by Barry Goldberg
On my first day as a Gardiner Fellow at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS), I uncovered a speech written in the distinctive handwriting of William Van Der Weyde, president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHA) from 1914 to 1929. Van Der Weyde addressed a Philadelphia audience gathered to commemorate Thomas Paine’s birthday on January 29, 1910. In his remarks, the TPNHA president attacked the “puppet Director of Public Safety,” and imagined the “cloud of sadness that passes over [Paine’s] fine old face” as he discovers that a “tyrant and despot who arbitrarily chokes, murders, [and] assassinates free speech” rules the city (1). What had occurred in Philadelphia to warrant these comments?
The first page of Van Der Weyde’s speech. The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College.
The answer says much about the mission and political orientation of the TPNHA in the early twentieth century. Van Der Weyde’s speech described events surrounding none other than prominent anarchist Emma Goldman (2). By 1910, she had already made seven trips to Philadelphia to speak about anarchism, labor rights, and women’s equality; in 1901 and 1904, city police had banned her speeches; and in September 1909, she filed an injunction against Philadelphia authorities who prevented her from delivering “Anarchism: What It Really Means.” Weeks later, a judge overturned the injunction, silencing Goldman and laying the legal groundwork for her deportation as an enemy alien a decade later (3). Van Der Weyde’s “puppet Director of Public Safety,” and “tyrant and despot” describe those who drove Goldman from Philadelphia – Henry Clay and Assistant Police Superintendent Tim O’Leary, respectively.
That Van Der Weyde’s speech did not reference these figures by name perhaps suggests a hesitancy to embroil the TPNHA in political controversy. On the other hand, the speech illustrates the Association’s ties to far-left activism during the Progressive Era. Indeed, the TPNHA’s early leadership – which emerged from the activist wing of the late-nineteenth century freethought movement interested in repealing the Comstock Act and exploring new areas of focus beyond church-state affairs – possessed surprisingly close ties to anarchism and Goldman herself (4). These leaders – most notably Edwin C. Walker, a future TPNHA Vice President, and Leonard Abbott, a TPNHA president – wrote for the anarchist press, helped form the Free Speech League, which represented Goldman in 1909, and frequently collaborated with the leftist speaker (5).
Leonard Abbott discussing Emma Goldman and the I.W.W. with William Van Der Weyde, September 12, 1917. The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College.
By hitching Thomas Paine to Goldman, Van Der Weyde also illustrated the Association’s early-twentieth century efforts to invoke Paine to support the Progressive Era’s more aggressive egalitarian impulses. In so doing, the TPNHA framed Paine as an activist dissenter who sought to democratize American society and connected with some of the nation’s most controversial figures. How and whether the Association sustained this mission and/or shifted with the times is something future posts will explore. Based on this find, the rich TPNHA Collection will undoubtedly yield some surprising answers.
1. William Van Der Weyde Speech at Paine Birthday Banquet, January 29, 1910, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College. (Return)
2. Bill Lynskey, “‘I Shall Speak in Philadelphia’: Emma Goldman and the Free Speech League,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 133, No. 2 (Apr., 2009), 173-74. (Return)
3. Candace Falk, ed. Emma Goldman: A Guide to Her Life and Documentary Sources (Alexandria: Chadwyck-Healy, 1995), 42-47; Lynskey, 175-88.(Return)
4. See Sidney Warren, American Freethought: 1860-1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 34-35, 161-69; Gary Berton, “The Thomas Paine National Historical Association: Freethought, Anarchism, and the Struggle for Free Speech,” Thomas Paine National Historical Association. January and February 2015. http://thomaspaine.org/pages/history.html. (Return)
5. Berton, “The Thomas Paine National Historical Association: Freethought, Anarchism, and the Struggle for Free Speech;” David Rabban, “The Free Speech League, the ACLU, and Changing Conceptions of Free Speech in American History,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Nov., 1992), 68-71; Lynskey, 170; Candace Falk, Jessica Moran, and Barry Pateman, eds. Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Making Speech Free, 1902-1909, Volume 2 (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2005), 507; Falk, Emma Goldman: A Guide to Her Life and Documentary Sources, 64, 68, 77, 79.(Return)