John Howard Payne was born in New York City, but moved at a young age with his parents to East Hampton. As a teenager, a wealth New Yorker recognized his talent and potential and paid for his education at Union College. When he was seventeen, however, he felt compelled to change his direction. When his mother died and his father's business failed, John saw that he must himself take up the burdens of the family. He left college before graduation and began his career as an actor.
His immediate successes in American East Coast theaters led him to go to England, where his popularity was not nearly so great. Critics pounced on him unmercifully, hurting his feelings beyond repair. Still he achieved moderate success both in England and on the Continent, and he turned his attention to writing and composing rather than to acting.
In Clari, the Maid of Milan, one of his operas, appeared a little song that has made the name of John Howard Payne eternally famous throughout the world. In 1823, 100,000 copies of Home, Sweet Home were sold, and the publishers made 2,000 guineas from it in two years. In fact, everybody who had anything to do with the song became rich, except Payne, who sold it originally for £30.
After spending nearly twenty years in Europe, Payne returned to the United States, where he developed a strong interest in the Cherokee Indians. Shortly after 1832, Payne went to live with the famous Cherokee Chief John Ross. Payne collected and recorded the myths and traditions of the Cherokees and reported his findings in magazine articles as well as in unpublished collections. While some claim Payne's work proves that the Cherokee have their origins in the one of the 10 Lost Tribes of ancient Israel, others have called his writings prejudiced for its attempt to show the Hebrew origins of Cherokee religion. Although Payne's idea has been challenged (Irwin 1992), the papers themselves still are useful to researchers as a rich source of information on the American Indian.
In 1842 John Payne was appointed by President Tyler to be the American consul at Tunis in Africa. Payne died in Tunis in 1852. He was buried in St. George's Protestant Cemetery in Tunis. In 1883, his remains were disinterred, brought to the U.S., and reburied in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington DC
John Howard Payne was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.