Union Notables

John Howard Payne    class of 1810

Portrait of John Howard Payne. A.M. Willard, c. 1880, oil on canvas, image courtesy of Union College Permanent Collection

On the main entrance gate to Union College sits a bronze tablet inscribed with the words, "To the memory of John Howard Payne, the author of Home Sweet Home, a student of Union College in the class of 1810."  The gate was dedicated at the 1911 Commencement at which time the Metropolitan Opera soprano Alma Gluck sang "Home, Sweet Home." In 1913, all four verses of the poem were added to the gate's center pillar. Union's inscription correctly notes that John Howard Payne is the author of the text and not the composer of the music. In fact, the melody was written by Henry Bishop and may have been based on a Sicilian folk tune.  At its first appearance in the 1823 Covent Garden operetta, Clari; or the Maid of Milan, the song made Payne a famous man.

John Howard Payne was born in New York City in 1791 and spent much time at his grandfather's house in East Hampton - now the Home Sweet Home Museum. His dramatic talent was evident from an early age.  As a 14-year-old he published The Thespian Mirror, a journal of theater criticism, and soon after he wrote his first play, Julia, produced at the Park Theater in New York. A wealthy benefactor, John E. Seaman, underwrote Payne's education at Union College from July 1806 to November 1808 during which period Payne published twenty-five issues of a periodical called The Pastime. However, when Payne's mother died and his father's business failed, Payne returned to the Park Theater and made his triumphal first appearance as a professional actor as "Young Norval," hero of John Home's Tragedy of Douglas.

In 1813, Payne sailed to London, the first American actor to invade the English stage, and for the next twenty years he pursued a flamboyant career in Europe as actor, playwright, and producer.  He spent time in debtor's prison, was rumored to have been enamored of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and he was a friend of Washington Irving and collaborated with him in the 1824 play, Charles the Second - produced at Union College by the Mountebanks in 1936 and again for the Bicentennial Celebrations in 1994.  

Payne returned to the United States in 1832 where his career took two remarkable turns. He was sympathetic to the plight of the Cherokees in Georgia and lobbied Congress to try to prevent the Cherokees from being forced from their ancestral home (for which the Georgia Guard held him captive for a few weeks in 1835).  Later, he was appointed U.S. Consul at Tunis in 1842-43, and again from 1851 until 1852, the year of his death. Meanwhile, "Home, Sweet Home" continued to grow in popularity, being widely sung during the American Civil War.  When celebrated soprano Adalina Patti sang at the White House in 1862, President Lincoln asked her to perform the song for which John Howard Payne is most remembered. In 1883, Payne's ashes were brought back to the U.S. from Tunis and re-interred in Washington, DC. At the grand memorial service held in Oak Hill Cemetery, attended by President Chester Arthur, a full choir sang "Home, Sweet Home."

"'Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."