Robert Treat Paine was born March 11, 1731 on School Street, Boston, near the site of Old City Hall, and was baptized at the Old South Church by Reverend Thomas Prince. He was the fourth of five children of Reverend Thomas Paine, Harvard College 1717, pastor of the Congregational church at Weymouth, Massachusetts, and Eunice Treat, daughter of Reverend Samuel Treat, Harvard College 1669, and Abigail Willard.
Unusual in his generation in New England for having a middle name, Robert Treat Paine was the namesake of Robert Treat, father of Samuel, who was governor of Connecticut for many years and a founder of Newark, New Jersey. Paine’s great grandfather, Reverend Samuel Willard, Harvard College 1659, had been the second minister of the Old South Church and vice president as well as acting president of Harvard College. Paine was a sixth-generation descendant of Stephen Hopkins, the only passenger on the Mayflower who had also lived in Jamestown, Virginia, and a signer of the Mayflower Compact.
Paine has an impressive family history in the old world as well as the new. Through his great-grandmother Rebecca Winslow he was reportedly descended from William the Conqueror, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great and Magna Carta Baron Saire de Quincy. It is now believed that Robert Treat Paine’s great grandfather Thomas Paine of Yarmouth and Eastham, Cape Cod, a millwright prominent in community and colony affairs and born in 1612, emigrated from England in 1635 with his wife Elizabeth and was the son of Queens College Cambridge-educated vicar Thomas Payne of Hernhill, Kent, whose family hailed from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in East Anglia.
Reverend Thomas Paine had left full-time ministry in 1730 when he moved the family to Boston and eventually entered business as a merchant. He continued to preach from time to time in Weymouth until 1734. In his new calling as a merchant, he initially prospered.
Finishing Boston Latin School at the top of his class, Robert Treat Paine entered Harvard College at the age of fourteen. Besides forming a literary club with friends, he had a great interest in scientific matters, went “to see the Electricity” and became interested in clock making. Paine lived with the college chaplain, Reverend Nathaniel Appleton. Unfortunately, just as he was graduating from college in 1749, his father lost his fortune, and he was left to make his own way in life.
After teaching school for a year in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, and then in Boston, he made three voyages to North Carolina in 1751-54, acting as master, and in the last sailed as far as Fayal and Cadiz. In Philadelphia between voyages he met many influential people and was particularly intimate with the Franklins. While in North Carolina he wrote President Holyoke of Harvard asking to be awarded the Masters of Arts degree in absentia; his request was granted. In 1754, as Captain of the Seaflower, he led a whaling expedition from Cape Cod to Greenland and left behind what is believed to be the earliest illustrated log of a whaling venture kept by an American. Unfortunately, none of his mercantile ventures proved to be rewarding.
In 1755, he commenced reading law with his relative Judge Samuel Willard in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and while pursuing his studies preached at Shirley. When Willard was appointed Colonel for the Crown Point (New York) expedition during the French and Indian War, Robert Treat Paine served as a chaplain of the regiment and encamped at Lake George for three months at the end of 1755.
In early 1756 Paine visited his father in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in August went to Connecticut on family business, and by the fall moved to Boston to resume study of the law under Benjamin Prat, later chief justice in New York. In 1757, Paine was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar, the same month that his father died, leaving behind debts to collect from Nova Scotia and the West Indies and heavy family responsibilities. At first he considered establishing his law practice in Portland, Maine (then Massachusetts), but settled in Boston. He frequently rode the circuit attending court sessions in Cambridge, Plymouth, Barnstable and Worcester, York and Portsmouth. Pushing himself at some cost to his health, Paine qualified for practicing before the Superior Court in 1758. He and fellow lawyer John Adams were already keen rivals.
In 1761 Paine moved to Taunton, Massachusetts, where he almost immediately became a leading citizen, justice of the peace in 1763, barrister in 1764. There he resided for twenty years. His attendance of regional court sessions on the circuit continued unabated. He was respected as a fair man with an admirable dedication to his profession and devotion to his community, which repeatedly elected him Town Moderator. Paine was tall in stature, blessed with a deep voice and a serious and frank manner. His great powers of mind, profound knowledge of the law and habits of thorough investigation quickly brought him a large practice, with important clients, among them the painter John Singleton Copley.
