Thomas Paine, the American Crisis, and Greenwich Village
“These are the times that try men’s souls…” so says the opening line of the first pamphlet of the series, The American Crisis, written by Thomas Paine, which was published on December 19, 1776, in the Pennsylvania Journal. Paine, an eighteenth-century philosopher and author of the Enlightenment, was known as the ‘Father of the American Revolution,’ in large part because of The American Crisis and his other famous pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), which advocated for American independence and helped incite the American Revolution.
Long after the War of Independence, Paine’s spent his final years in Greenwich Village. A record of his presence in the neighborhood can be found in several locations — if you know where to look.
Thomas Paine was born in England on February 9, 1737. In 1774 in London he met Benjamin Franklin, who encouraged him to move to the American colonies. Arriving in November of 1774, he found work as a writer with The Pennsylvania magazine, where he later became editor. He grew impassioned about the cause of the independence from England for the colonies, writing the pamphlet Common Sense. Only 47 pages in length, it detailed and crystallized the argument for American independence. It was published on January 10, 1776, and gained instant popularity across the thirteen colonies, selling 100,000 copies in the first year.
The American Crisis series was written in December of 1776 in order to fan the flames of American patriotism. General Washington read the first pamphlet to the troops on December 23, 1776, on the eve of the famous Battle of Trenton. In total The American Crisis series consisted of 16 pamphlets published between 1776 and 1783 during the Revolutionary War, serving to inspire the American troops and public during the long, arduous years of the Revolutionary War.
Following the American Revolution, Paine went to France and became involved with the French Revolution. Though initially accepted by the French Revolutionaries and even elected to the National Convention, he was eventually arrested and imprisoned on December 28, 1793. During his time in France he wrote The Age of Reason, which would prove controversial as it outlined his criticism of organized religion. Although he was only in prison for eleven months, his health was compromised as a result of his imprisonment.
Paine returned to the United States in 1802 and found his popularity quite diminished; in fact, his reputation as an atheist would put his reputation in disfavor for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Teddy Roosevelt would refer to him as “that filthy little atheist”). Penniless, nearly friendless, and in poor health, Paine moved into a modest boarding house owned by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Ryder, on what was then called Herring Street (the address would now be known as 309 Bleecker Street, between Barrow and Grove Streets). The house still stood as late as 1930 when, with little outcry and common knowledge that it had been the home of Thomas Paine, it was demolished to make way for a 1-story store (which was demolished and replaced with another 1-story store building in 1957).
309 Bleecker Street is not the only evidence of Paine’s legacy in the Village that has been eradicated. The street just to the south of 309 Bleecker Street was renamed ‘Reason Street’ in his honor not long after his death. However, with Paine’s stature already diminished at the time of his death, New Yorkers began to derisively refer to the street as ‘Raisin Street’. The street name was held in such disdain that by 1828 the city fathers had renamed it Barrow Street, which is remains today.
But 309 Bleecker was not Paine’s last residence in Greenwich Village, and fortunately there is greater evidence of and respect for his presence at this location. As Paine’s health declined, it became necessary to move him out of the boarding house at 309 Bleecker Street where he lived. Another boarder, Madame Marguerite Bonneville took a small house on Columbia Street (today 59 Grove Street) in May of 1809, and moved Paine there. He passed away there on June 8, 1809.
Not long after Paine’s death the house was demolished and replaced with the structure which stands there today. In the early 20th century, 59 Grove Street became home to Marie’s Crisis, a Bohemian cafe named in honor of Paine’s American Crisis, and a respectful nod to his final days on this site. This might seem like an odd way to honor the ‘Father of the American Revolution,’ but given Paine’s reputation as an iconoclast with a disdain for many of the sacred norms of his day, it seems apropos.
In 1923, the Greenwich Village Historical Society (a long-defunct and entirely separate organization from GVSHP, with which we are nevertheless often confused) installed a plaque at this location honoring Paine, which remains on the building to this day.