George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Paine, 21 July 1791

From Thomas Paine

London July 21st 1791

Dear Sir

I received your favour of last Augst by Col. Humphris, since which I have not written to, or heard from you.1 I mention this that you may know no letters have miscarried. I took the liberty of addressing my late work—“Rights of Man,” to you; but tho’ I left it, at that time, to find it’s way to you, I now request your acceptance of fifty Copies as a token of remembrance to yourself and my Friends.2 The work has had a run beyond any thing that has been published in this Country on the subject of Government, and the demand continues. In Ireland it has had a much greater. A letter I recd from Dublin 10th of May mentioned, that the fourth edition was then on Sale, I know not what number of Copies were printed at each edition except the second, which was ten thousand. The same fate follows me here as I at first experienced in America, strong friends and violent ⟨mutilated⟩-nemies, but as I have got the ear of the Country, I shall go on, ⟨mutilated⟩nd at least shew them, what is a novelty here, that there can be ⟨mutilated⟩ person beyond the reach of Corruption.3

I arrived here from France about ten days ago. M. de la Fayette was well. The affairs of that Country are verging to a new Crisis, whether the Government shall be Monarchical and hereditary or wholly representative? I think the latter opinion will very gene⟨r⟩ally prevail in the end. On this question the people are much forwarder than the National Assembly.

After the establishment of the American Revolution, it did not appear to me that any object could arise great enough to engage me a second time. I began to feel myself happy in being quiet; but I now experience that principle is not confined to Time or place, and that the ardour of Seventy six is capable of renewing itself. I have another work in hand which I intend shall be my last, for I long much to return to America.4

It is not natural that fame should wish for a rival but the case is otherwise for me, for I do most sincerely wish there was some person in this Country that could usefully and successfully attract the public attention, and leave me with a satisfied mind to the enjoyment of quiet life: but it is painful to see errors and abuses and sit down a senseless spectator. Of this your own mind will interpret mine.

I have printed sixteen thousand copies; when the whole are gone, of which there remain between three and four thousand I shall then make a cheap edition, just sufficient to bring in the price of printing and paper, as I did by Common Sense.

Mr Green who will present you this, has been very much my friend. I wanted last October to draw for fifty pounds on General Lewis Morris who has some Money of mine, but as he is unknown in the Commercial line, and american Credit not very good, and my own expended, I could not succeed, especially as Gov. Morris was then in Holland. Col. Humphries went with me to your Agent Mr Walsh to whom I stated the Case, and took the liberty of saying—that I knew you would not think it a trouble to receive it of Gen. Morris on Mr Walsh’s account; but he declined it. Mr Green afterwards supplied me and I have since repaid him. He has a troublesome affair on his hands here, and is in danger of losing thirty or forty thousand pounds, embarked under the flag of the united States in East India property, The persons who have received it with hold it and shelter themselves under some law contrivance. He wishes to state the Case to Congress, not only on his own account, but as a matter that may be nationally interesting.5

The public papers, will inform you of the riots and Tumults at Birmingham, and of some disturbances at Paris, and as Mr Green can detail them to you more particularly than I can do in a letter I leave those matters to his information.6 I am Sir, with Affectionate concern for your happiness and Mrs Washington, Your much Obliged Humble servant

Thomas Paine


2For the background to the reception and republication of Paine’s Rights of Man in the United States, see Thomas Jefferson to GW, 8 May 1791. Paine’s dedication “TO GEORGE WASHINGTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” first reprinted in America in the General Advertiser and Political, Commercial and Literary Journal [Philadelphia], 22 April, reads: “SIR, I PRESENT you a small Treatise in defence of those Principles of Freedom which your exemplary Virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish.—That the Rights of Man may become as universal as your Benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the Happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old, is the Prayer of Sir, Your much obliged, and Obedient humble Servant, THOMAS PAINE” (London, 1791). GW received Paine’s fifty copies in late 1791 or early 1792 (see n.5 below) but did not acknowledge their receipt until the spring of 1792, after receiving from Paine copies of the second part of the Rights of Man, published in February 1792 (see GW to Paine, 6 May 1792). Forty-three copies of part 1 remained at Mount Vernon at GW’s death (Griffin, Boston Athenæum Washington Collection, description begins Appleton P.C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 523).

