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July 6, 2009
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Common-place forum on Thomas Paine discusses why his words are still relevant

Worcester, MA—Common-place, the online history journal, celebrates the 200th anniversary of Thomas Paine's death with a forum examining why his writing remains relevant today.

Catherine E. Kelly's introduction, "Making Sense of Thomas Paine" places him "at the center of the sweeping political, social, and cultural transformations that historians have since dubbed the Age of Revolution."

The essays "help us understand why Paine mattered—and who he mattered to—by situating his writing in multiple historic and geographic contexts," Kelly writes. "They also testify to the enduring power that words—the right words—can wield."

J. M. Opal's "Common Sense and Imperial Atrocity" rereads Paine's American Revolution-defining essay with an eye toward British atrocities in eighteenth-century India.

Matteo Battistini's "Radical Revisions" explains why Paine's stance on monetary policy in the 1790s mattered to a Jacksonian labor radical. Nathalie Caron's "Debating Freedom of Speech and Conscience" traces Paine's presence in contemporary debates sparked by "the new atheism" on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Best in Show," another Common-place article by Marcy J. Dinius, showcases the American display of daguerreotypes at England's Great Exhibition of 1851.

These distinctive images derived their Americanness more from where they were made than how they were made, Dinius writes. They provided incontrovertible proof of not only the nation's success at the fair but also its industrial, scientific, artistic, and political prosperity.

Benjamin C. Ray's "They Did Eat Red Bread Like Mans Flesh" examines the world of witchcraft beliefs and fears expressed in testimonies during the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials.

Arising within the context of intense religious discord in Salem Village, the testimonies about a witchcraft conspiracy gave ultimate meaning to otherwise ordinary accusations among neighbors, Ray writes. "The accusations were driven forward until they caused 'an inextinguishable flame,' in the words of Governor Phips, unlike anything seen in New England before."

In "Publick Occurrences," Jeffrey L. Pasley's blog entry, "Department of Not Giving John Adams Too Much Credit," traces a phrase, "facts are stubborn things" credited to the second president.

"The fact is, 'facts are stubborn things' was one of the most common catch-phrases in the newspapers of the Early Republic," Pasley writes.

"The phrase was often used as a headline or recurring motif in essays exposing official malfeasance or contradicting another writer's position based on everyday experience and the "common understanding of mankind."

Pasley notes that the phrase "seemed to resonate just as much on the right of the Early Republic, where it would be directed against the allegedly dangerous speculations and innovations of Jacobin-Jeffersonian 'philosophy.'"

"Ask the Author" discusses Americans' changing attitudes towards death with Mark S. Schantz, whose book, Awaiting the Heavenly Country takes account of "the Civil War and America's culture of death."

Schantz notes that our Civil War ancestors would have been profoundly puzzled by modern skittishness about death. While our own culture shields itself from the prospect of death, our nineteenth-century forebears embraced it.

The testimony of the Civil War, if there is one, is that war of any scope means suffering, death, and loss, Schantz says. "Ultimately, the Civil War generation would remind us, war leaves no room for denial."

He explains that the Obama administration's questioning of the "Dover Ban" (the 1991 defense department prohibition of media coverage of the returning remains of dead soldiers) may well be a step toward public recognition of that fact.

Writing in "The Common School," Jim Cullen's "Closing the Books" makes a case for doing away with printed texts for survey history classes. He writes: "as a matter of social and educational responsibility, we ought to face the question of textbooks' future directly."

Electronic books (also known as e-books) are no panacea, and have some clear drawbacks in terms of their readability. "However, we've reached a point where they merit a closer look," Cullen concludes.

In "Object Lessons," Kevin D. Murphy examines the self-portraits of a pair of industrious ministers, demonstrating how artists fit into the commercial culture of the early national period.

The artists, Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847) and John Usher Parsons (1806-1874) both produced images of themselves "that compellingly constructed their identities less as romantic geniuses than as mobile and flexible participants in their seaport communities," Murphy writes.

In "Tales from the Vault," Gordon Sayres' "A Newly Discovered Map by Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz," explains how serendipity—a web surfer requesting help translating an 18th century map of Louisiana—can aid in archival research.

Sayres' web site features his research on La Page du Pratz, an obsure eighteenth-century French Louisiana colonist who wrote a three-volume, 1,300-page Histoire de la Louisiane, published in Paris in 1758.

La Page du Pratz also produced a manuscript map of a portion of the Gulf Coast and most of the Mississippi basin as far north as the Illinois country . The map provides evidence that his later account of the voyage of Moncacht-apé, a Yazoo Indian who purportedly sailed the upper Mississippi river before explorers Lewis and Clark, was a fabrication.

Book reviews in the current issue of Common-place include the following: Honor Sachs' review of The Lost State of Franklin: America's First Secession by Kevin T. Barksdale; Spencer Snow's review of The Importance of Feeling English: American Literature and the British Diaspora, 1750-1850 by Leonard Tennenhouse and Serena Zabin's review of The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America; by Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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