History

From an article in the Truth Seeker magazine from January and
February, 2015. Go to www.thetruthseeker.net for other articles
related to Paine and the history of free thought in America.

The Thomas Paine National Historical Association: Freethought, Anarchism, and the Struggle for Free Speech - Part I

by Gary Berton, Secretary of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association Coordinator of the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College

The Thomas Paine National Historical Association (TPNHA) was created in the late 19th century by leading progressives in the midst of the Gilded Age. The creation was both a political and an historic achievement which had a meaningful impact. In that period of American history, the activists for labor, woman’s rights, social justice, and freethought tended to co-exist in the same organization, and even in the same person. Progressives were multi-tasking, serving on, or writing for, freethinking organizations, political action groups, suffrage movements, civil rights groups, and labor groups and parties. It was a period of great transition as the country and economy moved into a new era of capitalist extremes, and the response by progressive people and intellectuals to the transition took the form of organizing these associations.

The focal point of much of the progressive activist work was the Comstock Act of 1873 for the "Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use." This included any contraception information, and philosophies that supported them, like free thinking. Anti-religious organizations, as well as free speech advocates, became a target of the government. These groups had in common their opposition to religious dogma, including the suppression of women’s rights. It served also to reinforce anarchist ideas and free speech advocacy in reaction, and it added a dimension to a growing socialist movement. As a result people like D.M. Bennett, founder and editor of the Truth Seeker, Ezra Heywood, editor of the Word, and others were arrested and jailed under the Comstock Act. It was in the wake of this political struggle that TPNHA was formed and led by a leading organizer against the Comstock Act and its enforcement – Thaddeus Wakeman.

The formation of TPNHA was part of the developing struggle to educate the people about issues of free speech, labor rights, women’s rights, education, prison reform and freethought. Thomas Paine was the uniting figure in American history that all these organizations had in common. The re-establishment of Thomas Paine as a preeminent founding father was part of this education movement, and that continues to this day. In 1878, eventual TPNHA founders Dr. E.B. Foote, T.B. Wakeman, E.A. Chamberlain, and others founded the National Defense Association (NDA) to organize against the Comstock Law. The formation of the NDA – a forerunner of the ACLU – led to dissension in the movement, and a split in the National Liberal League. The League was a unifying force in the early period of formation of these progressive groups, advocating the “Nine Demands of Liberalism.” The demands centered around separation of church and state, in opposition to favoritism shown to religious creeds in government functions. The Liberal League eventually split in 1884 over whether social and political issues other than freethought should be included in their agenda. The group that split off was led by Robert Ingersoll who formed the American Secular Union. Those remaining in the Liberal League, in particular some of the leaders of the formation of TPNHA like Foote, Wakeman and Chamberlain, continued to advocate for all issues of free speech including women’s rights, labor struggles and social justice. Integral to this more radical faction was the Truth Seeker, headquartered in Manhattan.

The lack of involvement in the TPNHA by Robert Ingersoll, the famous orator and the most popular and well-known of the Paine supporters in his day, can be traced to the struggle against the Comstock Act. Ingersoll broke with many of the people who founded TPNHA over their militancy in opposition to the Act, and he advocated a legal campaign as opposed to those who wanted a social, mass movement fight as well. Others, who led the militant battle against the repressive Comstock Act, came together to form TPNHA as another tool in their arsenal. This mild split in the movement kept Ingersoll at arm’s length to the Paine group until 1892 when he addressed TPNHA at the Manhattan Liberal Club. But Robert Ingersoll never joined the TPNHA Board. He did, however, deliver two more addresses for TPNHA later in the 1890s.

Here are the first minutes of the Association:

“The Thomas Paine National Historical Association was organized on
January 29th, 1884, the 147th anniversary of the birth of Thomas
Paine, at a meeting held in the rooms of the Manhattan Liberal
Club, 220 East 15th St., New York City.

