Thomas Paine's Return to the Old World:
The Time Between the Storms
Edward J. Dodson
[An unpublished essay, February 2005]
The friendship between Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin is one of
the strange, yet enormously fortuitous accidents of history. The
written record does not fully convey the influence Franklin had on
Paine's decisions and his fortunes. To Franklin, Paine wrote in the
Spring of 1775: "Your countenancing me has obtained me many
friends and much reputation, for which please to accept my sincere
thanks." Paine would later accompany Colonel John Laurens to
France as his personal secretary, to find that his own name "was
a magic one in Europe, second perhaps only to Ben Franklin, for his
Common Sense had been translated and flashed like a current of
electricity through the Continent, particularly among French
intellectuals, who hailed him as another American apostle of liberty."
Schoenbrun recalls, however, that Paine's physical appearance at the
time embarrassed and upset Franklin, who had worked so long and hard
to win over a French aristocracy who "set great store on style."
And yet, following Franklin's return to North America in 1785, Paine
wrote suggestively to Franklin:
so far as I have
hitherto gone, I am not conscious of any circumstance in my conduct
that should give you one repentant thought for being my patron and
introducer to America.."
Over the months that followed, Paine periodically corresponded with
Franklin, particularly regarding his scientific experiments and the
progress he was making on a model of his iron bridge.
As the year 1786 came to an end, Thomas Paine began preparations to
leave North America for France, where he hoped to find investors for
his new iron bridge design. To his adopted countrymen, he left a final
document of advice, his "Dissertation on Government; the Affairs
of the Bank; and Paper Money." He expressed great concern for the
future of the new nation. "Our experience in republicanism is yet
so slender," he wrote, "that it is much to be doubted,
whether all our public laws and acts are consistent with, or can be
justified on, the principles of a republican government."
His return to the Old World at this time was also precipitated by a
desire to see his parents again, a visit postponed until he had
sufficient financial resources. Yet, his initial destination was
France. There, he made his way to Paris, where he met with Thomas
Jefferson, now the U.S. Minister. Franklin's reservations about
Paine's ability to present himself well must have been short-lived,
since Paine arrived in France "with an abundance of introductory
letters by Franklin, to sell his newly invented bridge."
Paine's father had already died before Paine departed North America,
but his mother welcomed him home. He remained with her for some
months, then returned to Paris where he quickly gained scientific
endorsement of his bridge design. Soon thereafter, he sent his bridge
model to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society in London.
During this period in Paris, Thomas Jefferson engaged Paine in
serious discussions over the events unfolding in Philadelphia, where
representatives from each of the states were meeting to draft a
constitution for a true federal republic. Later, from England, he
wrote to Jefferson:
"I consider the individual
sovereignty of the States retained under the act of confederation to
be of the second class of right. It becomes dangerous because it is
defective in the power necessary to support it. It answers the pride
and purpose of a few men in each State, but the State collectively
is injured by it."
His former revolutionary comrades ended up in agreement, with the
result that the United States of America was soon to emerge as one
nation on the world stage. Britain and France were moving inevitably
to a new period of open warfare, creating for Paine a new set of
dangers he failed to recognize. His iron bridge was to be a reality,
constructed in Yorkshire, England. The project attracted great
It was also during this period that Jefferson asked Paine for any
intelligence he might have on events in England. John Adams had
returned to North America, leaving the United States with no official
representation. Despite work on the bridge, Paine found time to spend
an entire week visiting with Edmund Burke. He relayed to Jefferson the
views of Burke and others he was able to engage, including the general
consensus that King George had gone mad. Based on Jefferson's own
report of events in France, Paine expressed great hope and optimism:
"I am very much rejoiced at
the account you give me of the state of affairs in France. I feel
exceedingly interested in the happiness of that nation.
happiness of doing good and the pride of doing great things unite
themselves in this business. But as there are two kinds of pride -
the little and the great, the privileged orders will in some degree
be governed by this division."
In the same letter, Paine expressed views on political economy that
might have come directly from Adam Smith or any one of the great
French Physiocratic writers - such as Turgot or Quesnay -- who had
exerted a strong influence not only on Smith but on Benjamin Franklin:
"To enrich a nation is to
enrich the individuals which compose it. To enrich the farmer is to
enrich the farm - and consequently the landlord; -- for whatever the
farmer is, the farm will be. The richer the subject, the richer the
revenue, because the consumption from which taxes are raised is in
proportion to the abilities of people to consume; therefore the most
effectual method to raise both the revenue and the rental of a
country is to raise the condition of the people, -- or that order
known in France by the Tiers Etat."
Jefferson was about to leave France for home, and a part of Paine
wished he could join him. Perhaps this would be possible once his
bridge was completed and erected somewhere in England. Within months
the upheaval in France entered its next phase, characterized by the
fall of the Bastille and the establishment of a committee to draft a
new constitution. Meanwhile, Paine had loaded his bridge onto a vessel
destined for London. At the end of May 1790, he wrote to George
Washington that a location had been secured for the bridge and that he
hoped war between Britain and France would not intervene to prevent
the project from going forward. At last, in June, the bridge was
erected in London at a location then known as Leasing Green. Financial
trouble then ensued, as Paine's business partner, Peter Whiteside, was
forced into bankruptcy and his creditors came after Paine as well.
Later in the year Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in
France appeared. Paine took up the challenge and began work on his
response, which would become Rights of Man. The relative calm
between the storms in Paine's life was about to end.
David Schoenbrun. Triumph
In Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Harper &
Row, 1976), p. 345.
Letter to Benjamin Franklin from New York City, 23 September 1785.
Phillips Russell. Benjamin Franklin, The First Civilized
American (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1926), p. 314.
 Letter to Thomas Jefferson, from Thetford, England, 1788.
 Letter to Thomas Jefferson, from London, 26 February, 1789.