Thomas Paine is well known for his pamphlet Common Sense. Ironically, it took a true Englishman to ignite the Revolutionary spirit in the Americans-to-be. Considered by many to be one of America’s philosophical founding fathers, he was also involved in the French Revolution. Ultimately, however, he lost favor with Americans and died ignominiously in Greenwich Village in 1809. Paine left such a bitter taste in the mouths of Americans that only six people – including a Frenchwoman with her two sons, a Quaker minister and two freedmen – attended his funeral. Paine, an abolitionist and nonconformist, probably would have appreciated the make-up of the group, but the tiny turnout spoke to his general fall from grace in the United States. As if ignoring his funeral was not insult enough, almost two decades after his death the people of the Village were moved to change the name of a street that had previously honored him.
In the course of my research on the Greenwich House social settlement, located at 27 Barrow Street since 1917, I came across a brief note about the history of that street’s name in a memoir written by founding director Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch. It said that Barrow Street,
was originally called Reason Street in honor of Thomas Paine, whose Age of Reason was his outstanding work. Reason degenerated to Raisin Street, which was supplanted by Barrow when even this tribute to Paine proved too much for that ungenerous period.
Was Simkhovitch’s tale historically accurate, or was this merely a rumor that had been told through the ages? What exactly does she mean by “that ungenerous period”? Why did it become “Barrow Street”? Intrigued by Simkhovitch’s brief tangent into the history of the street, I began to search for more clues and information.
Cut into two parts by Bleecker Street, today Barrow Street is part of the Greenwich Village Historic District. Through multiple historical sources including the New York Times Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, I quickly ascertained that Simkhovitch was correct. Barrow Street had originally been called “Reason St.” in honor of Paine’s Age of Reason, published in two parts in 1794 and 1795. He published a third part in 1807 that did not sell well.
During the French Revolution, Thomas Paine became embroiled in the Silas Deane affair, and, after a variety of issues in France, had a falling out of sorts with the United States government. After losing multiple government positions, Paine moved to Greenwich Village and took up residence at 309 Bleecker Street, where he continued to write. He published the third part of Age of Reason from that residence, but by 1809, Paine was boarding in a room around the corner at 59 Grove Street, penniless and almost friendless. When he died later that year, a new street was opened in the rear of the house in which he died. It was named Reason Street. Meant to honor the man who lived his final years in Greenwich Village, the street name was the only tribute Paine received in that period. But, if the Villagers named a street for Paine after his death, why did Simkhovitch refer to the people of that period as “ungenerous”?
It so happens that people seeking to celebrate Paine’s memory were in the minority. Americans, devout Christians in particular, abhorred Age of Reason because it argued against Christianity and in favor of Deism. Theodore Roosevelt misrepresented his beliefs and publicly referred to him as “a filthy little atheist.” No longer a hero, the American public regarded him as immoral, vain and dishonest.
Perhaps as a sign of disrespect, people began to refer to “Reason Street” as “Raisin Street,” though one source I read blamed the corruption on the New York accent. Other, more cynical sources claimed the change of pronunciation was meant to be insulting. One source, for example, claimed that any reference to a dry, shriveled fruit was a disparaging one. Either way, what was formally named “Reason Street” was so well known as “Raisin Street” that even the New York Times called it by that name. Ultimately, locals agreed that Raisin Street “seemed too ridiculous even for the curiosities of Greenwich” and, in 1828, set about finding a more dignified name for the street.
Trinity Church, located in the same neighborhood, was one institution that particularly despised Paine and his Age of Reason. The Church not only lobbied to change the name, but actually selected the new one. “Barrow Street” was named in honor of Thomas Barrow. Barrow was a wealthy landowner and vestryman at Trinity Church. On September 21, 1776, while Paine was off fighting the British alongside Washington’s army, Trinity Church burned to the ground. Barrow, an artist, made an engraving of the Church fire, which became famous. Barrow died in 1825, three years too early to see a street sign erected in his honor.In replacing a symbol of radical political thought in favor of a traditional, Christian one, Trinity Church delivered a powerful and lasting message.
Barrow Street retains its name until this day, although Thomas Paine’s reputation has since recovered from the slight.
Bressler, Leo A. “Peter Porcupine and the Bones of Thomas Paine.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 82, No. 2(Apr., 1958), pp. 176-185. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20089065.
Brown, Henry Collins. Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, Volume 7. New York, N.Y., 1923.
Kaplan, James S. “Thomas Paine’s America.” Last Exit Magazine. May 20, 2009. http://lastexitmag.com/article/thomas-paines-america.
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Simkhovitch, Mary Kingsbury. Neighborhood; My Story of Greenwich House. W.W. Norton and Co, Inc: New York, N.Y. 1938.
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