Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER III. - The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. III (1791-1804)
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LETTER III. - Thomas Paine, The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. III (1791-1804) 
The Writings of Thomas Paine, Collected and Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894). Vol. 3.
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To elect, and to reject, is the prerogative of a free people.
Since the establishment of Independence, no period has arrived that so decidedly proves the excellence of the representative system of government, and its superiority over every other, as the time we now live in. Had America been cursed with John Adams’s hereditary Monarchy, or Alexander Hamilton’s Senate for life, she must have sought, in the doubtful contest of civil war, what she now obtains by the expression of public will. An appeal to elections decides better than an appeal to the sword.
The Reign of Terror that raged in America during the latter end of the Washington administration, and the whole of that of Adams, is enveloped in mystery to me. That there were men in the government hostile to the representative system, was once their boast, though it is now their overthrow, and therefore the fact is established against them. But that so large a mass of the people should become the dupes of those who were loading them with taxes in order to load them with chains, and deprive them of the right of election, can be ascribed only to that species of wildfire rage, lighted up by falsehood, that not only acts without reflection, but is too impetuous to make any.
There is a general and striking difference between the genuine effects of truth itself, and the effects of falsehood believed to be truth. Truth is naturally benign; but false-hood believed to be truth is always furious. The former delights in serenity, is mild and persuasive, and seeks not the auxiliary aid of invention. The latter sticks at nothing. It has naturally no morals. Every lie is welcome that suits its purpose. It is the innate character of the thing to act in this manner, and the criterion by which it may be known, whether in politics or religion. When any thing is attempted to be supported by lying, it is presumptive evidence that the thing so supported is a lie also. The stock on which a lie can be grafted must be of the same species as the graft.
What is become of the mighty clamour of French invasion, and the cry that our country is in danger, and taxes and armies must be raised to defend it? The danger is fled with the faction that created it, and what is worst of all, the money is fled too. It is I only that have committed the hostility of invasion, and all the artillery of popguns are prepared for action. Poor fellows, how they foam! They set half their own partisans in laughter; for among ridiculous things nothing is more ridiculous than ridiculous rage. But I hope they will not leave off. I shall lose half my greatness when they cease to lie.
So far as respects myself, I have reason to believe, and a right to say, that the leaders of the Reign of Terror in America and the leaders of the Reign of Terror in France, during the time of Robespierre, were in character the same sort of men; or how is it to be accounted for, that I was persecuted by both at the same time? When I was voted out of the French Convention, the reason assigned for it was, that I was a foreigner. When Robespierre had me seized in the night, and imprisoned in the Luxembourg, (where I remained eleven months,) he assigned no reason for it. But when he proposed bringing me to the tribunal, which was like sending me at once to the scaffold, he then assigned a reason, and the reason was, for the interests of America as well as of France. “Pour les interêts de l’ Amérique autant que de la France.” The words are in his own hand-writing, and reported to the Convention by the committee appointed to examine his papers, and are printed in their report, with this reflection added to them, “Why Thomas Paine more than another? Because he contributed to the liberty of both worlds.”1
There must have been a coalition in sentiment, if not in fact, between the Terrorists of America and the Terrorists of France, and Robespierre must have known it, or he could not have had the idea of putting America into the bill of accusation against me. Yet these men, these Terrorists of the new world, who were waiting in the devotion of their hearts for the joyful news of my destruction, are the same banditti who are now bellowing in all the hacknied language of hacknied hypocrisy, about humanity, and piety, and often about something they call infidelity, and they finish with the chorus of Crucify him, crucify him. I am become so famous among them, they cannot eat or drink without me. I serve them as a standing dish, and they cannot make up a bill of fare if I am not in it.
But there is one dish, and that the choicest of all, that they have not presented on the table, and it is time they should. They have not yet accused Providence of Infidelity. Yet according to their outrageous piety, she1 must be as bad as Thomas Paine; she has protected him in all his dangers, patronized him in all his undertakings, encouraged him in all his ways, and rewarded him at last by bringing him in safety and in health to the Promised Land. This is more than she did by the Jews, the chosen people, that they tell us she brought out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of bondage; for they all died in the wilderness, and Moses too.
