George Washington refused to come to the rescue when the pamphleteer who put him on his high horse faced the guillotine.
On December 28, 1793, at the height of the Reign of Terror in France, Paris police rousted Thomas Paine in the cold hours before dawn, arrested him as a “foreign conspirator” and locked him in a wet, 10-by-8-foot cellar in Luxembourg Prison. The only light came from cracks in a boarded-up window. Paine was sure the guillotine awaited him.
Citizen Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense helped ignite the American Revolution, was an enthusiastic early supporter of the French Revolution. He received a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Paris in 1792 and was even granted honorary French citizenship and a seat in the National Convention, the body charged with writing a constitution for the new republic. But Paine angered Maximilien Robespierre and other Jacobin extremists when he urged the Convention to spare the life of the deposed French king, Louis XVI. Instead, Jacobins brandished the king’s severed head in front of a cheering crowd. Then they proceeded to round up thousands of suspected counterrevolutionaries who, Paine observed, fell “as fast as the guillotine could cut their heads off.” Now they’d come for him, too.
Paine believed two lucky circumstances might help him keep his own head: He was still officially an American citizen, and he was an old friend of President George Washington. Immediately after his arrest he penned a letter by candlelight to Gouverneur Morris, Washington’s envoy in Paris. Morris refused to intervene. He merely forwarded Paine a letter from Foreign Minister Francois Deforgues noting that France considered him its own citizen, subject to its laws. “You must not leave me in the situation in which this letter places me,” Paine begged Morris in a second letter. His plea was met with silence.
As prisoners were pulled from their cells in droves for execution, Paine was forced to confront something almost as shocking as imminent decapitation. No help was forthcoming from his former patriot friends. A special horror lay in being abandoned by the man Paine had viewed as a paragon of virtue: George Washington.
Paine had been Washington’s most vociferous supporter during the American Revolution. When defeat looked imminent in the early stages of the war and many blamed Washington, Paine sounded trumpets for the general in The Crisis, a series of widely read pamphlets. While others groused that Washington was inexperienced and indecisive, Paine conjured a romantic image of a wise and heroic leader that, as the war progressed, proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ever since, Paine had allowed himself to believe that Washington shared his vision of the American Revolution as the first step in a global movement for social equality. He could not have been more wrong. Paine, the radical democrat, went on to support radical revolutionary movements in England and France while Washington, the pragmatic patrician, revealed as president that he was willing to crack heads to protect the stability of the young republic. In Luxembourg Prison, Paine’s disillusionment with his old comrade abruptly grew into an overwhelming sense of personal—and political—betrayal.
Washington and Paine were unlikely comrades from the outset. In 1776, Washington was a Virginia planter with deep roots in America, august in manner if not yet experienced in military achievement. Paine was an English urbanite, a refugee from failure as tobacco shop owner and excise officer who had arrived in Philadelphia in 1775 and found a last-ditch vocation as writer and activist. Washington was reserved; Paine talked constantly. Washington was fastidious about clothes and cleanliness; Paine was not noted for hygiene. But during the War for Independence they became close allies and fast friends.
Some 100,0000 copies of Paine’s Common Sense were passed around when it first appeared in January 1776. It not only served as a rallying cry throughout the colonies for revolution but also as a convenient recruitment tool for the Continental Army. After the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, Paine himself signed on as an aide to General Nathanael Greene. In November 1776, Paine, Greene and Washington stood at Fort Lee in New Jersey and gazed bleakly across the Hudson River as British General Cornwallis seized Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. Then the British came across the river, and the Continental Army began its retreat to the Delaware. Even Washington thought this might be the end of America’s independence.
When Paine joined the 5,000 cold, frightened patriot soldiers in Washington’s emergency camp on the west bank of the Delaware, he immediately received new orders. Washington believed the author of Common Sense could help the revolutionary cause more with his pen than with a musket. So Paine set out on foot to Philadelphia and produced a pamphlet titled The Crisis, which began with a stirring call to arms. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine wrote. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
A rider carried the pamphlet to the Continental Army’s camp on the Delaware. Washington had decided to lead his men across the river late on Christmas night and surprise-attack the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton. In preparation for that desperate crossing, he ordered his officers to gather their men in groups and read Paine’s words aloud.
The victory at Trenton was Washington’s first, and the Delaware crossing would make it his most famous. Paine’s phrases were spoken everywhere now as volunteers flocked to the army, inspired both by Washington’s victory and by the stirring words that had helped accomplish it.
In subsequent installments of The Crisis series, Paine defended America’s top general against charges that his army’s retreat from Fort Lee had been cowardly. “Posterity will call it glorious,” he wrote, “and the names of Washington and Fabius will run parallel to eternity.” He was giving Washington equal standing with the Roman general whose defensive strategy won the Carthaginian War.
