Founding Fathers Friday: Robert Treat Paine
by Derrick G. Jeter
Robert Treat Paine had a secret—a secret he couldn’t keep secret for long. In fact, his secret was a scandal, not just because of the time in which he lived, but because of what he was doing at the time.
Paine came from a family of ministers. His father was a pastor, as well as his maternal grandfather. After graduating from Harvard, Paine taught school, but found it wasn’t to his liking. At the suggestion of his ministerial family, he too decided the life of the collar and pulpit was for him and set out on a study of theology. When the French and Indian War commenced, Paine served as a chaplain, which was enough pastoral experience to convince him that that was no life for him. So what should a young man with a Harvard degree do with his life? Well, he, like many young men, didn’t know what to do, so he did what many young men do—he traveled. He ventured south to the Carolinas, sailed to England, jumped the Channel and strolled through Spain, made his way to the Azores, and even sailed past Greenland onboard a whaling vessel.
When Paine returned home from his travels he had an answers to the plaguing question of how to spend his life. He would study law. As was the custom of the day, Paine studied under a practicing attorney, and after his studies he hung out his shingle in Tauton, Massachusetts, some thirty miles south of Boston.
In March of 1770, after the famed Boston Massacre, in which Captain Thomas Preston and eight British soldiers were tried for murdering five Bostonians, Paine was selected as one of the prosecuting attorneys. Paine and his colleagues had a virtual open-and-shut case. Anti-British passions ran high at the time and the bodies of five boys and men lying in the snow on a Boston street with British bullets in them was all the evidence a Boston jury would need for conviction. Or so Paine thought. The defendants, for their part, were lucky to find a lawyer to take their case. No respecting attorney in Boston, or the surrounding area for that matter, would touch such a sure fire loser. No one, that is, except John Adams.
Paine and Adams were former school chums. Now they were legal adversaries. Unfortunately for Paine, he was no match for Adams in the courtroom. The defense argued that the crowd was looking for a provocation with the British and that the evening of March 5th provided a perfect opportunity. It all began innocent enough, some boys throwing snowballs at a sentry. But a crowd soon formed and snowballs turned into ice chunks, snowballs with rocks and oyster shells, and eventually clubs. These weren’t the only things flying through the air that night, however, so were curses and shouts for the soldiers to fire. By this time the sentry had reinforcements—seven additional soldiers and Captain Preston. A thrown club struck the sentry in the head, knocking him to the ground and accidently discharging his rifle. Wars are started in just such ways. And that was all it took on that evening. The remaining soldiers opened fired and when the smoke cleared five laid dead in the snow.
Adams had done the impossible—he won an acquittal for Captain Preston and his men. Paine, however, didn’t completely lose, two soldiers were charged with manslaughter and banded on the thumb with the letter “M” as punishment.
Paine also won the respect of the patriot citizens of Boston. He had valiantly done battle against British tyranny (ironically enough, as an agent of the Crown) and simply got out-lawyered. You couldn’t hold that against him. And the good folks of Massachusetts didn’t—he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature following the trial. Later, he was selected as one of the five men to represent Massachusetts in the First and Second Continental Congresses. Paine was amiable enough, but he wasn’t an original thinker and often objected to other’s proposals. He objected so much that it won him the moniker, “The Objection Maker.” Of his fellow Massachusetts delegates, Paine was the most conservative and held out for a reconciliation with Great Britain long after the Adams cousins, Hancock, and Gerry were foursquare for independence. The Adamses despised him for his passivity and Paine resented them for their contempt.
Eventually, Paine came around and he signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776, along with the other delegates.
Paine remained active in national and Massachusetts politics after the War for Independence. He was appointed the state’s first attorney general, helped write the state’s new constitution, and later became a Massachusetts supreme court justice. He served on the high court for fourteen years until his hearing grew so bad that he could no longer hear cases—literally.
He died at the age of eighty-three, in 1814, and was buried in the Old Granary Burial Ground in Boston. The same resting place with fellow signers John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
And what of Paine’s secret? Well, it wasn’t buried with him. When he was a divinity student he broke the third commandment by getting his girlfriend, Sally Cobb pregnant. But as a good Christian, he repented of his sin and made things right—he married her and they had seven other children together.