Thomas Paine Draws the Spotlight Once Again

Posted September 8, 2009 at 4:32pm

He was both loved and hated during his lifetime. And now Thomas Paine, who was quoted in President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech nearly 200 years after his death, is getting another celebration at the National Portrait Gallery.

Paine joins a list of Americans honored by the gallery’s “One Life— series.

The exhibit on Paine, which opened last month, is housed in a small room on the first floor of the gallery. The dark gray walls, wood paneled floors and floodlights provide a traditional setting for the works. Three display cases in the middle of the rooms show original Paine works, including the famous pamphlet “Common Sense,— all on loan from the Library of Congress.

The exhibit pays tribute to a man whose work is still important, said Julia Zirinsky of the National Portrait Gallery. “His Common Sense’ pamphlet is something that is still loved,— she said.

In addition to his work, the story of Paine’s life was influential in his selection as the subject of this year’s “One Life— feature.

“No one has more story, more drama, than Thomas Paine,— said Maggie Christman, the curator of the exhibit.

The fact that the Portrait Gallery was close to obtaining a famous portrait of the writer — an oil painting by Laurent Dabos, which the museum eventually purchased — also contributed to the selection of Paine.

After Paine was selected, the gallery realized the exhibit would coincide with an important anniversary. June 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Paine’s death, Christman said. “So we didn’t quite make it, but we’re close.—

In many mainstream histories, Paine is one of the Founding Fathers who is pushed to the side, possibly because later in life he became engaged in a feud with George Washington. Still, Christman said that he remains intensely popular with many people.

“In a sense he has been forgotten, but his words have never been forgotten,— she said. “He really still has a cult following.— In fact, she said, Paine was truly a “polarizing figure.—

A sign of the popularity of Paine’s words was this quote used by Obama in his January speech: “Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet— it.

Although Obama did not refer to Paine by name, he told a story of Washington reading the statement to his troops during the American Revolution.

One popular discussion among Paine fanatics, Christman said, is to discuss who might be the 20th-century version of the man considered to be our most radical Founding Father. While she declined to say who she thought this was, she did offer up a few of her favorite suggestions from others. “One person said Michael Moore, and someone said Pat Buchanan,— she said. “So take your choice.—

Past “One Life— features have focused on Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and actress Katharine Hepburn. After the Paine exhibit closes Nov. 29, the museum will look at the life of Elvis Presley.