In 1766 at age thirty-five he “began to visit Sally Cobb” of Taunton, then twenty-two. Born on May 15, 1744, Sally was the daughter of Thomas Cobb, Esq., an iron manufacturer, tavern keeper and former sea captain, and Lydia (Leonard) Cobb, and a sister of David Cobb, who was later a General and aide on the staff of George Washington. After seeing each other for four years, on March 15, 1770 the couple married at the octagonal Cobb family house called ‘the Chapel’ in Attleborough. They subsequently lived across from Taunton Green in a house built in 1771. The couple were the parents of eight children:
- Robert (1770-1798), Harvard College 1789, unmarried.
- Sally (1772-1823), unmarried
- Thomas (1773-1811), Harvard College 1792, married Eliza Baker, name changed legally to Robert Treat Paine, Jr., 1801, issue
- Charles (1775-1810), Harvard College 1793, married Sarah Sumner Cushing, issue
- Henry (1777-1814), married Olive Lyman, issue
- Mary (1780-1842), married Rev. Elisha Clap, no issue
- Maria Antoinette (1782-1842), married Deacon Samuel Greele, no issue
- Lucretia (1785-1823), unmarried
The second son (Thomas, later Robert) became a talented writer and author of a famous early patriotic song, Adams and Liberty (1798). Unfortunately, he had a falling out with his father when he married an actress against his father’s wishes. The third son (Charles) also became a lawyer, and law partner of Harrison Gray Otis. He lost a fortune in a “mercantile adventure” and died young, leaving his wife Sarah Sumner Cushing, a lawyer’s daughter and one of the most beautiful women in Boston, as a single parent raising four children, including Charles Cushing Paine, progenitor of a large number of Robert Treat Paine descendants.
Robert Treat Paine’s growing dedication to the patriot cause began as early as 1766 when he celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act. In 1768, Paine served as Taunton’s delegate at the provincial convention held in Boston to discuss the landing of British troops in Boston. Despite the governor’s efforts to prohibit such a meeting, the delegates remained for several days, discussing their grievances with the provincial government. This meeting served as an early warning that the Boston area colonists would act in their own best interests even when those interests stood at odds with those of their leaders. At that time, Paine did not believe that separation from England would be necessary, but his participation in the meeting demonstrated his support of colonial rights.
Only two years after this historic meeting, events in Boston ignited the passions of colonists in what became known as the Boston Massacre. On March 5, 1770 a verbal exchange between a British soldier named Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch and a colonial apprentice named Edward Garrick took place on King Street (now State Street) This argument heightened tensions between the colonists and soldiers and led to a physical exchange later that afternoon, when Garrick returned to King Street with supporters, in front of the Town House (now called the Old State House). The angry group directed all of their frustration at the first British soldier that they found, Hugh White. Along with their insults, the colonists hurled snowballs and oysters. White retaliated by striking Garrick on the head with his musket. As passersby joined the scene to form a crowd nearly four hundred strong, nearby British soldiers including Captain Thomas Preston arrived to address the very real prospect of a riot. Some witnesses claimed to have heard the British utter word the “Fire!” but the claims were unsubstantiated. All that is known is that moments after shots were fired, eleven colonists were injured. Three of them died instantly, and two died shortly later.
The Boston Massacre was a pivotal event in the timeline leading to the American Revolution. The incendiary atmosphere that provoked the British soldiers to fire made it clear that subsequent violence was a genuine possibility. The resulting trial demonstrated colonial judiciary competence and adherence to the rule of law. Both the colonists and the crown were under a great deal of pressure. The colonists could reasonably assume that if the violence escalated, the British would react in kind. The British, on the other hand, wanted to maintain the guise of impartiality when trying the soldiers because they did not want to incite further anger from the colonists. For both sides, trying the case required a great deal of delicacy and diplomacy. The trial pitted against one another two future Signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Robert Treat Paine. Adams led the defense team for the British soldiers despite his belief that war was inevitable. Paine, who did not yet believe that war was the answer, led the prosecution of the soldiers. During the course of the trial Paine expressed the opinion that the core issue was whether or not the British Parliament could legally quarter an army in a town without its consent, as the Quartering Act of 1765 mandated. Paine’s arguments proved prescient, given that the Third Amendment to the future U. S. Constitution would state that “no Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
Captain Preston was acquitted and the other men on trial were either acquitted or convicted of manslaughter. Even though Paine’s side did not prevail, the Boston Massacre trial had put him on the map. Reverend Goodrich claims that, from the limited court transcripts in existence, “it appears that [Paine] managed the cause with the highest reputation to himself, both in regard to his honor as a faithful advocate, and at the same time as a friend to the just rights of those against whom he acted as council.” In the end, the events surrounding the Boston Massacre were hugely influential when it came to the development of the colonial spirit and desire to separate from England.
