Brief History of the Remains of Thomas Paine

From the Time of Their Disinternment in 1819.

by William Cobbett, M.P.

Down to Year 1846.

[Edited by J. Watson, 3, Queen's Head Passage, Paternoster Row, London, 1847]

With the life and writings of this celebrated man we have nothing to do in this little work, which is merely to be a concise history of his mortal remains, subsequent to the disinternmant of them by the late WILLIAM COBBETT.

It may be well just to state here, en passat, that Mr. PAINE was born in Thetford, in Norfolk, January 29, 1736[sic], that he died at Greenwich, near New York, June 8, 1809, and that he was buried at New Rochelle, about twenty miles from that city.

Mr. Paine, in his will, expresses a wish to be buried in the Quakers' burial-ground; but, that people refused to grant permission for compliance with this desire of his. On this subject, Mr. Cobbett says: -

"Mr. PAINE was the only man of distinguished talent ever produced amongst the Society of Quakers. His wish was to be buried in the Quakers' burying-ground, at New York. This wish was expressed, I believe, to Mr. WILLET HICKS, of that city. And what was the reason on which the Quakers founded their objection? Why this; that there were many who accused them of deism already; and that if they buried him in their ground, the accusation would have a circumstance to rest on. The reason was very mean, to say the best of it; and all the Quakers that I have talked with upon the subject, in America, will acknowledge that I reproached them with their cowardice; with their want of all feeling of honour; with their casting from them the only great man that their sect ever produced."

In London, there is a society formed for the purpose of collecting funds, for raising a monument to the memory of Mr. Paine, and the committee, appointed for managing the affair, have lately issued an address to the public, in which there is a mistake which all would wish to see rectified, It is as follows:


"You, the people of England", say the committee, "have all heard of Thomas Paine, the author of the Rights of Man', who went over to America, where his book, entitledCommon Sense', roused the dormant spirit of the people to declare their independence, and to shake off the British yoke. Having witnessed the successful effect of his doctrine in the New World', he returned to his native country, in the hope of producing a like effect here. With this view he published hisRights of Man', but a bigoted and tyrannical government had too strong an influence over society to permit the success of free and enlightened opinions at that time, and Paine went over to France, to assist in the revolution. There he strove, but in vain, to soften the sanguinary spirit which was endangering the cause of liberty. He afterwards retired to America, the land of his adoption, where he died. The bones of Major Andre, the spy, and Cooke, the actor, having been removed to England, for the purpose of re-internment in their native soil, with public honours, the idea suggested itself to Mr. Cobbett, who was at that time an exile in America - whither he had fled from the persecution of Sidmouth and Castereagh - that it would be a shame if the remains of Paine were left behind; and he therefore caused them to be exhumed, and to be brought to England, in the hope that he should be able to induce the admirers of disinterested patriotism, to concur in his design of paying due respect to the memory of that illustrious patriot and philanthropist. Cobbett was obliged, however, to abandon his design, and the committee now call upon the people - whom they consider the proper parties to carry such a design into effect - to come forward and accomplish it. The Americans," they say, "have erected a national monument to the author of Common Sense'; and we trust that Englishmen, who are under not less obligations to the author of theRights of Man', will show their gratitude with their usual generosity and nobleness of spirit."

Now, with regard to the disinterment, this is not chronologically correct; as the bones of Mr. PAINE were exhumed, we believe, before those of Mr. COOKE, the actor, (which, by the bye, we believe, were never disinterred, but had a monument erected over them by Kean, the great tragic actor, when he was in America), but certainly before those of the spy, ANDRE, were. Mr. Paine's remains were disinterred about Sept. 1819, as will be seen by a paragraph, in COBBETT'S REGISTER, vol. xxxv, p. 382, which he dates from Long Island, New York, and which says, "I have just done here a thing, which I have always, since I came to the country, vowed that I would do: that is, taken up the remains of our famous countryman, PAINE, in order to convey them to England. The Quakers, even the Quakers refused him a grave! And I found him lying in the corner of a rugged, barren field! * * * Our expedition set out from new York, in the middle of the night; got to the place (twenty-two miles off) at peep of day; took up the coffin entire; brought it off to New York; and just as we found it, it goes to England. Let it be considered the act of the Reformers of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In their name we opened the grave, and in their name will the tomb be raised."

