  • Paine, Thomas. Collected Writings. New York: Library of America, 1955. Vale, Gilbert. Life of Thomas Paine. New York: published by the author, 1841.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New and rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
  • Woodward, William E. Tom Paine: America's Godfather, 1737-1809. London: Secker & Warburg, 1946.
  • Young, Alfred Fabian. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1999.

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