After the trial Robert Treat Paine became even more involved in the patriot cause. He was a close political friend with James Otis. In 1773, when Taunton joined in the Boston Committee of Correspondence that was the brainchild of Sam Adams, Paine was chairman of a large committee in Taunton on grievances and drafted the high-toned resolutions that were passed. He represented Taunton in the Provincial Congress in 1774 and 1775 and prepared in whole or in part the addresses and reports relating to the removal of the Governor and impeachment of Chief Justice Peter Oliver for receiving his stipend from the king instead of from local government. In 1774, Paine attended the first Continental Congress, voted for by members of the Massachusetts General Court after he maneuvered the absence of a loyalist committee member, his neighbor Daniel Leonard, who otherwise would have tipped off the Governor, who in turn would have dissolved the General Court.
Paine was among the members who were hesitant to cut ties entirely with their mother country and hoped that the formation of the Second Continental Congress would show the British a united colonial front, thereby leading them to negotiate. Even after the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, Paine fervently hoped that peace could be maintained and in July 1775 signed the Olive Branch Petition that was sent to King George III as a final attempt to reduce the friction with England. The King’s rejection of the Olive Branch Petition proved to be a turning point for the colonists. Many who had been on the fence about the prospect of war realized that the King would not negotiate and that without action there would be no change. Robert Treat Paine may not have been among the original supporters of war with England, but after the rejection of the Olive Branch Petition, he acknowledged its inevitability.
Robert Treat Paine was a vocal and involved member of the Continental Congress, often to the chagrin of those around him. Benjamin Rush nicknamed him the “Objection-Maker,” because, according to Rush, Paine “seldom proposed anything, but opposed nearly every measure that was proposed by other people.” Whether or not he gave excessive objections or “seldom proposed” anything, Robert Treat Paine was indeed a valuable member of the Continental Congress. He read Common Sense, whose author Thomas Paine incidentally came from the same part of England as did Robert Treat Paine’s forebears. In the days leading up to the vote he cast for independence on July 4, 1776, Paine wrote in his very succinct diary:
July 1, Fine showers
July 2, Rain’d hard Cool’d the air much
July 3, Cool day
July 4, Cool. The Independence of the States Voted & declared.
Despite the brevity with which he recorded his daily musings, Paine was an eloquent and articulate writer whose letters provide a deeper understanding of his feelings regarding the importance of the colonies fighting for independence. In a letter to his friend Joseph Palmer on July 6, Robert Treat Paine wrote:
The day before yesterday the declaration of American independency was voted by twelve colonies agreeable to the sense of the constituents, and New-York was silent, till their new convention (which sits next week) express their assent, of which we have some doubt. Thus the issue is joined; and it is our comfortable reflection, that if by struggling we can avoid the 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’s wife Sally wrote him from Taunton July 17:
My Dear, I rec’d yours of July 5th. & the declaration for which I thank you for I have been Longing to See it this Some time.
A letter from his brother-in-law David Cobb on July 22 describes the excitement in Boston:
Thursday 18th. This Day at 1 o’Clock was declar’d the Independence of America, from the Bellcony of the Townhouse in the presence of Thousands. A Regiment of Continental Troops & our provincial Train of Artillery, in the firing of platoons and Field pieces, hail’d the rising Empire, whilst the different Fortresses in the Harbour, wafted the joyfull sound to Heaven in Thunder, smook & fireâ€”emblimatical of its presirvation. The Day was clos’d with a Bonfire made of all the Ensigns of Royalty that cou’d be collected.