Now, the first announcement that we had of the exhumation of the bones of the spy, ANDRE, is from the "New York National Advocate", of July, 25, 1821, (nearly two years after the disinterring of the remains of Mr. Paine), the account given in that paper is as follows: - "The Duke of York, in compliance with the suggestion of the British Consul in this city, has ordered him to cause the remains of the late MAJOR ANDRE to be disinterred and sent in a ship-of-war to England, to be buried in Westminster Abbey." On this Mr. Cobbett says, "Well, then, if this be true, all the difference between me and the Duke of York is, that I bring home the bones of an Englishman, famed throughout the world for his talents and writings, and who died a natural death; and that the Duke brings home the bones of the one who was hanged as a spy." - Cobbett's Register, vol. xl, p. 546.

Mr. COBBETT, when in early life, as a political writer, in Philadelphia, was a great opponent of Mr. PAINE's writings and principles; yet he wrote in such a manner as to excite some degree of admiration, even from Mr. PAINE, who, in one of his letters, speaks of him as a wit and a man of talent. Well then, we will just quote here a few sentences from Mr. COBBETT, showing his more matured and unprejudiced opinion of his quondam political opponent was. He says, - "In principles of finance Mr. PAINE was deeply skilled; and to his very great and rare talents as a writer, he added an uncommon degree of experience in the concerns of paper-money, the rise and fall of which he had witnessed in the United States and in France. * * Events have proved the truth of his principles on this subject, and to point out the fact is no more than an act of justice, due to his talents, and an act more particularly due at my hands, I having been one of his most violent assailants. Any man may fall into error, but a fool or a knave will seldom acknowledge it." - Paper against Gold.

Addressing Lord Folkstone, (now Radnor,) he says, - "Read PAINE, my Lord, read the essay (Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance,) of this famous Englishman; this true Englishman; this son of the `Lower Orders'; this honour to his country and the human mind * * * PAINE was described, by the base BURKE, as a traitor and a rebel. This wretch, when defeated by our brother PAINE, called upon the Attorney-General to defend him against his vanquisher! The call was obeyed; PAINE fled to France from the fangs of the bloody monsters. He never again set his foot on the land of his birth, and to which he was so great an honour." - Cobbett's Register, vol. xxxiv, p. 991.

Again, - "Old age having laid his hand upon this truly great man, this truly philosophical politician, at his expiring flambeau I lighted my taper." - Ibid., vol. xxxv, p. 724.

And, in the same volume, Mr. COBBETT says, "I saw PAINE first pointing the way, and then leading a nation through perils and difficulties of all sorts, to independence and to lasting liberty, prosperity and greatness."

Another extract and we have done. "Jefferson, and some others, have had the credit of being the authors of the Declaration of Independence of America. Either of them, for aught I know, may have written it; but PAINE was its AUTHOR." Vol. lxviii, p. 60.

We could greatly add to the above, by other quotations by the same author, but our limits forbid; we must, therefore, continue our self-appointed task.

Mr. COBBETT landed at Liverpool, from America, November 21, 1819, with these remains in his possession; where they remained down to the time of his death (except during a short time that he placed them in the keeping of a well known friend of his in Hampshire), and we have now to trace them down to the present time (1846) into the possession of Mr. B. TILLY, of No. 13, Bedford Square, East, London, who has had them in his care since March, 1844, and who, having had opportunities for seeing them, whilst in Mr. Cobbett's hands, can verify them as being the identical ones that Mr. C had as the undoubted and genuine remains of Mr. PAINE. He has, also, the coffin-plate that was taken up with them, on which, though much corroded, may be seen the following inscription. "THOMAS PAINE, died June 8, 1809, aged 74 years."

On the death of Mr. Cobbett, which took place, June 18, 1835, at Normandy-farm, near Farnham, Surrey; his eldest son, being sole executor, of course had possession of the farm, at Normandy; and, amongst the things there, were the remains of Mr. Paine, in an old trunk, which was packed and sealed up by Mr. Tilly, in January, 1833, and sent by him from Bolt Court, London, to Normandy-farm, where they had remained down to the death of Mr. Cobbett; and, after his death, his eldest son inscribed his name in several places on the skull and on most of the larger bones of the limbs, in order, we suppose, to the more easy verifications of them in case of doubt or dispute, and which inscriptions are now visible on them.

