Walt Whitman on Thomas Paine
In Memory of Thomas Paine by Walt Whitman
Spoken at Lincoln Hall, Philadelphia, Sunday, Jan. 28, 1877, for 140th anniversary of T. P.’s birth-day.
SOME thirty-five years ago, in New York city, at Tammany hall, of which place I was then a frequenter, I happen’d to become quite well acquainted with Thomas Paine’s perhaps most intimate chum, and certainly his later years’ very frequent companion, a remarkably fine old man, Col. Fellows, who may yet be remember’d by some stray relics of that period and spot. If you will allow me, I will first give a description of the Colonel himself. He was tall, of military bearing, aged about 78 I should think, hair white as snow, clean-shaved on the face, dress’d very neatly, a tail-coat of blue cloth with metal buttons, buff vest, pantaloons of drab color, and his neck, breast and wrists showing the whitest of linen. Under all circumstances, fine manners; a good but not profuse talker, his wits still fully about him, balanced and live and undimm’d as ever. He kept pretty fair health, though so old. For employment-for he was poor-he had a post as constable of some of the upper courts. I used to think him very picturesque on the fringe of a crowd holding a tall staff, with his erect form, and his superb, bare, thickhair’d, closely-cropt white head. The judges and young lawyers, with whom he was ever a favorite, and the subject of respect, used to call him Aristides. It was the general opinion among them that if manly rectitude and the instincts of absolute justice remain’d vital anywhere about New York City Hall, or Tammany, they were to be found in Col. Fellows. He liked young men, and enjoy’d to leisurely talk with them over a social glass of toddy, after his day’s work, (he on these occasions never drank but one glass,) and it was at reiterated meetings of this kind in old Tammany’s back parlor of those days, that he told me much about Thomas Paine. At one of our interviews he gave me a minute account of Paine’s sickness and death. In short, from those talks, I was and am satisfied that my old friend, with his mark’d advantages, had mentally, morally and emotionally gauged the author of “Common Sense,” and besides giving me a good portrait of his appearance and manners, had taken the true measure of his interior character. 1
Paine’s practical demeanor, and much of his theoretical belief, was a mixture of the French and English schools of a century ago, and the best of both. Like most old-fashion’d people, he drank a glass or two every day, but was no tippler, nor intemperate, let alone being a drunkard. He lived simply and economically, but quite well-was always cheery and courteous, perhaps occasionally a little blunt, having very positive opinions upon politics, religion, and so forth. That he labor’d well and wisely for the States in the trying period of their parturition, and in the seeds of their character, there seems to me no question. I dare not say how much of what our Union is owning and enjoying to day-its independence-its ardent belief in, and substantial practice of, radical human rights-and the severance of its government from all ecclesiastical and superstitious dominion-I dare not say how much of all this is owing to Thomas Paine, but I am inclined to think a good portion of it decidedly is. 2
But I was not going either into an analysis or eulogium of the man. I wanted to carry you back a generation or two, and give you by indirection a moment’s glance-and also to ventilate a very earnest and I believe authentic opinion, nay conviction, of that time, the fruit of the interviews I have mention’d, and of questioning and cross-questioning, clench’d by my best information since, that Thomas Paine had a noble personality, as exhibited in presence, face, voice, dress, manner, and what may be call’d his atmosphere and magnetism, especially the later years of his life. I am sure of it. Of the foul and foolish fictions yet told about the circumstances of his decease, the absolute fact is that as he lived a good life, after its kind, he died calmly and philosophically, as became him. He served the embryo Union with most precious service-a service that every man, woman and child in our thirty-eight States is to some extent receiving the benefit of to day-and I for one here cheerfully, reverently throw my pebble on the cairn of his memory. As we all know, the season demands-or rather, will it ever be out of season?-that America learn to better dwell on her choicest possession, the legacy of her good and faithful men-that she well preserve their fame, if unquestion’d-or, if need be, that she fail not to dissipate what clouds have intruded on that fame, and burnish it newer, truer and brighter, continually.
WITH WALT WHITMAN IN CAMDEN by Horace Traubel (from the TPNHA Collection)
January 25, 1889
After continual general talk of Poe, W. said:
“I have seen Poe - met him: he impressed me very favorably: was dark, quiet, handsome - Southern from top to toe: languid, tired out, it is true, but altogether ingratiating.”
Was that in New York?
“Oh, yes: there: we had only a brief visit: he was frankly conciliatory: I left him with no doubts left, if I ever had any.” Poe was “curiously a victim of history-like Paine.” “The disposition to parade, to magnify, his defects has grown in to a habit: every literary, every moralistic, jackanapes who comes along has to give him an additional kick. His weaknesses were obvious enough to anybody: but what do they amount to after all? Paine is defamed in the same way: poor Paine: rich Paine: they spare him nothing.”
I said: ” You should write about Paine.”
He nodded, “So I should, I don’t think there’s anybody living - anybody at all - (I don’t think there ever was anybody, living or dead) - more able than I am to depict, to picture, Paine, in the right way. I have told you of my old friend Colonel Fellows: he was an uncommon man both in what he looked like and in what he was: nobly formed, with thick white hair - white as milk: beard: striking characteristics everyhow.”
He proceeded: “We had many talks together in the back room of the City Hall. The instant he saw I was interested in Paine he became communicative - frankly unbosomed himself. His Paine story amounted to a resurrection of Paine out of the horrible calumnies, infamies, under which orthodox hatred had buried him. Paine was old, alone, poor: it’s that, it’s what accrues from that, that his slanderers have made the most of: anything lower, meaner, more contemptible, I cannot imagine: to take an aged man - a man tired to death after a complicated life of toil, struggle, anxiety - weak, dragged down, at death’s door: poor: with perhaps habits that may come with such distress: then to pull him into the mud, distort everything he does and says: oh, it’s infamous! There seems to be this hyena disposition, some exceptional (thank God rare!) venom, in some men which is never satisfied except it is engaged in some work of vandalism. I can forgive anything but that.”