President George Washington politely but resolutely snubs radical author Thomas Paine, refusing even to comment on his great work, Rights of Man, in which Paine advocates revolution against aristocratic governments.
Washington writes in full: To my friends, and those who know my occupations, I am sure no apology is necessary for keeping their letters so much longer unanswered than my inclination would lead me to do. I shall therefore offer no excuse for not having sooner acknowledged the receipt of your letter of the 21st of July. My thanks, however, for the token of your remembrance, in the fifty copies of the Rights of Man are offered with no less cordiality than they would have been had I answered your letter in the first moment of receiving it.
The duties of my Office, which at all times (especially during the sitting of Congress) require an unremitting attention naturally become more pressing towards the close of it; and as that body have resolved to rise tomorrow, and as I have determined in case they should, to set out for Mount Vernon on the next day, you will readily conclude that the present is a busy moment with me - and to that I am persuaded your goodness will impute my not entering into the several points touched upon in your letter. Let it suffice, therefore, at this time to say, that I rejoice in the information of your personal prosperity - and as no one can feel a greater interest in the happiness of mankind than I do, that it is the first wish of my heart that the enlightened policy of the present age may diffuse to all men those blessings to which they are entitled - and lay the foundation of happiness for future generations - With great esteem I am Dear Sir Your most Obedt Servt G. Washington. P.S. Since writing the foregoing I have received your letter of the 13th of February with twelve copies of your new book which accompanied it - and for which you must accept my additional thanks. G.Wn.
Paine had sent Washington 50 copies of the first part of his Rights of Man in July, 1791, and followed up with 12 copies of the second part in February, 1792. Allowing time for Paine’s two parcels to reach Washington from England, it is nonetheless clear from this cold impersonal letter that President Washington has no real interest in responding to the man who, during the American revolution, had been responsible for inspiring the morale of the dispirited Continental Army, of which Washington was Commander-in-Chief. Lamely, Washington begs forgiveness for his pre-occupation with the duties of office, and even suggests that his possible upcoming travel to Mount Vernon prevents a response. It has taken him months, however, to respond to Paine and his response is mere perfunctory and polite thanks.
The deliberate snub comes in Washington’s blatant refusal to comment on Paine’s work. In the controversial two-part pamphlet Rights of Man, Paine responded to Edmund Burke’s critical view of the French Revolution. Paine argued that civil government exists only through a contract with the majority of the people for the safe-guarding of the individual, and if man’s “natural rights” are interfered with by the government, revolution is permissible. In agreement with the French Revolution, Paine opposed aristocratic government, and contended that freedom of action and thought were natural rights and should not be interfered with by civil authority. In the pamphlet, he called upon the English people to overthrow their monarchy and set up a republic. Viewed in this light, Paine’s tract may have been viewed by Washington as an assault upon his own authority as President. Washington’s cold response is understandable.
Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was serving as Washington’s Secretary of State, was involved in the arrangements for the U.S. publication of Paine’s work - as a means of combating the “Federalist heresy.” Often pitted against Washington’s trusted advisor, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was often at odds with Washington. Indeed, Jefferson and other anti-Federalists such as Monroe, were critical of the office of President, observing that a president who could be re-elected indefinitely and commanded the armed forces “seems a bad edition of a Polish king.” Jefferson also came in disagreement with Washington for his proposed foreign policy, recommending aid to France in the war between France and England. Washington rejected Jefferson’s counsel, and maintained strict neutrality between Britain and France despite the 1778 treaty of alliance with France. Soon, the rift between the Federalists (Washington, Hamilton, John Adams) and the anti-Federalist forces led to the creation of the Democratic - Republican party, with Jefferson as its leader. No doubt Paine’s book served to widen the rift between Jefferson (and the anti-Federalists) and Washington (and the Federalists).
Due to the book’s “seditious” content (coupled with its exceptional popularity), Paine was indicted for treason. He was forced to flee England, and seek refuge in France, where he was safe until the new French government revoked his citizenship and he was put in prison (1793-94). Finally, he was released at the request of Minister to France James Madison, who claimed Paine was an American citizen. According to Paine, Washington refused to help him.
A superb historical letter linking two of America’s great patriots, though they are clearly not of one mind on the subject of revolution.