My Search for Thomas Paine

John Turek is graduating from Marquette University with a degree in history this spring.  Associate professor of early American history Kristen Foster writes: “I worked with Jack when he was a Mellon Undergraduate Research Fellow in fall 2012.  He chose a research project comparing the radical thought of Jefferson, Adams and Paine. Jack visited my office hours every couple of weeks, and we discussed what he read. He worked with the political thought of John Adams and the early Virginia writings of Jefferson. He got completely lost in the best way, though, when he began to explore Paine’s ideas on socialism. He used his Mellon funding to take a trip to Philadelphia over fall break. He spent his time at the American Philosophical Society, and much to my delight, the magic of REAL documents captured his imagination. He loved the research in ways that he never expected. I asked him to write a blog about it.”

This past fall semester I was lucky enough to have an Undergraduate Mellon Research Fellowship under the guidance of Dr. Foster.  Influenced by taking her class on the early American republic and her seminar on American Freedom, I decided to focus my area of study on early American thinkers who helped shape the path of this country.  I examined Thomas Paine, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson–men who are held in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers but who appeared to hold very different ideas about what being free in America meant and how the federal government should be established and run.  I went into the project wanting to examine each man’s beliefs about freedom and how these ideas influenced their interpretations of what a federal government should do to protect that freedom.  As I started my research, I found that my reading brought up other questions that I had not considered before starting the project.  Instead of picking and choosing material that answered my original question, I now found that my research was taking control of the project, bringing up new questions and answers to those questions that I had not considered before.  Although I enjoyed reading secondary and primary materials printed in books, I felt that the research experience would not be complete unless I held the actual, physical documents.

7_philosophical_pfI took the opportunity to use the money allotted for travel to go to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.  I stayed at a local hostel that was within walking distance of the many historical markers and sites that seem to be marked on every street.  The American Philosophical Society is located on a cobble-stone street and boasts a large statue of Benjamin Franklin on its roof.  I had never done any sort of professional research before and was intimidated about going into the Society.  The secretary helped me sign up for their check-out program and I received a badge ID with the title “Researcher,” allowing me access to their study room/library.  The library had two large tables in the center for researchers surrounded by book cases, busts of Franklin, and an open-aired second floor with more book cases.  I was not entirely sure what I was looking for or what I would find so I requested both boxes of Thomas Paine’s papers.  The librarian brought them out and as soon as I opened them I felt like I was doing something special.

The papers were old and difficult to read.  Some of them had no bearing on what I wanted to look for: simple letters to people commenting on the state of the war or the size of the navy.  Although I had known that these papers would be at the Philosophical Society, I felt as if I had been the first one to discover and read them.  Two papers from the collection caught my eye: one was a 1788 edition of Common Sense and another was a letter written by Thomas Paine to George Washington while Paine was in a French prison.  Paine accused Washington of treachery and of ignoring the French Revolution for a closer relationship with England.  Reading this letter forced me to reconsider my ideas about the relationship between these two revolutionaries.

My research trip to Philadelphia was one of my best experiences here at Marquette University.  I was able to visit an important historical city and sift through the documents of one of my favorite early Americans.  My trip was only four short days and I wish I had longer, but I plan on going back the next opportunity I have.  The Paine research experience showed me a whole new way to do research and I hope to have more opportunities to research like that in the future.  Thomas Paine said that what “we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly”; this opportunity is one that I will never “esteem too lightly” and I plan on continuing to learn more about Paine and his ideas.

John Turek will graduate from Marquette University in May with a history degree and a 2nd lieutenant’s commission in the United States Marine Corps.  He reports to Quantico, VA for training in October. This summer he will clerk at a Chicago law office and volunteer at the Pritzker Military Library.


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