No. 76.
Mr. Washburne to Mr. Fish.

No. 1386.]

Sir: From his connection with our revolutionary history, and from his writings, which have enjoyed a certain consideration, the life and history of Thomas Paine have always occupied a good deal of attention in our country. No part of his career has greater general interest than that connected with the French revolution. He was a member of the National Convention of France, (which opened its session September 21, 1792,) from the department of the Pas de Calais. A revolutionist by character and instinct, many of his pamphlets had been translated into French and widely read; such was the influence of his writings upon the public mind in France that he was made a French citizen by a legislative decree, in order that he might be eligible to that extraordinary convention, the history of which, for nearly a century, has challenged the profoundest interest and attention of every historian and every student of the French revolution. Though he labored under the great disadvantage of not speaking or writing the French language, still, from his character and reputation, he seems to have enjoyed a considerable influence as a member of the convention, as is evident from the fact that he was one of the members of the commission which was named to draw up the constitution of the year III.

Some days since I made application to Mr. Maury, the director-general of the national archives of France, for the purpose of ascertaining if anything could there be found in relation to Paine. One of the results of my examination was to find a most significant letter written by him to “citizen Danton,” dated “May 6, 2d year of the republic,” (1793.) The letter is in English, on an ordinary letter-sheet, written in a clear, legible, handsome hand. I have never seen the letter published, and I beg to send you herewith a copy thereof, for I am certain you will find it very interesting and will consider it a valuable contribution to history. Before reading the letter I was not aware that Danton understood the English language; though I had once seen it charged against him that he associated “avec les Anglais.” At the time of the revolution it was as unusual to hear English spoken in Paris as it is now to hear Arabic. Marat, however, must have understood the language, for he had lived some time in England, and was once a teacher in Edinburgh.

You will be struck by the friendly feeling expressed in the letter towards the “twenty-two deputies,” (the Girondists,) and which shows that notwithstanding the relations Paine may have had with Danton and Marat, that his sympathies and associations were with the better elements of the convention and not with the Montagnards. His letter is dated the 6th of May, and it was on the 31st of the same month that the commune of Paris delegated its mob to go to the bar of the convention to demand the arrest of these unfortunate men. Robespierre must have known the sentiments and feelings of Paine, for I find in the curious and elaborate report made by Courtois to the national convention, on the papers seized at the house of Robespierre, an extract from his note-book which is as follows: “Demandé que Thomas Payne soit décité d’accusation pour les intérêts de V Amérique autant que la France.” Happily for Paine, the 9th Thermidor overtook Robespierre before his name was added to the long lists of victims which that sanguinary apostle of the revolution was daily sending to the guillotine.

[Page 127]

The decree which naturalized Paine was passed by the legislative assembly August 22, 1792, and just in time to qualify him as a candidate for the national convention. He was not only chosen for the Pas de Calais, but in Abbeville, Beauvais, and Versailles. He elected to sit for the Pas de Calais. The decree of his naturalization was afterwards revoked, and his name stricken off the list of members of the convention. He was imprisoned in the Luxembourg, but was finally released through the intervention of our minister, at that time Mr. Monroe. It was his refusal to vote for the death of the king, and his opposition to the revolutionary government, that lost him caste with the controlling elements of the time. It is possible I may find some other facts connected with him, and if so will make them the subject of another dispatch. The charm and fascination of French revolutionary history holds the same empire over me as it does over all who are subjected to its wonderful influence.

I have, &c.,


Mr. Paine to Citoyen Danton.

Citoyen Danton: As you read English, I write this letter to you without passing it through the hands of a translator.

I am exceedingly distressed at the distractions, jealousies, discontents, and uneasiness that reign among us, and which, if they continue, will bring ruin and disgrace on the republic. When I left America in the year 1787 it was my intention to return the year following, but the French revolution, and the prospect it afforded of extending the principles of liberty and fraternity through the greater part of Europe, have induced me to prolong my stay upwards of six years. I now despair of seeing the great object of European liberty accomplished, and my despair arises not from the combined foreign powers, not from the intrigues of aristocracy and priestcraft, but from the tumultuous misconduct with which the international affairs of the present revolution is conducted.

All that can now be hoped for is limited to France only, and I perfectly agree with your motion of not interfering in the government of any foreign country, nor permitting any foreign country to interfere in the government of France. This decree was necessary as a preliminary towards terminating the war; but while those internal contentions continue, while the hope remains to the enemy of seeing the republic fall to pieces, while not only the representatives of the departments but representation itself is publicly insulted, as it has lately been and now is, by the people of Paris, or at least by the tribunes, the enemy will be encouraged to hang about the frontiers and wait the event of circumstances.

