J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Paine, Prisons, and Poetry

Yesterday’s posting left Thomas Paine and Robert Smyth, former baronet, in Revolutionary Paris at the end of 1792. Both Englishmen by birth, they were enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution.

Unfortunately for them, in February 1793 the French government declared war on Britain, as well as the Dutch Republic. It was already at war with Austria, Prussia, Brunswick, Sardinia, Spain, and Portugal, and perhaps some smaller Germany and Italian states I haven’t tracked. So there were rather few foreigners in France who didn’t fall under suspicion.

The Jacobin faction took power in June 1793 and began to arrest lots of people. Sometime in the fall of 1793, Smyth was confined at the College des Écossais or “Scots College,” shown above. While there he became friends with a couple of British teenagers: James Millingen (1774-1845), then working for a bank and later a respected archeologist, and Charles Este (1775-1841), son of a prominent London clergyman and theater critic who had come to France in 1789 to study medicine.

In December the Jacobin government stripped Paine of his seat in the National Convention because he was a foreigner. He was soon in prison as well, and came close to being executed. The American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris, didn’t intervene for him as a citizen of the U.S. of A., and Paine later blamed President George Washington for that neglect.

While in jail, Paine received some encouraging letters in English from a woman who signed her notes “From a Little Corner in the World.” Paine replied as “the Castle in the Air.” He may have fallen in love with his correspondent. At the very least he sent back poetry that that included verses like these:
I gazed and I envied with painful goodwill,
And grew tired of my seat in the air;
When all of a sudden my Castle stood still,
As if some attraction was there.

Like a lark from the sky it came fluttering down,
And placed me exactly in view,
When whom should I meet in this charming retreat,
This corner of calmness, but You.
Also, this poetic argument for why he didn’t believe in the Old Testament God:
Their country often he laid waste,
Their little ones he slew;
But I have shown a better taste
In choosing Y, O, U.
That latter verse was published in Jack Fruchtman, Jr.’s Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom.

After Maximilian de Robespierre and the radical Jacobins were deposed in July 1794, the French government started to treat foreigners more gently. Smyth petitioned the government for release in September. A new American diplomat, James Monroe, got Paine out of jail in November.

Only then, according to the standard biographies, did Paine discover that the lady writing to him was Smyth’s wife Charlotte. Most authors don’t believe that she and Paine had a sexual affair, even if she was calling herself a “Little Corner” while he was a “Castle,” and even if he wrote to her more passionately than to practically anyone else.

Paine remained on excellent terms with Robert Smyth. In one of his published essays he referred to the man as “a very intimate friend of mine.” He lived with the Smyths in 1796 while recuperating from his months in prison. As France’s war with Britain raged on, Paine wrote letters that allowed Robert Smyth to return home before he was arrested again. He recommended Smyth to American businessmen. Paine even sent Smyth another poem about love:
’T is that delightsome transport we can feel
Which painters cannot paint, nor words reveal.
Nor any art we know of can conceal.
And so on.

After Britain and France signed the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, Robert Smyth returned to Paris to restart his business. But he died in April of that year, “of a sudden attack of gout” according to the British historian John Goldworth Alger. Despite his father’s 1792 renunciation of all hereditary titles, eighteen-year-old George-Henry Smyth took up the family baronetcy.

TOMORROW: The Smyths and the Estes.

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