Thomas Paine and the Dialogues of Early America

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Illustrated frontispiece from “A letter addressed to the Abbe Raynal : on the affairs of North-America” General Collection, JC177. A3 1791, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

One of the lucky privileges of being a conservation unit student assistant is the ability to walk through the Burns Library stacks containing over four hundred years of literary and scholastic history, ranging from the history of the Jesuits to studies of Irish agriculture. On one particular day, I happened to come across two books which immediately sparked my interest as a student of philosophy and political science. On a seemingly unremarkable box, I noticed the gold titling of the renowned English-American political author and philosopher Thomas Paine. Inside, I found one of his most famed works, in possibly its first French edition, Droits de l’homme, or Rights of Man.

Born in England in 1737, Thomas Paine emigrated to the United States in 1774 with help from Benjamin Franklin. It did not take him long to become one of the most influential thought leaders and political actors of the American Revolution—a trend he would replicate in his travels to France in the late 18th century. In 1776, Paine published his intensely influential pamphlet Common Sense in Philadelphia, defending the colonial aspiration and will for independence from the crown. Common Sense and Paine’s ideas about the Revolution and independence spread like wildfire through the American colonies, with some historians arguing that it was proportionally one of America’s best-selling literary works in history.

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Title page of “Droits de l’homme.” JC177 .G11 1791 General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Paine’s contributions to intellectual life in the late 18th-century did not stop with his widely published pamphlets, though. Sitting on the shelf next to the Burns’ copy of Droits de l’homme was  a volume containing a compendium of Paine’s other less-widely published letters and documents. Contained therein is a correspondence with a former Jesuit, the Abbé Raynal. Raynal left the Jesuit order as a young man to pursue a career of writing, focusing particularly on the history of Europe. His most famed work, Histoire des deux Indes (History of the East and West Indies), was a multi-volume historical polemic of European Colonialism published beginning in 1770. The work was widely read and was quickly condemned for the views it propagated, with Raynal being called one of the most seditious writers of his time by members of the Estates General. He was ordered into exile, and was not allowed to return to Paris until 1790. During this time, Raynal published Révolution de l’Amérique, his synopsis of the causes and path of the American Revolution of 1776, in which he argued that taxation was the general impetus of the American Revolution.

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Dedication to George Washington. “Droits de l’homme” JC177 .G11 1791 General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Paine forcefully responded to Raynal in a nearly-eighty page letter in 1782, critiquing Raynal’s understanding of the revolution and gleefully painting the revolution as a fight against English tyranny led by the valiant actions of George Washington—not Paine’s only example of his jubilant admiration of Washington. Indeed, in Droits de l’homme, Paine affectionately dedicates his work to George Washington, calling Washington’s work both ‘eminent’ and of ‘exemplary virtue.’

Not surprisingly, Thomas Paine was not treated gratuitously by the English crown for these conversations and dedications. The final pamphlet in the Burns’ volume was published in England describing the proceedings of Thomas Paine’s trial for seditious libel in 1792. Paine faced a litany of charges from the crown after he published Droits de l’homme in response to Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the French Revolution. In his trial, Paine found himself trapped within the English legal system which, at the time, argued ‘the greater the truth, the greater the libel.’ After a long speech by Paine’s attorney in his client’s defense, the jury was unswayed by the testimonies. As the Attorney General began to respond, he was interrupted by the foreman, who announced that the jury had found Thomas Paine guilty. Paine avoided arrest in England and entered the Estates General in France for a time before being sent to exile there as well, eventually leading him to return to the United States in the early 1800’s, where he remained an active intellectual voice until his death in 1809. Throughout his life, he stood up for his beliefs with unwavering faith and resolve, a symbol of the sacrifices many made for their treasure of freedom and intellectual debate.

To engage more in the intellectual discourses of early America, and to see further intellectual history in action from around the world, please visit the Burns Library, or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or

  • Mitchell Clough Conservation Lab Student Assistant, MCAS ’16, Law ‘19


Works Consulted

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the laws of England. Dublin: J. Exshaw, 1771. KD660 .B534 1775 SALEM DIVINES

Kaye, Harvey J. (2005). Thomas Paine And The Promise of America. Hill & Wang. p. 43.O’Neill JC177 .A4 K39 2005

Paine, Thomas. Droits de l’homme. Paris: F. Buisson, 1791. JC177 .G11 1791 GENERAL

Raynal, Abbé. A philosophical and political history of the settlements and trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies. London: T. Cadell, 1777. D22 .R33 1777 WILLIAMS

Raynal, Abbé. Révolution de l’Amérique. London: Lockier Davis, 1780. E211 .R25 1781 GENERAL

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