by Barry Goldberg
Moncure Conway, the first president of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHA), once remarked that “Thomas Paine’s life up to 1809, when he died is interesting; but Thomas Paine’s life from that time to 1860 is more than interesting – it is thrilling!”(1) Conway’s comment alluded to a central TPNHA contention: most scholars had ignored Paine’s contributions to the American revolution and early republic, falling back on a series derogatory insinuations promulgated by his political enemies and hostile biographers. In 1888, one notable source spread some of these false rumors: future president Theodore Roosevelt. In a biography of Gouvernor Morris, an American diplomat who did not like Paine (neither his personality nor his politics) and deliberately sabotaged his attempts to secure a release from prison during the French Revolution, Roosevelt called Paine a “filthy little atheist.” The claim echoed the most widely-circulated falsity used to deride Paine in the nineteenth century: he did not believe in God. (2)
The TPNHA persistently lobbied Roosevelt to retract this statement, one of countless instances in which the Association tried to correct bad scholarship on Paine. Indeed, Painites had tried to meet with Roosevelt about the atheist claim at least twice – once when he served as Governor of New York; another when he held the presidency.(3) But the longest exchange occurred after Roosevelt left elected office, in September 1917. That month, Roosevelt received a letter from S.E. Hartmann, a leading TPNHA member (more on him in future posts) sarcastically claiming to have heard several “soap box orators” in New York City criticizing the former president’s depiction of Paine.(4)
S.E. Hartmann to Theodore Roosevelt, September 22, 1917, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College.
Transcript of Letter
A string of letters between TPNHA President William Van Der Weyde and Roosevelt soon followed. After Van Der Weyde inquired about the comment, Roosevelt reiterated his characterization by citing an 1832 biography of Morris and refused to engage in debate on the matter absent any new evidence.(5) In response, Van Der Weyde dismissed the 1832 biography as an example of “strong religious prejudice” and sent Roosevelt Conway’s The Life of Thomas Paine, a more favorable work published sixty years later.(6) In July, after additional Van Der Weyde letters, Roosevelt returned Conway’s book, disputing the author’s “views on most points of history” as “absolutely wrong and…worse than unsafe.”(7) The correspondence – too lengthy to fully examine here – continued through August, with Roosevelt impatiently characterizing the exchanges as “utterly useless” and chalking up the disagreement to a “difference of opinion.” (8)
But behind this “difference of opinion” lay larger questions: How do certain historical narratives become authoritative? How do public figures utilize these narratives to shape and reinforce certain views about contemporary society? And what role can experts and historians play in this process? Trying to correct the “filthy little atheist” claim illustrated the ways in which the TPNHA worked at the intersection of history and politics, trying to not only adjust faulty historiography, but also promote a particular (and in this case more accurate) view of Paine aligned with freethought reform and social progressivism in the early-twentieth century. Future posts will elaborate on how the Association balanced the historical and political aspects of its mission in subsequent years.
1. Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America: A History and Biography (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 155. Return to article where Citation 1 left off.
2. Paine stated he believed in God in The Age of Reason; Fruchtman, 325. Return to article where Citation 2 left off.
3. William Van Der Weyde, “Foreword,” Folder 07.05.03.32, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College. Return to article where Citation 3 left off.
4. S.E. Hartmann to Theodore Roosevelt, September 22, 1917, Folder 07.05.03.27, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College. Return to article where Citation 4 left off.
5. Theodore Roosevelt to William Van Der Weyde, April 19, 1918, Folder 07.05.03.30, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College. Return to article where Citation 5 left off.
6. William Van Der Weyde to Theodore Roosevelt, June 24, 1918, Folder 07.05.03.27, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College. Return to article where Citation 6 left off.
7. Theodore Roosevelt to William Van Der Weyde, Folder 07.05.03.30, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College. Conway believed in abolitionism and women’s suffrage, but Roosevelt probably disliked the writer because he opposed the Spanish-American War. See “Moncure Conway.” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. 2004. http://uudb.org/articles/moncureconway.html. Return to article where Citation 7 left off.
8. Theodore Roosevelt to William Van Der Weyde, August 21, 1918, Folder 07.05.03.30, The TPNHA Collection, Institute for Thomas Paine Studies (ITPS) at Iona College. Return to article where Citation 8 left off.
Transcript of S.E. Hartmann's letter to Theodore Roosevelt
146 No. Clinton St., East Orange, N.J.
Sept. 22, 1917
Theodore Roosevelt, Esq.
Long Island, N.Y.
As to one of the distinguished citizens of the United States, I although unknown, am writing you this letter. Some days ago I passed 23rd ST. And Fourth Ave. and listened to one of the soap box orators who mentioned your name in a manner I must admit shocked me.
You will excuase [sic] the language but I am repeating work for word, what he said. “Theodore Roosevelt is the man who told three lies in three words, when he called Thomas Paine “filthy little Atheist” , first Thomas Paine was a very clean man, second he was six feet tall, and third, he was a deist for he wrote, on the first page of his “Age of Reason” , “I believe in one God and no more and I hope for future life.”
Some days later it happened that I can to the same corner and a different soap box orator assailed you with the same story.
If the trouble is not too much will you be good enough to refute their statement as a mischievious lie.
I think it is a shame that these soap box orators are allowed to be-smere [sic] the name and character of a citizen and ex-president of this Republic.
Thank you in advance for your response.
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S. E. Hartmann