- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Thomas Paine’s familiar exhortation forms the centerpiece of a small but potent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery honoring his tumultuous life. Paintings, engravings and documents trace the rise and fall of this itinerant revolutionary, the most radical of the early American patriots who deserves to be better known.

“He has been compared to Michael Moore and Pat Buchanan,” says curator Margaret Christman. “He was a polarizing figure during his lifetime.”

Paine won early praise for his defense of republicanism, but came to be ostracized in his later years for criticism of the Federalists and organized religion. A large part of the exhibit is devoted to British cartoons from the 1700s and early 1800s that draw attention to his controversial positions.

In modern times, Paine’s writings about ridding the world of tyranny have come to be embraced by both right- and left-leaning politicians. They were quoted by President Reagan in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention and by President Obama in his inauguration address earlier this year.

The enduring appeal of Paine’s essays, presented in the exhibit through original copies from the Library of Congress, stems as much from his direct, persuasive writing style as his pro-independence arguments.

His most popular screed, “Common Sense” (1776), published in England and France as well as in America, initiated a public debate about liberty at a time when some Colonists thought conciliation with the British monarchy was still possible. Paine’s pamphlet is credited as turning the tide of American opinion from tepid support to the strong conviction necessary for independence.

After the Revolutionary War erupted, Paine published “The American Crisis” papers to inspire his countrymen in their fight against the British. The famous “try men’s souls” passage from the first “Crisis” pamphlet was recited by George Washington to invigorate the dispirited troops at Valley Forge.

With Paine’s celebrity came portraits by the leading artists of the day who often sympathized with his views. In 1779, Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, commissioned Maryland-born Charles Willson Peale to paint a likeness of Paine that he carried over the Atlantic to raise money for the American cause.

The painting was confiscated after Laurens was captured by the British and “dropped from sight,” according to the exhibit, but a print of it was made with the artist’s mistaken identification of the sitter as “Edward Payne, Esq.”

No lawyer, the British-born Paine started his career as a maker of corset stays. He followed that job with a stint as tax collector but was fired and fell into debt. A meeting with Benjamin Franklin in London helped pave the way for his move to Philadelphia in 1774 at age 37.

After instant fame for “Common Sense” and the “Crisis” series, the pamphleteer returned to his native England in 1787. He befriended the prominent British portraitist George Romney who created what would become the most familiar image of Paine. Romney’s 1792 painting is now lost but its image is preserved in a print by leading British engraver William Sharp.

Paine’s next major work was the two-part “Rights of Man” (1791-92), a rebuttal to conservative Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. It urged Britain to adopt an American-style constitution, eliminate aristocratic titles and establish a progressive income tax, among other reforms.

Satirizing these ideas is a 1792 caricature of Paine as a revolutionary-for-hire standing on the discarded scraps of British order. A later cartoon shows the American patriot trying to reshape Britannica by pulling on the strings of her bodice — a dig at his corset-making days.

Charges of seditious libel for the “Rights of Man” soon had Paine on the run again. In 1792, he crossed the English Channel to join the French Revolution and help write a new constitution for the republic — although he spoke no French.

His likeness was painted by a Toulouse artist, Laurent Dabos, as part of a portrait series of French revolutionaries. Paine was the only foreigner included in the group.

This small painting, acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2008, portrays Paine as a distinguished gentleman, an image at odds with his reputation for an unwashed, unkempt appearance. However, his respected position with the French government was short-lived.

In 1793, during the Reign of Terror, Paine was thrown into prison and narrowly escaped the guillotine. He emerged after nearly a year of confinement, enraged that President Washington had not secured an earlier release and published a letter denouncing the president for his inaction.

In 1802, after a 15-year absence, Paine returned to America and took up residence in New York. Far from being greeted as a hero for his early contributions to independence, he was despised as a blasphemous derelict for writing “The Age of Reason” (1793-95), an assault on organized religion and the Bible.

However, Paine was not “a filthy little atheist,” as Theodore Roosevelt described him, but self-described as a believer “in one God” hoping “for happiness beyond this life.”

For five months, Paine lived in Manhattan with the artist John Wesley Jarvis who painted his portrait in 1805. On loan from the National Gallery of Art, the canvas depicts a confident Paine in the face of criticism for denouncing the nation’s two sacred cows, George Washington and Christianity. While Jarvis found his roommate to be “one of the most pleasant companions I have met,” the press called him “a lying, drunken, brutal infidel” and “a lilly-livered sinful rogue.”

Paine further alienated Federalist leaders by accusing them of trying to return the nation to a monarchy. His views are summarized in “Mad Tom in a Rage,” an engraving by an unidentified artist showing Paine pulling down a monument to Presidents Washington and John Adams with the help of the devil.

Even after his death in 1809, Paine didn’t rest easy. His remains were dug up from his farm in New Rochelle, N.Y., by an admirer and carried off to England for enshrinement, as lampooned in a British engraving at the exhibit’s conclusion.

The memorial to Paine was never built and the fate of his bones, like his most famous portraits, is shrouded in mystery.

WHAT: “One Life: Thomas Paine, the Radical Founding Father”

WHERE: National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-8300

WEB SITE: www.npg.si.edu

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