"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."

Thomas Paine's Offhand Remark

Mariam Touba

[Reprinted from the Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends,
Vol. 12, no.1, Spring 2011]

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? The question has a nagging history as it is often accompanied by the suggestion that Thomas Jefferson had a ghostwriter for at least part of the rough draft of the document. Beginning in the 19th century, most of the these doubters have pointed to Thomas Paine as the document's "real" author, with a few, such as Joel Moody ( Junius Unmasked, 1872) and Joseph Lewis (Thomas Paine, Author of the Declaration of Independence, 1947), employing a body of textual evidence to make their case. Given the reluctance of historians of the modern era to rely solely on literary evidence, the iconic nature of the Declaration and its assigned author, and the insistent posture of the skeptics, the controversy has created more rancor than enlightenment.

Such contempt between these partisans seems unnecessary when one recalls that it did not govern the relations between Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine themselves. And for all this fervor, is there one piece of evidence that even the most dedicated Paine theorists have overlooked?

In 1802, Thomas Paine was visited in Paris by an old comrade, Henry Redhead Yorke, an Englishman of West Indian descent and a one-time, prosecuted "Rights of Man man." Yorke had mellowed in his radicalism but was eager to spend time with his old friend and mentor. He found a careworn, politically indifferent Paine living in obscurity after a tumultuous fifteen-year sojourn in Europe that saw him celebrated and denounced, outlawed in his native Britain, imprisoned during Revolutionary France's Reign of Terror, and barely emerge as a survivor of a lingering prison illness. Paine biographers remain indebted to Yorke who, in Letters from France in 1802 (London, 1804), published vivid and lengthy impressions of a Thomas Paine absorbed by mechanical inventions, disillusioned with Napoleonic France, and eager to return to the America that had thrown out the Federalists and elected Thomas Jefferson President. Earlier, Paine had asked Jefferson to facilitate his return by allowing him to travel in a naval ship to avoid the real risk of being taken from a commercial vessel by the "piratical John Bulls" and brought to England as an outlaw. Jefferson's gracious affirmative reply, "I am in hopes you will find us returned generally to sentiments worthy of former times. In these it will be your glory to have steadily labored, and with as much effect as any man living. That you may long live to continue your useful labors and to reap the reward in the thankfulness of nations, is my sincere prayer," would become notorious fodder for his Federalist detractors. The letter also contained news of Robert R. Livingston's appointment as minister to France. Paine may have had any number of reasons for ultimately not accepting Jefferson's offer of passage, foremost being the signing of the Anglo-French Peace of Amiens in 1802 that lessened the personal danger of such a voyage. He likely was also eager to await Livingston's arrival in order to buttonhole him with his own suggestions and impressions of France under the First Consul. Nonetheless, the flattered Paine had Jefferson's laudatory letter published and, as Yorke attests here, clearly did not hesitate to show it to visitors:

As soon as I had finished the perusal of the letter, he observed, that there now remained only four persons who had acted in concert during the American revolution, John Adams, (the late President) Jefferson, Livingstone [sic], and himself (vol. 2, 344-45).

Paine's extemporary remark is nothing if not cryptic. Jefferson and Livingston were part of the conversation, but one would have to wonder why he would single out John Adams as a comrade when the two shared such stark political differences and a legendary antipathy. Moreover, these men were far from being the sole surviving Revolutionary collaborators of Thomas Paine: one thinks instantly of Benjamin Rush, Samuel Adams, Charles Willson Peale, and nearly a score of others. One could speculate that Jefferson, Adams, Livingston, and Paine had all been engaged with foreign affairs for the Continental Congress, but not at the same time or place. Livingston and Paine did work together in secret in 1782, but coordinating this project were Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, both still alive in 1802. The other Revolutionary activity that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Robert R. Livingston had in common was, of course, their service on the five-member committee to draw up the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. The two remaining committee members, Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman, had died in 1790 and 1793, respectively, although Paine, enduring imprisonment, illness, and isolation, would have learned of Sherman's death considerably later. Could Paine have been suggesting that he was not merely a literary influence but an unofficial participant on this committee? If so, he would have been musing out loud, with an offhand remark to an unsuspecting Englishman who nonetheless took down his words and published them in 1804.

If that was the case, Paine otherwise kept his secret well. His own account, published in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1805 is simply, "I was myself among the first that proposed independence, and it was Mr. Jefferson who drew up the declaration of it." Not being a member of Congress, much less a member of the drafting committee, Paine could have understood from the beginning that his role of unofficial consultant would have to be concealed for his lifetime and beyond. Such service "acting in concert" with the others need not be viewed as a case of ghostwriting, a deliberate deception by Jefferson, or a conspiracy of ingratitude toward Paine. While Paine was frequent in expressing his grievances toward a country that did not appreciate him, it was not, as his most recent biographer Craig Nelson reminds us, an uncommon sentiment for the founders in their last years. And Paine, in any case, always maintained his esteem for Jefferson.

Considering the possibility, or even probability, of Paine's secret role would also aid biographers in explaining a friendship between Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson that seemed to develop overnight and leave no traces. The time the two spent in the same place during the Revolution does not exceed six months residence in Philadelphia divided over a year and, if one limits it to the period after Paine had emerged from obscurity as the author of Common Sense, this time could be measured merely in the weeks between May and July 1776. Their relationship is not buttressed by a paper trail of correspondence until Paine's arrival in Europe in 1787, by which time Paine is telling Franklin that he is already on "exceeding good terms with Mr. Jefferson." Could it have been the bond formed by laboring secretly on a project of no small consequence? This scenario would also explain Adams' hostile view toward Paine as a perhaps necessary, but unwanted, interloper in the process. Then again, John Adams never needed much of an excuse to hate anybody.

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