3For the phenomenal popularity and sales of early editions of Rights of Man, see Keane, Paine, description begins John Keane. Tom Paine: A Political Life. Boston, 1995. description ends 307–8, 324, 331, 333. British authorities hesitated bringing legal action against Paine for fear that the publicity of a trial over the relatively expensive three-shilling first edition would increase demand for the book and hasten publication of cheap editions aimed at a wider audience (see Lear to GW, 12 June 1791 and note 5). They did, however, keep the author under surveillance and moved against him after publication of the second part of the Rights of Man, when Paine was charged with seditious libel and fled to France. He was found guilty at the trial held in absentia in December 1792 (see Keane, Paine, description begins John Keane. Tom Paine: A Political Life. Boston, 1995. description ends 334–44, and Howell, State Trials, description begins Thomas Jones Howell. A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Year 1783, with Notes and Other Illustrations . . .. Vol. 23. London, 1817. description ends 380, 471).

4Paine’s work in progress was an assault on European despotism tentatively entitled Kingship, which he commenced in May 1791 while at Versailles and completed in London in February 1792 and published as Rights of Man, Part the Second. Jefferson and Edmund Randolph attempted to obtain for Paine the vacancy of postmaster general, and Paine tried to return to America in 1795, 1797, and 1799, but he did not land at Baltimore until October 1802 (see Randolph to GW, 13 July 1791, n.2).

5For the claims against the British of English native and New York merchant William Green, see Jefferson to GW, 17 April, Green to Jefferson, 21 Jan., and notes and documents in “The American Consul at London: Joshua Johnson and the Brigantine Rachel,” Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 18:580–82, 20:482–522. Green reached New York by early December (see Green to Jefferson, 6 Dec. 1791, ibid., 519–22) and forwarded to GW two weeks later Paine’s letter and pamphlets on 19 Dec, writing: “The letter which is inclosed, I promised the writer, I would deliver in person, but, not having left England, so soon as I expected, having had a long passage, and my affairs since my return here, having demanded a very close and attentive application to put in some order, I am unable to visit Philadelphia until next month. Anxious therefore that it may not have any farther delay, and having no other opportunity so proper, I forwarded it on by the common post. It is a particular comfort to the mind of Mr Paine, to beleive, that Your Excellency entertains a kindness for him, and that, nothwithstanding the high & important matters, constantly under your consideration, ⟨mutilated⟩ condition might be happy enough, to catch a moment of Sympathy, It is a little singular, that, whilst his ardent mind, and benevolent heart, has embraced, and asserted the cause, and the rights of humanity, with such uncommon ability, he, himself, has been exposed to all the little sufferings of common distress, whilst old age, and its concomitant infirmities, are advancing upon him fast. The Publication of his book, of which, I forward on a box of Copies, has barely paid his debts, which were nevertheless inconsiderable. I mention this circumstance, merely to prevent Your Excellency from Supposing otherways. I beleive Mr Paine flattered himself, that your Excellency would ⟨m⟩ake some inquiries of me, respecting his fate & circumstances, of which, from my knowledge of him, and my friendship for him, I might be able to make as sincere a request, as any of those persons, who have the honor of approaching your Excellency, and this was one motive, Why I did not sooner forward his letter. I send it now, lest any longer delay, might be injurious to him” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

6Accounts of the destruction of two meetinghouses in Birmingham and the house of Unitarian minister and scientist Joseph Priestley by royalist mobs on 14–16 July reached London by 18 July and were reprinted in Philadelphia two months later (see, for instance, the Times [London], 18, 19 July, and the Philadelphia papers General Advertiser and Political, Commercial and Literary Journal, 14 Sept., and Gazette of the United States, 17 September).

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