Robert Treat Paine served punctually and faithfully on many committees of the Continental Congress, and chaired the Committee on Ordnance or munitions. For the next twenty months, corresponding widely, Paine pressed for the domestic manufacture of gunpowder, muskets and artillery. In March 1776 Paine published an article on saltpeter manufacture in the Pennsylvania Magazine, sent reprints to the various colonies, and arranged for a reprint in Massachusetts. In a letter to Samuel Phillips, Jr., September 25, 1776, Paine wrote,
I wish the Inhabitants of the United States were more intent upon providing and manufacturing the Means of defense, than making Governments with[ou]t providing for the means of their Support.
Paine was successful in his efforts and a number of government-controlled mills were established, ensuring that the colonists were well equipped to fight against the well-supplied British army. He was elected to Congress for 1777 and 1778 but did not again attend.
Before, during and after the war, Robert Treat Paine remained involved in government at the provincial or state level. Between 1773 and 1778 (except busy 1776) Paine represented Taunton in the Massachusetts General Court (House of Representatives) and was Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1777. In 1778, as a bitter foe of inflation and paper money, Paine worked to address the depreciation of the continental currency. In that same year Paine also played a key role on the committee that first drafted a state constitution that was not adopted, and was a delegate to the constitutional convention and member of the committee that drafted the state constitution that was adopted in 1780.
Robert Treat Paine became Massachusetts’ first Attorney General and served from 1777 to 1790. He advised on the confiscation of Tory property and on Shay’s Rebellion and provided strong leadership in a time of financial distress and anxiety over changing social mores. To end the frequent absences necessitated by living in Taunton and working in Boston, notably on the Governors Council in 1779 and 1780, in 1781 Paine moved his family to Boston to live in a gambrel-roofed brick mansion house with an extensive garden, on the corner of Milk and Federal Streets. The lessor of the house, prominent merchant Leonard Vassall Borland, sold Paine the house in 1785. Here the Paines lived the rest of their lives, and their daughters after them. (A bronze plaque with a likeness of Paine has marked the spot since about the mid-twentieth century.) The Paines’ hospitality was generous, and the house was the constant resort of Paine’s numerous acquaintances. “In some parts of the mansion house now may be seen some of the ancient tapestry such as decorated the first mansions of our first sires who came from Europe,” recalled Hannah Mather Crocker in the 1820s.
In 1783, Robert Treat Paine was offered a place on the state Supreme Court bench but initially declined, preferring to retain the position of Attorney General. He eventually accepted his friend Governor John Hancock’s offer of an associate justiceship on the state Supreme Court in 1790 and so served until his retirement in 1804. As a jurist, Paine demonstrated a high moral character and extensive legal knowledge and demanded high standards in his courtroom. He was known for “unnecessary severity” in the cases involving hard-hearted criminals but “tenderness” in the instances “where crime was followed by repentance.” Overall, Paine was a highly respected attorney and judge. Paine retired from the bench in at the age of seventy-three due to his increasing deafness. His final public post was Counselor of Massachusetts in 1804. In 1805 Harvard honored Paine with an LL.D.
In addition to his political involvement, Robert Treat Paine was active in civic affairs. A strong proponent of education, he is said to have had “few superiors” when it came to “quickness of apprehension, liveliness of imagination, and general intelligence” combined with great wit, humor and lively conversation full of anecdote. Hannah Mather Crocker, an early historian and advocate of women’s rights, recollected him fondly in the 1820s:
No man loved wit better than he did. He often appeared lost in profound thought but could relax in a moment at the sound of a witty speach. His memory is held in remembrance with venaration love and respect by the present author….
His commitment to education and “imagination” and his lifelong scientific bent are evident in his involvement in the founding of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. The Academy’s mission was “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”
Robert Treat Paine enjoyed a peaceful retirement and died in 1814. He is buried in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, two short blocks from his birthplace.
On July 4, 1801, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Independence, it was Paine’s son Charles, named for his father’s friend from the Revolution, General Charles Lee, who was honored to deliver the public oration in Faneuil Hall, the Cradle of Liberty, eloquently tracing the fortunes of “Americans” from “howling wilderness” emerging into a future promising to be “the permanent boast of the world.”
