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[An unpublished essay, February 2005]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."[1]

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.."[2]

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."[3]

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."[4]

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 attention.

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. …The 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."[5]

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."[6]

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.


[1]David Schoenbrun. Triumph In Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 345.
[2]Letter to Benjamin Franklin from New York City, 23 September 1785.
[3]Phillips Russell. Benjamin Franklin, The First Civilized American (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1926), p. 314.
[4] Letter to Thomas Jefferson, from Thetford, England, 1788.
[5] Letter to Thomas Jefferson, from London, 26 February, 1789.
[6] Ibid.