I observe that the confederated powers have not yet recognized Monsieur or d’Artois as regent, nor made any proclamation in favor of any of the Bourbons; but this negative conduct admits of two different conclusions. The one is that of abandoning the Bourbons and the war together; the other is that of changing the object of the war and substituting a partition scheme in the place of their first object, as they have done by Poland. If this should be their object the internal contentions that now rage will favor that object far more than it favored their former object. The danger every day increases of a rupture between Paris and the departments. The departments did not send their deputies to Paris to be insulted, and every insult shown to them is an insult to the departments that elected and sent them. I see but one effectual plan to prevent this rupture taking place, and that is to fix the residence of the convention and of the future assemblies at a distance from Paris.

I saw, during the American Revolution, the exceeding inconveniences that arose by having the Government of Congress within the limits of any municipal jurisdiction. Congress first resided at Philadelphia, and, after a residence of four years, it found it necessary to leave it. It then adjourned to the State of Jersey; it afterwards removed to New York; it again removed from New York to Philadelphia, and, after experiencing in every one of those places the great inconvenience of a government within a government, it formed the project of building a town, not within the limits of any municipal [Page 128] jurisdiction, for the future residence of Congress. In every one of the places where Congress resided the municipal authority privately or openly opposed itself to the authority of Congress, and the people of each of those places expected more attention from Congress than their equal share with the other States amounted to. The same things now takes place in Paris, but in a far greater excess.

I see also another embarrassing circumstance arising in Paris, of which we have had full experience in America. I mean that of fixing the price of provisions. But if this measure is to be attempted, it ought to be done by the municipality. The convention has nothing to do with regulations of this kind, neither can they be carried into practice. The people of Paris may say they will not give more than a certain price for provisions, but as they cannot compel the country-people to bring provisions to market, the consequence will be directly contrary to their expectations, and they will find dearness and famine instead of plenty and cheapness. They may force the price down upon the stock in hand, but after that the market will be empty. I will give you an example.

In Philadelphia we undertook, among other regulations of this kind, to regulate the price of salt; the consequence was that no salt was brought to market, and the price rose to thirty-six shillings sterling per bushel. The price before the war was only one shilling and sixpence per bushel; and we regulated the price of flour (farine) till there was none in the market, and the people were glad to procure it at any price.

There is also a circumstance to be taken into the account which is not much attended to. The assignats are not of the same value they were a year ago, and as the quantity increase the value of them will diminish. This gives the appearance of things being dear when they are not so in fact, for in the same proportion that any kind of money falls in value, articles rise in price. If it were not for this the quantity of assignats would be too great to be circulated. Paper money in America fell so much in value from the excessive quantity of it, that in the year 1781 I gave three hundred paper dollars for one pair of worsted stockings. What I write you on this subject is experience, and not merely opinion.

I have no personal interest in any of those matters, nor in any party disputes; I attend only to general principles. As soon as a constitution shall be established, I shall return to America, and be the future prosperity of France ever so great, I shall enjoy no other part of it than the happiness of knowing it. In the mean time I am distressed to see matters so badly conducted, and so little attention paid to moral principles. It is these things that injure the character of the Revolution, and discourage the progress of liberty all over the world.

When I began this letter I did not intend making it so lengthy, but since I have gone thus far I will fill up the remainder of the sheet with such matters as shall occur to me.

There ought to be some regulation with respect to the spirit of denunciation that now prevails. If every individual is to indulge his private malignancy, or his private ambition, to denounce at random and without any kind of proof, all confidence will be undermined and all authority be destroyed. Calumny is a species of treachery that ought to be punished as well as any other kind of treachery. It is a private vice, productive of a public evil, because it is possible to irritate men into disaffection by continual calumny, who never intended to be disaffected. It is, therefore, equally as necessary to guard against the evils of unfounded or malignant suspicion as against the evils of blind confidence. It is equally as necessary to protect the characters of public officers from calumny as it is to punish them for treachery or misconduct. For my own part I shall hold it a matter of doubt, until batter evidence arise than is known at present, whether Dumourier has been a traitor from policy or from resentment. There certainly was a time when he acted well, but it is not every man whose mind is strong enough to bear up against ingratitude, and I think he experienced a great deal of this before he revolted.

Calumny becomes harmless and defeats itself when it attempts to act upon too large a scale. Thus, the denunciation of the sections against the twenty-two deputies falls to the ground. The departments that elected them are better judges of their moral and political characters than those who have denounced them. This denunciation will injure Paris in the opinion of the departments, because it has the appearance of dictating to them what sort of deputies they shall elect. Most of the acquaintance that I have in the convention are among those who are in that list, and I know there are not better men nor better patriots than what they are.

I have written a letter to Marat of the same date as this, but not on the same subject. He may show it to you if he chooses.

Votre ami,

. [seal.]