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Thomas Paine and Bordentown, N.J.

By Mae Kramer Silver (1/25/2004)

This article is dedicated to Bordentown's Mayor Bill Collom and his wife Esther, both active supporters of the town's history.

Thomas Paine really had two hometowns. One was in England and the other in New Jersey. Born on January 29, 1737, in the county of Norfolk, England, Thomas Paine spent his early years in Thetford village that began its life in the 9th Century. Thomas Paine was the only surviving child of Frances and Joseph. He was sensitive and bright, excelling in mathematics and science. His father was Quaker and as such was regarded with a certain hesitation and sometimes suspicion by villagers even though he was made a freeman of Thetford. His mother was Anglican. Between his parent's different religions, he seemed to have learned a tolerance and respect for both, but he clearly identified more with his father's Quakerism. Since the fine-honed sensitivity to community intolerance and social injustice heavily concerned Quakers, it seemed natural that Thomas Paine would identify these characteristics in Thetford. From his house on White Hart Street, now the site of the Thomas Paine Hotel in Thetford, Thomas Paine saw the public gallows where each March, young and old, breathed their last and swung guilty of crimes such as stealing bread or poaching game to relieve starvation. Thetford was widely known in England for its royal corruption and mismanagement that continued until the nineteenth century when finally it was bridled into civility and honesty. Thomas Paine saw and felt how brutally unfair it was to be poor in Thetford.

When Thomas Paine entered America in 1774 he came to Philadelphia, the City of brotherly love - a Quaker city in a Quaker state. Most of his life in Pennsylvania was in Philadelphia or the immediate areas around it. He became friends with Joseph Kirkbride, a Quaker, who became his lifelong friend. When the British destroyed their place in Bucks County, the Kirkbrides moved to Bordentown and built a house there. Bordentown was a Quaker town founded in 1682 by Thomas Farnsworth who left England to find a place in the new world where he and his family could practice their Quaker religion in peace. As Thomas Paine followed the Kirkbrides to Bordentown, he must have felt a certain comfort, a certain atmosphere of acceptance, for it was in Bordentown in 1783 that Thomas Paine bought the only house and property he ever owned. In recognition of his service to the founding of the United States of America, the state of New York had given him the place in New Rochelle that now houses his museum and national association headquarters. But, his picked-out-bought-and-paid-for Bordentown cottage and property were his heartfelt choice. Bordentown, New Jersey, was Thomas Paine's second hometown.

Secondary sources state that Thomas Paine owned a cottage and a few acres. A closer look at the records in Mt. Holly, N.J., shows a larger description never before published until this writing. Paine owned a cottage and perhaps more than one, and seven (7) acres, some of which were next to or in the vicinity of Kirkbrides' place in Bordentown. The seven acres began at what is now northwest Church and Farnworth, 132 feet west, then 66 feet north, 132 feet east, crossing Farnsworth 80 feet, north and south, into a large rectangle, then proceeded across Farnsworth Avenue north to Hilltop and then westerly. In a town that was only a mile square, seven acres was a good slice of land in Bordentown. Thomas Paine bought the cottage and property from Elizabeth Martin (or Martain) ca. 1783. This date cannot be ascertained because neither Martin nor Paine recorded the purchase and transfer deeds to their property. One suspects this was not done because deed recordings cost money, which maybe Paine and Martin were short of, and possibly recordings were not required to transfer property legally.

Regardless of the reasons, when Thomas Paine sold his property to John Oliver in 1808 for $800, the recording of that property and sale emerged. The sale occurred when Paine lived in New York City in rooms considered objectionably squalid by his friends. One of his friends, Thomas Addis Emmet, a distinguished Irish lawyer who had been imprisoned because of his Revolutionary activities and now lived in the City, urged Paine to raise money through the sale of his Bordentown properties to fund more comfortable accommodations for himself during his last days. Apparently Thomas Paine, unable to appear in person to execute this business, sent two good friends to effect this transfer. His friends, Emmet and John Sturdevant swore as subscribing witnesses to this sale before Joseph Gates, one of the justices of the Supreme Court of New York, dated November 24, 1808. How telling and how fitting it was that Thomas Paine's property in his American hometown, Bordentown, that had given him so much pleasure during his time there, had provided him with the means for final necessary healthy and comfortable care during his last earthly days that ended on June 8, 1808, in New York City.

Mae Kramer Silver is President of the Thomas Paine Society of Bordentown.


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