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Historic Houses

New Bellevue
Where Thomas Paine the reformer constructed the model of his famous iron bridge

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

HIGH up on that portion of Main Street called "Hill-Top," where one can gaze over miles and miles of fertile Pennsylvania farmland, is the great old Kirkbride mansion, erected in the latter part of the eighteenth century by Colonel Josiah Kirkbride. known to history as the friend of Thomas Paine. New Bellevue, as the mansion used to be called, was much grander than the original Bellevue across the river, burned by the British soldiers during the Revolution to repay " the rebel Kirkbride" for the active part he took in the cause of freedom.

All through the dark building, with its mysterious passages, and about the old-world garden reminding one of some bit of a continental city, are the footprints of the immortal Paine. Thomas Paine, the dreamer and poet, the worshipped apostle of freedom, and the reviled and calumniated free-thinker, lives for us again as we view his familiar haunts. The venerable structure has been twice enlarged since his death, and has endured the vicissitudes of an inn and a girls' seminary, but the room is still shown where Paine, with the help of his coworker, John Hall, made the first model of his famous iron bridge erected in England in 1790- Years ago a strolling wag who occupied it drew on the wall a picture of Paine pursued by the Devil, now hidden from curious eyes by many paperings. In the days of the mansion's use as an inn, when the coaches drew up before its gate with loads of passengers every nightfall, the host was always sure to assign the most timorous of the party to this apartment, never forgetting to inform him that it was haunted. Any wearer of the cloth was sure to get it ; and it is related of the girls of the old seminary that in trailing white night-robes they often played the ghost, accompanying their migrations with weird noises to further some good dominie's impressions of Thomas Paine.

It was while Paine was staying at New Bellevue, in the fall-time of 1783, watching the near completion of a little home of his own, that he received the letter from General Washington, then at Rocky Hill, which was the first joyful harbinger of recognition for his brilliant and now generally forgotten services to the cause of American independence. As Moncure Daniel Conway, his most faithful and loving biographer, says, "It is worthy to be engraved on the tombs of both." It reads:

ROCKY HILL, Sept. 10, 1783.

I have learned since I have been at this place that you are at Bordentown. Whether for the sake of the retirement or economy I know not. Be it either, for both, or whatever it may, if you will come to this place and partake with me, I shall be exceedingly happy to see you.

Your presence may remind Congress of your past services to this country ; and if it is in my power to impress them, command my best services with freedom, as they will be rendered cheerfully by one who entertains a lively sense of the importance of your works, and who, with much pleasure, subscribes himself,

Your sincere friend,


This was from the man who in after years was among the friends to forget him. But he had some reason for his course of conduct, for Paine's "Letter to George Washington" contained an attack on the laurel-strewed career of the hero which is said to have rankled in his breast until the day of his death.

The letters of Lady Smith gave great consolation to Thomas Paine when he was confined in the prison of the Luxembourg at the time of the French Revolution. Lady Smith was the second wife of Sir Robert Smith, or Smythe, as the name is given in the Peerage List, a wealthy banker in Paris. The poem Paine wrote to her, entitled "The Castle in the Air to the Little Corner of the World," is one of the most charming and exquisite of any of his poetic effusions extant.

Thomas Paine truly loved his adopted Bordentown, and in his affection for his friends there and abroad we obtain a glimpse of the character of the true Thomas Paine little known by the world. Who can read the opening verses of his charming lines addressed to Lady Smith, who carried sunbeams into his prison in Paris, without obtaining a better understanding of a nature accused of every grossness and vice? In them we see Thomas Paine the lover of the beautiful and the apostle of the theology of happiness by right living. They make us think of his loyalty to his true friends, his generosity to his mother, and his childlike love of nature, and we wonder how the years could have heaped so much obloquy upon his grave. During the years Paine was away from America his mind was ever full of Bordentown. In a letter from London to Mrs. Few, nee Kitty Nicholson, one of his Bordentown favorites, he wrote:

"Though I am in as elegant style of acquaintance here as any American that ever came over, my heart and myself are three thousand miles apart ; and I had rather see my horse Button eating the grass of Bordentown, than all the pomp and show of Europe.
There was one friend in Bordentown, at least, who must have followed every step of Paine's career abroad, and that was Colonel Kirkbride. Josiah Kirkbride and Thomas Paine are names ineffably linked together in Bordentown annals, and theirs was one of those unusual friendships proof against absence and the opprobrium of the world. How that good Jerseyman rejoiced over Paine's triumphs in Paris and London, where he was hailed as a saviour of the people and feted as a man of genius and sorrowed in his subsequent downfall.