Thaddeus B. Wakeman addressed the gathering on the subject of a
Paine Association, pointing out the need of such an organization
to perpetuate the memory and works of Thomas Paine, to obtain and
disseminate accurate information about him, to refute the various
slanders and fables that have been circulated concerning him, and
to hold in perpetuity the Paine monument at New Rochelle and the
piece of land upon which the marble shaft stands. …

Prof. Wakeman was elected chairman of the meeting. A committee was
appointed to organize the Paine Association, with Prof. Wakeman
also serving as chairman of the committee. The other members of
this committee were: Stephen Pearl Andrews, Dr. E.B. Foote, Sr.,
Dr. E.B. Foote, Jr., Wilson MacDonald, Samuel P. Putnam, Eugene
M. Macdonald, Mrs. A.C. Macdonald, Mrs. Kate G. Foote,
E.A. Chamberlain, Louis F. Post, Charles P. Somerby, Capt. George
W. Lloyd [sic], Mrs. Hannah A. Allen, Daniel E. Ryan and
T.C. Leland.”

There is a long history of Thomas Paine Birthday Celebrations going back to the 1820’s. They were held by labor groups and unions for the most part, but deist and free thinking associations also held birthday parties in his memory. Thomas Skidmore’s book The Rights of Man to Property in 1829 solidified Paine’s place in the labor movement, and gave new weight to his birthday celebrations. The growing abolitionist movement, although not directly channeling Thomas Paine, was giving rise to freethought and women’s rights groups who did. The Manhattan Liberal Club held these birthday celebrations since its founding in 1869, and it was at one of these celebrations in 1884 that TPNHA was founded.

The Manhattan Liberal Club was a freethought and politically progressive gathering place for New Yorkers, and its members were also members of national organizations such as the Liberal League, a leading freethought and social/political advocacy group for progressive ideas. The Manhattan Liberal Club was a place for open discussions on politics and philosophy, inviting eminent figures such as Emma Goldman and Lincoln Steffens. The Club was supported by and interlocked with the Truth Seeker which commissioned a book about the Manhattan Liberal Club in 1884.

From the biographies of its founders, we can understand who formed TPNHA and how it represented the different forces of the progressive organizing movement. This will be taken up in Part II of this article. But from the biographical review, several things become evident: nine of the sixteen had close ties to the Truth Seeker; there was also a close connection to the Liberal League, the National Defense Association, and the Manhattan Liberal Club, as well as the free speech movement and women’s rights. And they were all freethinkers. From the timing of the formation of TPNHA just prior to the official split in the Liberal League, it is clear that TPNHA’s formation was integral to a growing political movement centered in freethought, women’s rights, and the labor movement with ties to the People’s Party, anarchist thinking, and the Populists. This emphasis continues in the following decades after its formation.

These trends can all be seen in the leading figure of TPNHA’s formation, Thaddeus Burr Wakeman. Prof. Wakeman (1834 –1913) was a noted academic, attorney, and philosopher who ran for Attorney-General of New York, and other offices, unsuccessfully on a progressive party platform. He came to TPNHA as the President of the Liberal League. He was the head of the Liberal University of Oregon, and edited the newspaper Man, which promoted the politics and philosophy of the Liberal League. Wakeman became active in Monism, a more modern form of deism, which sought to end the hold of religion on civilization and instead promote the culture of science. Wakeman, along with the Truth Seeker, and many of the names here on this list, was a leading spokesman against attempts by the state through the Comstock Acts to repress the growing progressive movements. (Wakeman served as attorney for D.M. Bennett during his 1879 obscenity trial.) T.B. Wakeman was the guiding hand of TPNHA until his death in 1913, serving on and off as President as needed, and cultivating new officers.

The Thomas Paine National Historical Association: Freethought, Anarchism, and the Struggle for Free Speech Part II

From its founding in 1884 until after World War I, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association held to the same philosophical foundations of its founders – freethought, free speech, anarchism and socialism. From the timing of the formation of the TPNHA just prior to the official split in the National Liberal League, it is clear that the TPNHA’s formation was integral to a growing political movement centered in freethought, women’s rights, and the labor movement with ties to the People’s Party of New York, anarchist philosophy, and the Populist movement. This emphasis continues in the following decades after its formation.

Along with Thaddeus Wakeman, the leading force behind the formation of the TPNHA, the biographies of the other members of the original board of the Historical Association reflect all the aspects of the growing progressive movement in America. Dr. Edward Bond “Ned” Foote, Jr. was a founding member of the Manhattan Liberal Club and the Free Speech League, gave financial support to Mother Jones and Emma Goldman, and took a leadership role in many organizations promoting women’s rights to contraception. His father, Dr. Foote, Sr., was also a TPNHA founder, and was one of the first to be arrested under the Comstock Law after promoting sexual education and contraception rights. Foote, Sr. also ran for the New York Senate under the Populist party banner, the People’s Party. Other founding board members had ties to the People’s Party, which was an east coast version of the agrarian based populism that swept the south and west farmers and associated unions. It provided a political outlet for progressives prior to the development of the 20th century progressive parties.