I was one of the nine members that composed the first Committee of Constitution. Six of them have been destroyed. Sièyes and myself have survived—he by bending with the times, and I by not bending. The other survivor joined Robespierre, he was seized and imprisoned in his turn, and sentenced to transportation. He has since apologized to me for having signed the warrant, by saying he felt himself in danger and was obliged to do it.2
Herault Sechelles, an acquaintance of Mr. Jefferson, and a good patriot, was my suppléant as member of the Committee of Constitution, that is, he was to supply my place, if I had not accepted or had resigned, being next in number of votes to me. He was imprisoned in the Luxembourg with me, was taken to the tribunal and the guillotine, and I, his principal, was left.
There were two foreigners in the Convention, Anarcharsis Clootz and myself. We were both put out of the Convention by the same vote, arrested by the same order, and carried to prison together the same night. He was taken to the guillotine, and I was again left. Joel Barlow was with us when we went to prison.
Joseph Lebon, one of the vilest characters that ever existed, and who made the streets of Arras run with blood, was my suppléant, as member of the Convention for the department of the Pas de Calais. When I was put out of the Convention he came and took my place. When I was liberated from prison and voted again into the Convention, he was sent to the same prison and took my place there, and he was sent to the guillotine instead of me. He supplied my place all the way through.
One hundred and sixty-eight persons were taken out of the Luxembourg in one night, and a hundred and sixty of them guillotined next day, of which I now know I was to have been one; and the manner I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.
The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuele, of Bruges, since President of the Municipality of that town, Michael Rubyns, and Charles Bastini of Louvain.
When persons by scores and by hundreds were to be taken out of the prison for the guillotine it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal, by which they knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have stated, were four, and the door of our room was marked, unobserved by us, with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open, and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it.1 A few days after this, Robespierre fell, and Mr. Monroe arrived and reclaimed me, and invited me to his house.
During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate. The Americans in Paris went in a body to the Convention to reclaim me, but without success. There was no party among them with respect to me. My only hope then rested on the government of America, that it would remember me. But the icy heart of ingratitude, in whatever man it be placed, has neither feeling nor sense of honour. The letter of Mr. Jefferson has served to wipe away the reproach, and done justice to the mass of the people of America.1
When a party was forming, in the latter end of 1777, and beginning of 1778, of which John Adams was one, to remove Mr. Washington from the command of the army on the complaint that he did nothing, I wrote the fifth number of the Crisis, and published it at Lancaster, (Congress then being at Yorktown, in Pennsylvania,) to ward off that meditated blow; for though I well knew that the black times of ’76 were the natural consequence of his want of military judgment in the choice of positions into which the army was put about New York and New Jersey, I could see no possible advantage, and nothing but mischief, that could arise by distracting the army into parties, which would have been the case had the intended motion gone on.
General [Charles] Lee, who with a sarcastic genius joined a great fund of military knowledge, was perfectly right when he said “We have no business on islands, and in the bottom of bogs, where the enemy, by the aid of its ships, can bring its whole force against a part of ours and shut it up.” This had like to have been the case at New York, and it was the case at Fort Washington, and would have been the case at Fort Lee if General [Nathaniel] Greene had not moved instantly off on the first news of the enemy’s approach. I was with Greene through the whole of that affair, and know it perfectly.
But though I came forward in defence of Mr. Washington when he was attacked, and made the best that could be made of a series of blunders that had nearly ruined the country, he left me to perish when I was in prison. But as I told him of it in his life-time, I should not now bring it up if the ignorant impertinence of some of the Federal papers, who are pushing Mr. Washington forward as their stalking horse, did not make it necessary.