Paine’s dispatches a year later from the terrible winter camp at Valley Forge reflected only optimism. And he demonstrated unflagging loyalty to Washington when a group known as the Conway Cabal—including Paine’s friends Thomas Mifflin, Benjamin Rush and Richard Henry Lee—lobbied members of the Continental Congress to replace Washington with General Horatio Gates. Paine argued that Gates’ success as a commander only came from following Washington’s lead.
Early in the Revolution, Paine saw something in Washington that many did not. Part judicious assessment, part romantic impression, Paine’s projection of Washington as providentially wise and virtuous gained credibility through his deeds in the war. Paine, in visionary writing, and Washington, in pragmatic action, established together Washington’s central role in the moral narrative of American victory.
Yet by the time Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Va., in October 1781, the balance between Washington and Paine had shifted. Lauded by millions, Washington was now in fact the great man that Paine had claimed he was in 1776. With the Revolution over, Paine was at loose ends. And he was broke, having donated the profits from sales of Common Sense and The Crisis to supplying soldiers in the field.
A month after Yorktown, Paine wrote to Washington asking for his support in lobbying Congress for a large pension. If America couldn’t help him, Paine said, he would have no choice but to return to Europe.
In February 1782, Washington urged Robert Morris, America’s richest merchant and the Superintendent of Finance of the United States, to hire Paine to write articles associating federal taxation with American unity. Washington and Morris were both convinced that America would remain weak and vulnerable unless it had a strong federal government with the power to levy taxes and regulate commerce.
This was a tricky moment for Paine. During the war, he had served as secretary of Congress’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, where he was privy to information about a secret arms deal with France brokered by an American envoy named Silas Deane. Paine was convinced that Deane was involved in war profiteering and publicly blamed Robert Morris and his assistant Gouverneur Morris (no family relation); in hopes of bringing the chicanery to light, Paine leaked sensitive diplomatic communications. In turn, the Morrises denounced Paine for publicizing state secrets and forced his expulsion from the committee and Congress.
Nonetheless, in 1782, during a vinous dinner with Washington and both Morrises in Philadelphia, Paine took the job as the nationalists’ hired pen. The decision had both practical and emotional benefits for Paine. Robert Morris was an ostentatious entertainer who moved in widening circles of power. The job brought Paine back as a political operative and placed him in the midst of great events. He met once a week with Washington and Morris to hash out pro-federal tax articles, and Gouverneur Morris too dropped by, to praise Paine’s importance; he even admitted Paine had been right about Silas Deane. Paine was well—and secretly—paid for his writing.
But Paine was too idealistic to publish anything he didn’t believe. Unlike other working-class radicals, he saw nationhood as the best hope for advancing social equality. Later, when he was not on Morris’ payroll, he attacked Pennsylvania populists who tried to rescind Morris’ bank charter. He supported the controversial, hereditary officer-class organization known as the Cincinnati. He supported ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Paine’s very radicalism made him a counterintuitive kind of nationalist.
Still, allying himself with the young republic’s finance aristocracy represented by the Morrises sounded a political dissonance that Paine seemed unable to hear. The federal taxation he was promoting was unabashedly regressive. As Robert Morris put it, the central government must “open the purses of the people” to support interest payments to the small, rich bondholding class. Paine alienated many of his democratic friends by working for the Morrises.
Washington’s imprimatur resolved all dissonance for Paine. In 1783, Washington invited Paine to his Rocky Hill headquarters near Princeton, N.J., where Congress was in session, awaiting the end of the peace negotiations in Paris. The pressure of war was off, and the two conducted a science experiment in a boat in Rocky Creek, lighting paper to determine the source of the river’s weird flammability. Paine’s coat was stolen by a neighbor’s servant; Washington loaned Paine one of his.
Then, on November 25, British troops evacuated New York City. General Washington entered in triumph, and Thomas Paine rode beside him at the head of a grand parade. The scene was both a culmination of Paine’s vision of Washington’s greatness and a vindication of Paine’s importance to American independence. Paine was at Fraunces Tavern when Washington made his farewell to his officers at the famous ceremonial dinner. Then the general left for Mount Vernon. Neither man could have known that they would not see one another again.
Paine returned to his native England in 1787 and led a politically quiet life for a time in London. But his passion for revolution was renewed by a visit to France in 1790 and soon he was sailing back and forth across the English Channel, promoting radical democracy. He met with the London Corresponding Society, which was building a working-class revolutionary movement. In Paris he cheered the monarchy’s downfall and argued for democratic republicanism in France. Pooh-poohing growing fears of mob tyranny, Paine described violence in France as a passing phase.
Meanwhile, Washington, who’d been elected president in 1789, was trying to govern an unruly new nation beset by problems. The democratic, egalitarian values that Paine espoused in 1776 now seemed to Washington to spiral into anarchy. Working-class western Pennsylvanians—the so-called whiskey rebels—invoked Paine’s spirit in rejecting federal finance plans and threatening secession. An emerging partisan opposition led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison assailed Washington’s Federalists as closet monarchists; Jefferson remained an admiring correspondent of Paine, sharing enthusiasm for anti-monarchist rebellions.