The strongest tie between the founders of the TPNHA was freethought, and the consequent links with the leading freethought publication, the Truth Seeker. In 1881, prior to the TPNHA founding, Truth Seeker editor D.M. Bennett spearheaded a fund-raising campaign for the renovation of the vandalized Thomas Paine monument at New Rochelle. At the Memorial Day rededication ceremony of the repaired monument that year, Bennett gave a speech and made a memorable visit to the farmhouse where Thomas Paine lived.

All the founders of the TPNHA were freethought advocates, and many came together through the Manhattan Liberal Club, the center in New York for promotion of freethinking. Wakeman was D.M. Bennett’s lawyer, and Ned Foote and his father were close personal friends of Bennett. The founders also included Truth Seeker proofreader Asenath Chase Macdonald and her sons Eugene and George who succeeded Bennett as editors. Daniel Ryan and Theron Leland were close friends of Bennett as well. All in all, nine of the sixteen founders of the TPNHA had known close ties to D.M. Bennett and the Truth Seeker.

Anarchist and labor advocates were also prevalent on the TPNHA’s original board. In addition to many of the founders already mentioned, who actively supported the People’s Party of New York, and also ran for office under those party banners, other leading radical thinkers are found on the board: Stephen Pearl Andrews was a leading anarchist, who began as a labor movement advocate and abolitionist; E.W. Chamberlain was a contributor to Truth Seeker, and was involved in the People’s Party; Louis Freeland Post was a Georgist, who applied Paine’s Agrarian Justice to policies of a single-tax and public land, was editor of a pro-labor journal, and later became Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of Labor.

The founding board also included prominent freethought publishers, Samuel P. Putnam and Charles P. Somerby, and Paine advocate, George Loyd (also a member of the Populist Party). Another founding board member was Wilson MacDonald, the sculptor of the bust atop the Paine Monument and the bronze medallion on the D.M. Bennett monument in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery.

T.B. Wakeman and Ned Foote continued in their leading roles at the TPNHA, and Wilson MacDonald stayed active after the turn of the century. After 1894, Moncure Conway began to take an active role in the Association. Having published his breakthrough Paine biography in 1892, Conway developed close ties to TPNHA, donated most of the valuable artifacts, and eventually became President when the Thomas Paine National Historical Association incorporated in 1906, but died soon after.

But others who joined the Association and took an active leadership role still reflected the TPNHA’s founding philosophy. Edwin C. Walker and Theodore Schroeder began to take a leadership role by the early 1900’s, Schroeder becoming Secretary at the incorporation in 1906, and Walker was presiding over meetings by 1901 and became Vice-President briefly in 1906. Edwin C. Walker was a leading opponent of the Comstock Law and wrote Who is the Enemy: Anthony Comstock or You? in 1903, followed by Communism and Conscience which espoused market anarchism. The philosophy of anarchism was beginning to separate itself within left-wing circles at the turn of the 20th century, and the TPNHA’s leadership had strong anarchist associations besides Walker. The ties to Emma Goldman, the leading representative and advocate for anarchism in the U.S., had ties to Ned Foote, the Manhattan Liberal Club, the Liberal League, and eventually the future president of the TPNHA, William van der Weyde. The socialism advocated by the northeast progressives frequently mixed with anarchism, and Emma Goldman was the ideological lightning rod. She advocated an anarcho-communist philosophy which would not separate from socialism per se until after World War I.

Theodore Schroeder defended Emma Goldman at her trial in Denver and relocated to New York in 1903. He was a lawyer supporting free speech rights and sexual freedom, and played a role in the Free Speech League with Ned Foote. The rededication of the Paine monument in New Rochelle in 1905 had as its speakers Schroeder, Wakeman, Ned Foote and the Mayor of New Rochelle. The following year Theodore Schroeder was voted the Secretary of the TPNHA.

