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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Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Revolutions of Sir Robert Smyth

In 1774, Thomas Paine emigrated to Pennsylvania with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin and a fervent wish to help the American colonists resist the royal government.

That same year, Sir Robert Smyth (1744-1802) was first elected to Parliament, representing the boroughs of Cardigan. Sir Robert had inherited a baronetcy (a hereditary knighthood), but we all remember that knights and baronets are technically commoners and therefore eligible for election to the House of Commons, right?

In Parliament, Smyth “generally voted with the court,” or the Tory government, according to Horace Walpole. He supported Lord North’s American policy, speaking in favor of the Quebec Act and delivering “a reply to [opposition member Edmund] Burke…laughing at his metaphors.” His opponent challenged the results of Smyth’s election, however, and he lost his seat at the end of 1775.

In 1780, Sir Robert returned to Parliament as the member from Colchester, a seat he held for ten years. He had shifted from voting with Lord North to being a strong opponent of him and the American war. Smyth instead appears to have aligned himself with the younger William Pitt.

As shown above, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Smyth’s wife Charlotte and children in 1787, a portrait now at the Metropolitan Museum. The children were:
  • Louisa, born 1782, according to Debrett’s Baronetage.
  • Charlotte, born 1783.
  • George-Henry, born 1784, and heir to the baronetcy, which is why he gets the top position among the children and all the attention.
In 1790 Smyth stepped away from Parliament. He moved even further to the left and moved his family to Paris, going into business there. Smyth was part of a small community of British gentlemen who were big fans of the French Revolution.

Another of those men was Thomas Paine. He’d left the U.S. of A. in 1787 with big plans for building an iron bridge in England, but then got inspired by the events in France. When Burke criticized the French Revolution, Paine replied with his Rights of Man, moving back and forth between London and Paris as British government agents threatened him. On one of those trips, Lafayette entrusted Paine with the key to the Bastille, which the marquis wanted to go to George Washington.

In 1792, Paine moved to France one step ahead of an indictment for seditious libel. Britain convicted him in absentia while France elected him to four seats in its new National Convention—even though at the time he didn’t speak French.

The Convention was the legislative successor to the Assembly, part of the French constitutional monarchy that fell apart in late 1792. The country was then at war with Austria and Prussia. Louis XVI was arrested. Lafayette fled the country. In September the Convention declared France to be a republic.

On 18 Nov 1792, according to a story that appeared in London newspapers, “the English arrived in Paris [i.e., the British expatriate community] assembled at White’s Hotel, to celebrate the triumph of victories gained over their late invaders by the armies of France.” Paine was staying in that mansion, also known as the Hotel d’Angleterre, and attended the dinner.

The other diners included Sir Robert Smyth and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, younger son of an Irish duke and a former British army officer who had been wounded at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina. The newspaper report credited them with a couple of actions:
Among several toasts proposed by the citizens, Sir R. Smith and Lord E. Fitzgerald, was the following: “May the patriotic airs of the German Legion (Ça ira, the Carmagnole, Marseillaise March, etc.) soon become the favourite music of every army, and may the soldier and the citizen join in the chorus.” . . .

Sir Robert Smith and Lord E. Fitzgerald renounced their titles; and a toast proposed by the former was drank:—“The speedy abolition of all hereditary titles and feudal distinctions.”
Thus, the baronet Sir Robert Smyth was now, he declared, simply Citizen Smyth.

TOMORROW: Imprisonment, flirtation, and young Charles Este.


John L Smith Jr said...

Well, somehow Paine got Lafayette's Bastille key to George because its hanging right there inside Mt. Vernon by the stairs. Assuming its the same key ...

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I think the presence of that key in Virginia shows how Paine's Revolutionary War colleagues thought he was reliable, and how they could indeed rely on him.