This Day in History: Robert Treat Paine, nearly forgotten Founder
On this day in 1731, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence is born. Robert Treat Paine is another nearly forgotten Founder whose personal sacrifices have been all but lost to history.
Paine’s career path was an unusual one. He was a teacher, turned merchant marine, turned lawyer. He even served as a minister at one point. But, then again, much of the Paine family fortune was lost when Paine was a young adult, so he often had to fend for himself.
His stint as a teacher was perhaps his most miserable phase of life. He really hated it! “O how [the students] did hum & haw & whine & sings & every thing else disagreeable,” he wrote his sister.
Paine decided to go to sea instead. He served as a merchant marine for several years before returning home to become a lawyer. By the time of the Boston Massacre, Paine had an established law practice just outside of Boston.
Paine’s practice got a huge boost in the months following the Massacre. You may remember that John Adams represented the British soldiers and gained acquittals for most of them. Paine was one of the prosecuting attorneys on the other side. Despite his failure to gain convictions, his handling of the trial generally bought him more respect in the community. His law career flourished, and he was elected to the Provincial Assembly. When delegates were sent to the First Continental Congress in 1774, he was one of five men selected to attend on behalf of Massachusetts.
Life was not always rosy for him in the Congress. He had a bit of a reputation for dragging out debates. Benjamin Rush once spoke of Paine’s nickname, “Objection Maker.” “He seldom proposed anything,” Rush wrote, “but opposed nearly every measure that was proposed by other people.”
Nevertheless, Paine represented Massachusetts in Congress for several years, and he was serving there when the Declaration of Independence was approved and signed in 1776.
“Thus the issue is joined,” he reflected at the time, “and it is our comfortable reflection, that if by struggling we can avoid that servile subjection which Britain demanded, we remain a free and happy people; but if, through the frowns of Providence, we sink in the struggle, we do but remain the wretched people we should have been without this declaration. Our hearts are full, our hands are full; may God, in whom we trust, support us.”
Paine continued to serve the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, both during and after the Revolution. He served in the state legislature as Speaker pro tempore. He was the state’s first Attorney General, and he worked on the state’s new constitution. Later, he prosecuted members of Shay’s Rebellion, and he served on the state’s Supreme Court.
In a sad twist, Paine and his son, Thomas, would have a falling out that lasted for many years. His son, a poet, had married an actress. The elder Paine disapproved. The young Thomas eventually had his name legally changed to Robert Treat Paine, Jr., because he did not want to be confused with Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense.
Paine Jr. ended his life as a poverty-stricken alcoholic, and he died in 1811. Paine Sr. followed his son just a few short years later.
Benjamin Rush & Louis Alexander Biddle, A memorial containing travels through life or sundry incidents in the life of Dr. Benjamin Rush (1905)
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1832)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
Sanderson’s biography of the signers to the Declaration of Independence (Robert T. Conrad ed. 1865)