You won’t find Thomas Paine’s face on a coin. You won’t find his monument in Washington, D.C. In fact, there are only five real statues to this important founding father – the most important, some would say – in the world. Fort Lee is hoping to become the home of the sixth.
The seven-foot bronze statue of a pensive Paine penning “These are the times that try men’s souls …” by Beacon, N.Y., sculptor David Frech would be unveiled in Monument Park, on Palisade Avenue, in November 2009 if representatives of Fort Lee’s Common Sense Society manage to raise the balance of the sculpture’s $128,000 price tag. So far, between a $50,000 contribution from the city and another $25,000 they’ve raised on their own, they’re more than halfway there.
“We will accept donations from anybody, anywhere,” says Fort Lee’s James Viola, chairman of the society.
Today, the fund-raising begins with an “old-fashioned barbecue and dance” at the Alpine Boat Basin Pavilion, noon to sunset, sponsored by the Fort Lee Office of Cultural and Historic Affairs ($25, children $5).
Upcoming Paine fund-raisers include a “Colonial Punch & Pie Night” at Alpine’s Kearney House Museum, 7 p.m. Nov. 14 ($50), and a holiday crafts fair at the Fort Lee Community Center, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 29 and 30 (free).
“I have depicted Paine as he was, resolute and determined,” says Frech, who has also sculpted public monuments of Lincoln, Matthew Vassar (founder of Vassar College) and other key American figures.
The sculpture, he says, will depict Paine looking into the oncoming wind while steadying himself to write the notes that would become his famous “The American Crisis.” The statue’s glance, incidentally, will fall on another, already-existing statue group to the immediate west – a pair of anonymous Revolutionary War soldiers, the very people Paine was trying to stir with his writings.
“I find Paine and all the revolutionaries inspiring,” Frech says. “They were willing to sacrifice everything for their freedom.”
In claiming Paine as a native son, the Common Sense Society, founded a year ago, is not just whistling “Yankee Doodle.”
In the fall of 1776, Paine was pretty much where his statue will be – in Monument Park, about a block and a half from Main Street. Only then, it was an encampment for Washington’s army.
“He was actually on the spot where the statue is going,” says society Vice Chairman Kay Nest. “That to me says it all.”
Without doubt, Paine (1737-1809) remains the most radical and controversial of the founding fathers – and probably the least known. Washington, Adams and Jefferson get movies and TV miniseries made about them. Paine’s sole impact on the pop culture world is a couple of memorable lines in the Oscar-winning 1950 hit “Born Yesterday.” “He was quite a fella,” coos Judy Holliday, the dumb blonde who has been reading up on American history. “He was born in London or England – something like that.”
Paine (he was actually born in Thetford, Norfolk) made his mark on the War for Independence at two key points. The first was in January 1776, when his sensational pamphlet “Common Sense” became the spark that transformed a series of Colonial uprisings into a full-scale revolution.
“He really offered a vision of an independent America,” says Paramus native Harvey J. Kaye, author of “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America.” “There would never have been an American Revolution if it had not been for Thomas Paine.”
The second time was later that same year, when Paine, by then an embedded reporter with Washington’s army, witnessed its ignominious retreat from New York in November.
The first of the 13 dispatches he called “The American Crisis,” which began with the line “These are the times that try men’s souls,” became a key recruitment tool for Washington, who had it read to his assembled troops and thus convinced the disheartened men to re-enlist. Again, no Paine, no revolution.
“It’s one of the most quoted lines in American history,” says Kaye, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “If you do a [Web] search, you’ll probably find some high school football coach saying, ‘Boys, these are the times that try men’s souls.’ It’s just a phenomenon.”
So how did Thomas Paine get banished from the front ranks of history?
For one thing, Kaye says, he was an outspoken deist – a religious radical. This didn’t make him popular.
For another, he became mixed up in the French Revolution, was imprisoned by the French (for not being radical enough) and eventually circulated vitriolic letters about then-President Washington, whom he accused of not doing anything to free him. This didn’t make him popular either.
But most of all, Kaye says, he was a genuine democrat, who believed in freedom and equal opportunity for all – the working man as well as the landowner. This made him anathema to conservatives, who began a Swift-Boating campaign to vilify him in the press.
“They tried to accuse him of being an alcoholic, of abusing his wife, really terrible stuff,” Kaye says.
Some of that controversy lingers to this day.
Viola, a commander of the Fort Lee VFW (he’s a veteran of Iwo Jima) who describes himself as “more conservative, more old-school,” has his own reservations about Thomas Paine. But he’s all for giving the man his due.
“He was the right man at the right time,” Viola says of Paine.
On the Web: www.commonsensesociety.org