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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Judicial Estimate of the Character and Genius of Thomas Paine

By Joel Barlow (1754–1812)

[Letter to James Cheetham, of New York. Written in 1809. Recently found among the Barlow Papers.]

SIR: I have received your letter calling for information relative to the life of Thomas Paine. It appears to me that this is not the moment to publish the life of that man in this country. His own writings are his best life, and these are not read at present. The greater part of readers in the United States will not be persuaded as long as their present feelings last to consider him in any other light than as a drunkard and a deist. The writer of his life who should dwell on these topics to the exclusion of the great and estimable traits of his real character might indeed please the rabble of the age, who do not know him; the book might sell, but it would only tend to render the truth more obscure for the future biographer than it was before. But if the present writer should give us Thomas Paine complete in all his character, as one of the most benevolent and disinterested of mankind, endowed with the clearest perception, an uncommon share of original genius, and the greatest breadth of thought; if this piece of biography should analyze his literary labors, and rank him, as he ought to be ranked, among the brightest and most undeviating luminaries of the age in which he has lived, yet with a mind assailable by flattery and receiving through that weak side a tincture of vanity which he was too proud to conceal; with a mind, though strong enough to bear him up and to rise elastic under the heaviest hand of oppression, yet unable to endure the contempt of his former friends and fellow-laborers, the rulers of the country that had received his first and greatest services—a mind incapable of looking down with serene compassion as it ought on the rude scoffs of their imitators, a new generation that knew him not—a mind that shrinks from their society and unhappily seeks refuge in low company or looks for consolation in the sordid solitary bottle till it sink so far at last below its native elevation as to lose all respect for itself and to forfeit that of its best friends, disposing those friends almost to join with his enemies, and to wish, though from different motives, that he would venture to hide himself in the grave; if you are disposed and prepared to write his life thus entire, to fill up the picture, to which these hasty strokes of outline give but a rude sketch, with great vacuities, your book may be a useful one for another age, but it will not be relished nor scarcely tolerated in this.

The biographer of Thomas Paine should not forget his mathematical acquirements and his mechanical genius, his invention of the iron bridge, which led him to Europe in the year 1787, and which has procured him a great reputation in that branch of science in France and England—in both which countries his bridge has been adopted in many instances, and is now much in use. You ask whether he took the oath of allegiance to France. Doubtless the qualifications to be a member of the Convention required an oath of fidelity to that country, but involved in it no abjuration of fidelity to this. He was made a French citizen by the same decree with Washington, Hamilton, Priestley, and Sir James Mackintosh. What Mr. M. has told you relative to the circumstances of his arrestation by order of Robespierre is erroneous, at least in one point. Paine did not lodge at the house where he was arrested, but had been dining there with some Americans, of whom Mr. M. may have been one. I never heard before that Paine was intoxicated that night. Indeed, the officers brought him directly to my house, which was two miles from his lodging, and doubtless far from the place where he had been dining. He was not intoxicated when they came to me. Their object was to get me to go and assist them to examine Paine’s papers. It employed us the whole of that night and the rest of the next day at Paine’s lodgings, and he was not committed to prison till the next evening. You ask what company he kept. He always frequented the best, both in England and France, till he became the object of calumny in certain American papers (echoes of the English court papers) for his adherence to what he thought the cause of liberty in France; till he conceived himself neglected and despised by his former friends in the United States. From that moment he gave himself very much to drink, and consequently to companions less worthy of his better days. It is said he was always a peevish ingrate. This is possible. So was Lawrence Sterne, so was Torquato Tasso. so was J. J. Rousseau. But Thomas Paine as a visiting acquaintance and as a literary friend, the only points of view in which I knew him, was one of the most instructive men I have ever known. He had a surprising memory and a brilliant fancy; his mind was a storehouse of vast and useful observation. He was full of lively anecdotes and ingenious original pertinent remarks upon almost every subject. He was always charitable to the poor beyond his means, a sure protector and friend to all Americans in distress that he found in foreign countries. And he had frequent occasion to exert his influence in protecting them during the Revolution in France. His writings will answer for his patriotism and his entire devotion to what he conceived to be the best interest and happiness of mankind.

This, sir, is all I have to remark on the subject you mention now. I have only one request to make, and that would doubtless seem impertinent were you not the editor of a newspaper. It is that you will not publish this letter nor permit a copy of it to be taken.