That gentleman did not perform his part in the Revolution better, nor with more honour, than I did mine, and the one part was as necessary as the other. He accepted as a present, (though he was already rich,) a hundred thousand acres of land in America, and left me to occupy six foot of earth in France.1 I wish, for his own reputation, he had acted with more justice. But it was always known of Mr. Washington, by those who best knew him, that he was of such an icy and death-like constitution, that he neither loved his friends nor hated his enemies. But, be this as it may, I see no reason that a difference between Mr. Washington and me should be made a theme of discord with other people. There are those who may see merit in both, without making themselves partisans of either, and with this reflection I close the subject.
As to the hypocritical abuse thrown out by the Federalists on other subjects, I recommend to them the observance of a commandment that existed before either Christian or Jew existed:
If the Federalists will follow this commandment, they will leave off lying.
Nov. 26, 1802.
The National Intelligencer, Dec. 29th, 1802.—Editor.
See my “Life of Paine,” vol. ii., pp. 79, 81. Also, the historical introduction to XXI., p. 230, of this volume. Robespierre never wrote an idle word. This Paine well knew, as Mirabeau, who said of Robespierre. “That man will go far; he believes every word he says.”—Editor.
Is this a “survival” of the goddess Fortuna?—Editor.
Barére. His apology to Paine proves that a death-warrant had been issued, for Barère did not sign the order for Paine’s arrest or imprisonment.—Editor.
Paine’s preface to the “Age of Reason,” Part II., and his Letter to Washington (p. 222.) show that for some time after his release from prison he had attributed his escape from the guillotine to a fever which rendered him unconscious at the time when his accusation was demanded by Robespierre; but it will be seen (XXXI) that he subsequently visited his prison room-mate Vanhuele, who had become Mayor of Bruges, and he may have learned from him the particulars of their marvellous escape. Carlyle having been criticised by John G. Alger for crediting this story of the chalk mark, an exhaustive discussion of the facts took place in the London Athenœum, July 7, 21, August 25, September 1, 1894, in which it was conclusively proved, I think, that there is no reason to doubt the truth of the incident. See also my article on Paine’s escape, in The Open Court (Chicago), July 26, 1894. The discussion in the Athenœum elicited the fact that a tradition had long existed in the family of Sampson Perry that he had shared Paine’s cell and been saved by the curious mistake. Such is not the fact. Perry, in his book on the French Revolution, and in his “Argus,” told the story of Paine’s escape by his illness, as Paine first told it; and he also relates an anecdote which may find place here: “Mr. Paine speaks gratefully of the kindness shown him by his fellow-prisoners of the same chamber during his severe malady, and especially of the skilful and voluntary assistance lent him by General O’Hara’s surgeon. He relates an anecdote of himself which may not be unworthy of repeating. An arrêt of the Committee of Public Welfare had given directions to the administrators of the palace [Luxembourg] to enter all the prisons with additional guards and dispossess every prisoner of his knives, forks, and every other sharp instrument; and also to take their money from them. This happened a short time before Mr. Paine’s illness, and as this ceremony was represented to him as an atrocious plunder in the dregs of municipality, he determined to avert its effect so far as it concerned himself. He had an English bank note of some value and gold coin in his pocket, and as he conceived the visitors would rifle them, as well as his trunks (though they did not do so by any one) he took off the lock from his door, and hid the whole of what he had about him in its inside. He recovered his health, he found his money, but missed about three hundred of his associated prisoners, who had been sent in crowds to the murderous tribunal, while he had been insensible of their or his own danger.” This was probably the money (£200) loaned by Paine to General O’Hara (who figured at the Yorktown surrender) in prison.—Editor.
Printed in the seventh of this series of Letters.—Editor.
Paine was mistaken, as many others were, about the gifts of Virginia (1785) to Washington. They were 100 shares, of $100 each, in the James River Company, and 50 shares, of £100 each, in the Potomac Company. Washington, accepted on condition that he might appropriate them to public uses, which was done in his Will.—Editor.