In 1802, at age seventy-one, Paine sat for artist Edward Savage, but the portrait – the only one taken from life – was finished by John Coles, Jr., in 1822. John Trumbull relied on the portrait in his iconic painting Declaration of Independence, commissioned in 1817 and now hanging in the Capitol Rotunda. In the painting, toward the rear of the chamber, in a row of ten seated figures, Robert Treat Paine, in a dark coat, is the sixth seated figure to the left of John Adams. A copy of the Edward Savage portrait by noted painter Chester Harding ca. 1835 still hangs in Faneuil Hall; it was donated by Robert Treat Paine (1803-1885) the Astronomer, a grandson of the Signer. For the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876 Paine’s great-grandson General Charles Jackson Paine donated a second copy of the portrait, this one by Richard M. Staigg, to Independence Hall.
In 1904 Paine great-grandsons Robert Treat Paine (1835-1910) and General Charles Jackson Paine (1833-1916) donated to the City of Taunton, Massachusetts,
A statue of the Signer, by sculptor Richard Brooks. The about-to-be-Signer is pensively holding a quill, exuding resolve. Attending the dedication ceremony on Church Green on November 15 were the Signer’s chief concentration of local descendants, all through Charles Cushing Paine, son of Charles Paine who had made the 1801 oration.
On the Mall in Washington, D.C., near the Washington Monument, is a small park and lagoon dedicated in 1984 to the memory of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the 56 granite blocks there is engraved with the signature of Robert Treat Paine.
In 1940 and 1954 descendants of General Charles Jackson Paine, who had inherited the Savage portrait and papers of Robert Treat Paine, donated them to the Massachusetts Historical Society, the nation’s first historical society. In 1992 the Society published the first two volumes of The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, and in 2005 the third, out of the projected five volumes.
As for this Signer’s signature on the Declaration of Independence, although Paine has been alleged to be the only Signer whose signature shows a slip of the quill, as there seem to be two “e”s in Paine, the second loop is actually a flourish; other surviving samples of Paine’s signature also include a flourish (or paraph) after the letter “e”.
Biography first written by Brigette Henk, 2008. Edited and expanded by Thomas M. Paine, sixth generation descendant of Robert Treat Paine, 2011.
- Barthelmas, Della Gray. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence: A Biographical and Genealogical Reference (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. ,1997)
- Cameron, James R. Guide to the Joseph Palmer Papers (Quincy, MA: Quincy Historical Society, 1978) includes excerpt of Paine’s 6 July 1776 letter to Palmer published in the New York Review & Atheneum Magazine, 11, 449-450.
- Crocker, Hannah Mather. Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston, edited by Eileen Hunt Botting and Sarah L. Houser (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2011)
- Ferris, Robert and Morris, Richard. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Flagstaff, AZ: National Park Service Interpretive Publications, 2001)
- Paine, Sarah Cushing. Paine Ancestry, The Family of Robert Treat Paine Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Including Maternal Lines, edited by Charles Henry Pope. (Boston: printed for the family, 1912)
- Paine, Robert Treat. The Papers of Robert Treat Paine. Vol. I: 1746-1756. Edited by Stephen T. Riley and Edward W. Hanson (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992)
- Paine, Robert Treat. The Papers of Robert Treat Paine. Vol. II: 1757-1774. Edited by Stephen T. Riley and Edward W. Hanson (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992)
- Paine, Robert Treat. The Papers of Robert Treat Paine. Vol. III: 1774-1777. Edited by Edward W. Hanson (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005)
- Shipton, Clifford K. Sibley’s Harvard Graduates. Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1746-1750 with Bibliographical and Other Notes. Volume XII (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1962)
- Smith, Paul H. and Assistant Editors Gerard W. Gawalt, Rosemary Fry Plakas, and Eugene R. Sheridan. Letters Of Delegates To Congress 1774 – 1789 (Letters Of Delegates To Congress 1776 – 1789, Volume 4 May 16-August 15, 1776) (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1979)
- Colonial Hall, includes Goodrich, Rev. Charles A. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829.
- The principal repository of papers of Robert Treat Paine is the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.