The president had little patience for revivals of the moods of 1776. He and members of his Cabinet believed that otherwise tractable Americans were being infected with dangerous French ideas about liberty and equality. The administration’s foreign policy leaned toward England and excoriated French extremism. Yet such was Paine’s dependence on the president’s friendship and approval that he continued to presume Washington shared his hopes for the spread of radical democracy. Gouverneur Morris, meeting with Paine in Paris and London at the end of the 1780s, concluded that Paine had become “inflated to the eyes and big with a litter of revolutions.” Morris warned Paine that he was going too far. Paine called Morris a reactionary. Somehow Paine failed to recognize that Morris’ attitude was aligned with Washington’s.
Paine took his misplaced confidence in Washington’s support to extremes when he wrote The Rights of Man, a manifesto inspired by the French revolutionary call for liberte, egalite and fraternite that was published in two volumes in 1791 and 1792. The international best-seller defended hyper-democratic moods in France and attacked England for tyranny. British authorities indicted Paine for seditious libel, a hanging offense, prompting him to flee to France. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Republican opposition took Paine’s work as encouragement for assaulting Washington’s policies.
Paine sent Washington 50 copies of the book with a cover letter reveling in his huge sales and associating his recent activities with his and Washington’s “ardor of seventy-six.” In an even more telling disconnect, Paine went so far as to dedicate The Rights of Man to Washington.
That was too much. The dedication complicated diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Great Britain and dissociating Washington from Paine became an administration priority. Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear assured Major George Beckwith, a British agent, that the president had not read the book and that the administration had no ties with Paine. Washington himself waited nearly a year to answer Paine’s cover letter. Then he responded with elaborately remote politeness. “You will readily conclude that the present is a busy moment for me,” Washington wrote. “Let it suffice, therefore, at this time to say…that it is the first wish of my heart that the enlightened policy of the present age may diffuse to all men those blessings to which they are entitled.” The chill could not have been more palpable. Yet it took confinement in Luxembourg Prison for Paine to see that for Washington, “the ardor of seventy-six” was ashes.
Brooding in prison on his sense of betrayal, Paine fell ill. He grew feverish, at times delirious. Prisoners meanwhile went from prison to their deaths; “no man could count upon life for 24 hours,” Paine later wrote. In harrowing detail he would recall that on July 25, 1794, guards chalk-marked the door of the cell he shared with three Belgians. Clearly Paine’s execution was scheduled for that day. But luck intervened. The Belgians had asked to leave the door open to help cool the feverish Paine. After the door was closed, the mark was on the inside, and when doomed prisoners were rounded up, Paine was accidentally passed over.
Only days later, Paine’s nemesis Robespierre fell from power and went under the guillotine himself. That effectively ended the Reign of Terror. As Paine recovered from illness, he learned that Gouverneur Morris had been replaced as U.S. minister in Paris by James Monroe, a protégé of Paine’s friend Jefferson and an admirer of Paine. On November 5, 1794, Monroe himself came to Luxembourg Prison to get Paine out. Paine’s relief was intense, but Monroe found the firebrand of liberty nearly a broken man.
Paine would not return to the United States until nearly a decade later, after Jefferson was elected president and the Republican Party was in ascendancy. But he had long since become a potential liability to any party in power, and his book The Age of Reason (written in part during his imprisonment) drew accusations of scandalous atheism. Largely shunned, often drunk, Paine lived on a farm in New Rochelle, N.Y. Congress had given him the property in the late 1780s, largely at Washington’s behest. Paine wasn’t grateful. His theory of the Paris ordeal remained that Washington had acquiesced in a conspiracy of interest between Morris and Robespierre to silence him, for the benefit of both countries.
While still living in Paris, Paine wrote a long open letter to Washington, of unremitting vitriol. He trashed especially their once-treasured glory days in the War for Independence, now deriding Washington’s military failures, claiming to have covered them up in his own writing for the good of the country. The depth of Paine’s wound is clear in his attack on Washington’s character. “It has some time been known by those who know him that he has no friendships; that he is incapable of forming any; he can serve or desert a man, or a cause, with constitutional indifference; and it is this cold, her maphrodite faculty that imposed itself upon the world and was credited for a while, by enemies as by friends, for prudence, moderation and impartiality.”
Paine concluded the piece with a bitter rhetorical flourish. “And as to you, sir, treacherous in private friendship (for so you have been to me, and that in the day of danger) and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”
Paine’s letter had little effect. Washington’s reputation grew more glowing with time while Paine remained an outcast in the republic his collaboration with Washington had helped bring about. Paine’s later years were marked by poverty, alcoholism and neglect: Only six locals attended his funeral in New Rochelle in 1809. “One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him,” Robert G. Ingersoll, a popular orator of the era, subsequently proclaimed. “Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend—the friend of the whole world—with all their hearts.”
William Hogeland is the author of Declaration, The Whiskey Rebellion and Inventing American History.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.