In the first years of New Bellevue's existence Paine had been one of its most welcome inmates. He is recorded as spending many a bright morning in its garden, talking over with his friend "the whims and schemes" they were to pursue together at Bordentown's musical-parties, where Kirkbride always went with his violin. Paine sometimes joined in the choruses, and there are traditions that he was a great favorite with the young people, especially Colonel Kirkbride's daughter Polly.

In John Hall's diary we learn that much good company journeyed to Kirkbride's to visit Paine in the years 1785 and 1786. The list contains such names as Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Tench Francis, Robert Morris, Rev. Dr. Logan, and many others equally as famous. There are numerous glimpses of Paine's life at Bordentown in that interesting work still preserved by the Steele family of Philadelphia, and given to the world by Mr. Conway. What a story for his defamers is his kindness to old Mrs. Read, a poor, bed-ridden woman, to whom he gave shelter. On one of the musty pages is the startling information that Paine gave points to John Fitch for his construction of the first steamboat when the little inventor came to seek him as a possible partner in furthering his enterprise. "He would fain have given it to Mr. Paine or me," the quaint chronicler writes, " but I, a stranger, refused, and Mr. Paine had enough hobbies of his own." So " The Saint," or first steamer, seems to have gone begging. There are also more intimate details of his life, and through Hall the world knows that poor Paine kept a body-servant, played chess, and was fond of repeating anecdotes of his fine acquaintance.

One of the last pictures we have of Thomas Paine in connection with Bordentown is his arrival there from abroad after his publication of "The Age of Reason." Everywhere he was greeted with the scoffs and jeers of the generality of the people. Bordentown he still regarded as his home, but few extended him any degree of welcome, from personal prejudice or fear of their more godly neighbors. Then it was that true hospitality shone forth from the great door of New Bellevue, and Colonel Kirkbride braved the storm of public opinion by receiving his old friend with open arms. For this he received a full mead of vituperation, and felt the cruelest stings of righteous indignation. Used to the love and respect of his fellow-citizens, the sudden great unpopularity is said to have hastened an illness, bringing him death at the end of the year.

One who visits New Bellevue to-day, coming from Main Street, catches a view of the oldest part of the building first. This is the dwelling that Thomas Paine knew. Standing under its time-worn casements and gazing at the aged blooms in the garden, we obtain a glimpse of Paine, "the friend of his country," over the bridge of a hundred years, which makes us think very kindly of the misguided philosopher's memory. We see him handsome and stately, as Romney painted him, "The man with genius in his eyes," walking the old box-bordered paths, drinking in the blue of the sky, the song of the birds, and the hundred voices of Mother Nature. Josiah Kirkbride is with him, -always with him! Sharing his joys and his many sufferings. As we stand there musing and reminiscent, the panorama changes, and the blue of the sky darkens. Two greatcoated figures open the garden gates, and hurry through the curious crowd to the chaise which is to carry them on that last wild ride together to New York. The crowd grows larger, and becomes a surging mob. After them it follows, hooting and calling, and now and again singing the doleful music of "The Rogue's March." In every city they reach it is the same, - an inquisition: "Down with the vile perpetrator of 'The Age of Reason'!" Insults are heaped upon them, but still there is no fear in their hearts, for both are brave men and have the courage of their convictions. One has stood under the shadow of the guillotine and heard the awful rattle of those carts of death - the tumbrils - on the bloody streets of Paris, and still been unafraid, and the other feels for the man beside him a friendship which has withstood all the tests of this world and is stronger even than death. On they journey, as they will for centuries, long after New Bellevue has become a memory.

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