Well, then, we have now traced them down to the possession of Mr. COBBETT Junior; and, having made good our ground thus far, we will continue our narrative, which will not cost us much time or trouble, But to do this succinctly, it will be necessary to state that, within a few weeks, after the death of Mr. COBBETT, this gentleman, (his son and executor), was arrested for a debt of his own, and totally unconnected with the estate of his late father; and, that, whilst under the pressure of all the harassing circumstances connected with an action for debt, one JESSE OLDFIELD, who had been a shopman to Mr. COBBETT for about a year and a half, appeared before the public as a creditor of the estate, to the amount of many hundreds of pounds! And filed a bill in Chancery, charging Mr. C. Jun., with insolvency and with a design not to pay his father's debts. This took place in July, 1835, about one month after the death of Mr. COBBETT. On the 1st of August following, OLDFIELD obtained an injunction against Mr. C. Jun., restraining him from interfering or intermeddling with the estate, and for appointing a receiver and manager thereto. On the 18th of August a receiver was appointed in the person of Mr. GEORGE WEST, a farmer, living at Normandy, on a farm adjoining that of the late Mr. COBBETT. This receiver, as a matter of course, took possession of the property at the farm, consisting of the live and dead stock, implements of husbandry, crops of corn, hay, seeds, household furniture, &c.; and amongst the various things, thus committed to his care, was the box containing the remains of Mr. PAINE; which, when the effects of the late Mr. COBBETT were publicly sold in January, 1836, were brought forward to the auctioneer for him to put them up for sale! This he would not do. They were, therefore, withdrawn and retained in the possession of the receiver to await orders of the LORD CHANCELLOR, who, on the subject being mentioned to him in Court, refused to recognize them as part of the estate, or to make any order respecting them. They were, therefore, left for the receiver to do whatever he chose with them; but, he determined to retain them in his possession as long as the receivership lasted; from which he was finally relieved in 1839; from which time, down to the month of March, 1844, he continued to hold them, to ascertain whether the creditors of the estate, to which he had been so long the receiver, would relieve him of them; but as none of them had ever made any inquiry about them, and as no other person had any semblance of right to them, he considered that he had a perfect right to get rid of them in any way that he pleased. He was, also, in his old age, and with a very numerous and young family, just then compelled to leave his little farm and to become a farming day-labourer. Every one can easily conceive the impossibility of such relics being preserved by such a man and under such circumstances; and, having ascertained that Mr. TILLY, whom he had long known, had expressed a desire that Mr. COBBETT's intentions, regarding them, should be carried into effect, he, therefore, in March, 1844, (after they had been in his hands nearly nine years), conveyed them to London, and gave them into the possession of Mr. Tilly; by whom they have since been kept; and by whom they will, in all probability, be kept, until a public funeral of them can be arranged. On this subject Mr. COBBETT said, when he brought them to England: - "If it please God to give us life, we will have a funeral worthy of the remains that are to be buried. I do not say when this shall take place; but it shall be, if I live, in a season when twenty wagon-loads of flowers can be brought to strew the road before the hearse."

In closing this brief account, we will present our readers with the forcible and elegant tribute, to the character, talents, and worth of THOMAS PAINE, by the celebrated and eloquent CHARLES PHILLIPS, in his work called the "Loves of Celestine and St. Albert." It is as follows: - "Among these there was one whom I could not help viewing with peculiar admiration, because, by the sole power of surprising genius, he had surmounted the disadvantages of birth, and the difficulties of fortune. It was the celebrated THOMAS PAINE; a man, who, no matter what may be the difference of opinion as to his principles, must ever remain a proud example of mind, unpatronised and unsupported, eclipsing the factitious beams of rank, and wealth, and pedigree! I never saw him in his captivity, nor heard the revilings with which he has since been assailed, without cursing in my heart that ungenerous feeling, which, cold to the necessities of genius, is clamorous in the publication of its defects. Ye great ones of his nation! Ye pretended moralists! So forward now to cast your interested indignation upon the memory of PAINE, where were you in the day of his adversity! which of you, to assist his infant merit, would diminish even the surplus of your debaucheries! Where the mitred charity! The practical religion! Consistent declaimers, rail on! What, though his genius was the gift of heaven, his heart the altar of friendship! What, though wit and eloquence and antecdote flowed freely from his tongue: while conviction made his voice her messenger! What, though thrones trembled, and prejudice fled, and freedom came at his command! He dared to question the creed which you, believing, contradicted; and to despise the rank which you, boasting of, debased."

Finally, it is to be hoped that the time is not far distant when such a funeral shall take place: such a monument be raised and such honours done to these sacred remains, as will show that the people of the present age, casting caut, hypocrisy, prejudice, and ingratitude from them, can appreciate the sterling worth of the great mind that once animated these interesting relics of that " NOBLE OF NATURE", THOMAS PAINE.