- International Society for the Study of Thomas Paine Conference
Simultaneously one of the most influential and reviled figures of the late eighteenth century, Thomas Paine continues to inspire a wide range of reactions to his work. He remains a hero to radicals of various stripes, including rights activists, advocates of the working class, and religious dissidents. Strangely, even conservatives have come to celebrate Paine as a populist hero (witness Glenn Beck’s bizarre embrace of him). His legacy is equally muddled among scholars, who argue over his relevance, the value of his contributions, and the significance of his role in the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. These multiple versions of Thomas Paine were on display at the First International Conference of Thomas Paine Studies, hosted by Iona College. An eclectic mix of scholars, activists, Paine enthusiasts, and public historians gathered for a two-day event that sought to touch on the many facets of Paine’s career, including his political, religious, and social views and his historical and literary legacy. The program, coordinated by Daniel Thiery, was designed to highlight a variety of disciplinary approaches to Paine as well as new technologies and methodologies for analyzing his work.
The occasion for the conference was the acquisition by Iona College of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association’s collections. The TPNHA had fallen on difficult times, and the library collections were in jeopardy when Iona stepped in to rescue the collection. The college is located just a few blocks away from the house where Paine spent the latter years of his life, which has been beautifully renovated by a reinvigorated TPNHA. This is the property (confiscated from Loyalists) that Congress [End Page 517] awarded to Paine in gratitude for his service to the cause of the American Revolution. Iona organized the conference to celebrate the college’s acquisition of the library and the creation of a new center for the study of Paine, and to encourage a new wave of scholarly and popular interest. Scholars and aficionados travelled to New Rochelle from across the United States and Europe. Panels were dedicated to Paine’s contributions to religion, rhetoric, literature, political philosophy, ethics, and British, American, and French history.
One of the persistent themes of the conference was the atomization of scholarship on Paine, in both the scholarly attention to the variety of works he produced and the geographic dispersion of his career. Typically, for example, scholars focus on either Paine’s politics (Common Sense, Rights of Man) or his religious critique (Age of Reason). Within those categories, furthermore, Paine scholarship is divided disciplinarily between historians, literary scholars, philosophers, and political scientists who often don’t read each other’s work. One of the presentations, in fact, sought to quantify Paine’s historical and cultural impact by analyzing the main subject headings of Paine’s works (political theory and the state), the most frequently cited scholars, the most frequently cited article (Jordan White’s article on “Familial Politics”), and the journals that have published the most articles on Paine (American Literature, Early American Literature, and the William and Mary Quarterly). Interestingly, the latter suggests that Paine has inspired more interest among scholars of literature than among scholars of history, philosophy, or political science.
Paine scholarship is further divided between the French, the British, and the Americans. The British tend to focus on Rights of Man and see Paine mostly as an activist, philosopher, and working-class hero. The American Paine is mostly identified with Common Sense and Paine’s role in the Revolution, but also includes a substantial engagement with the question of religious freedom and Age of Reason. The French Paine is also largely concerned with Age of Reason, since he authored it while there, but also includes a significant strand of interest in his role in the French Revolution and in particular with his influence on the Declaration of the Rights of Man. As one scholar at the conference noted: “There is the British debate on Paine, the French debate, and the...