The TPNHA had close ties to other left labor groups, but the leading positions in the TPNHA often went to anarchists, as exemplified by Leonard Abbott. Abbott first became active in 1908, and then President in 1910. Abbott was a leader in Eugene Debs’ Social Democratic Party of America, but by 1905 had drifted also towards anarchism, establishing schools promoting libertarian methods. By the time he was President for a year in 1910, he was active on free speech issues, and he was working with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman in establishing the Ferrer School, an educational center for anarchist philosophy. The school became linked to a bombing incident against John D. Rockefeller in 1914, and forced to close. Abbott gave the speech to 5,000 people commemorating the bombers killed.

None of these ties to activist anarchists could have happened without the blessings of Thaddeus Wakeman, who was still the most influential leader of the TPNHA. He stepped in to hold the office of President when needed (1908 and 1911), and was a mentor to the rising TPNHA leader, William van der Weyde. T.B. Wakeman’s politics were unclear, and his role was mostly academic, but his Monist movement support reflected also a social and political component with affinity towards anarchist views.

William van der Weyde became involved in the Association in 1909 succeeding Schroeder’s short duty as Secretary. He remained Secretary of the TPNHA until he became President in 1914, and served as President until his death in 1929. A follower of Emma Goldman, Van der Weyde wrote an article on “Thomas Paine’s Anarchism.” Although the premise and support for his argument have been seriously undermined by Paine scholars since, it does show the anarchist influence in the TPNHA. Van der Weyde’s father was a member of the Manhattan Liberal Club, and it is there that he likely learned the politics of the progressive movements. A photographer by trade, Van der Weyde photographed numerous famous and influential people of his day, including Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. He was also an innovator in night photography, and photography used in newspapers.

The TPNHA philosophy of its leadership can be seen in the Presidency of James F. Morton between Wakeman in 1911 and van der Weyde in 1914. Morton contained all the politics of the leading board members: he graduated from Harvard with W.E.B. DuBois, and became active in the NAACP. He was an anarchist writer all of his life, and close friends with H.P. Lovecraft, writing for Mother Earth (Emma Goldman’s publication at the time), the Truth Seeker, and Discontent. He was also a part of the Ferrer School in New York City.

The close alliance with the Truth Seeker continued into the 20th century and freethought continued to be the uniting force behind the composition and educational role of the TPNHA. The premiere events that the TPNHA held for the rededication of the Paine monument in 1905 and in 1909 for the centennial of Paine’s death, were covered by the Truth Seeker. George Macdonald who succeeded his brother Eugene as editor of the Truth Seeker, became an officer of the Historical Association, led numerous event committees, and was an Honorary V.P. for many years in the 1910’s. Other Honorary V.P.’s included Ernst Haeckel (the famous Darwinian biologist and Monist who had ties to Wakeman), and Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner (the freethinking English philosopher and daughter of the great English atheist writer and member of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh).

When the TPNHA built the Thomas Paine Memorial Building near the Paine Monument in 1925, Thomas Edison, the freethinking inventor, was made Vice President and Cyril Nast as Treasurer, to facilitate the construction under van der Weyde’s direction. Norman Thomas, the frequent candidate for the Socialist Party in the early 20th century, gave the keynote address at the ground-breaking ceremony for the building. The Honorary V.P.’s during these years in the early 1920’s included Anatole France (Nobel Prize winning author and freethinker), Hypatia Bonner, George Macdonald, and other notable literary European figures Eden Phillpotts, Georg Brandes, and William Archer.

But when van der Weyde took ill soon after the Memorial Building was completed, and eventually died at the onset of the Great Depression, the fortunes of the Thomas Paine Historical Association suddenly declined. The resources and past leaders had died or faded away, and eventually the TPNHA turned toward the local historical group in New Rochelle to provide leadership. The legacy, however, of those formative 40 years provide a historical memory and background that has been revived in recent years, as the Historical Association has moved into a leading role of a world trend in Thomas Paine Studies, and is playing an integral part in advancing the scholarship on Paine and his continuing impact on world politics. Thomas Paine remains an inspiration and mentor to the progressive forces of freethought and democratic struggles around the world, and the TPNHA will continue to educate the world about his life and works. As T.B. Wakeman noted at its founding: “to perpetuate the memory and works of Thomas Paine, to obtain and disseminate accurate information about him, to refute the various slanders and fables that have been circulated concerning him…”

The Thomas Paine National Historical Association has continually been supported by the freethought community in America. We have always been an all-volunteer Association, and the work to maintain our educational programs about Thomas Paine and his legacy, and to maintain the Paine Memorial Building, need that support to continue.