Robert Treat Paine

Associated Locations:

  • Boston, Massachusetts

Associated Dates:

  • March 11, 1731 – Born

Christ-like Character Sketch

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.

This distinguished patriot was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1731. His father was a clergyman, and his mother was the daughter of the Reverend Mr. Treat, of Barnstable county. His maternal grandfather was Governor Treat, of Connecticut. Thus connected with the honored and pious, the early moral education of Mr. Paine was salutary in the extreme, and he enjoyed the advantage of instruction in letters, from Mr. Lovell, who was also the tutor of John Adams and John Hancock.

Young Paine entered Harvard College at the age of fourteen years, and graduated with the usual honors. For a time after leaving college he taught school. He then made a voyage to Europe, and on his retum he prepared himself for the ministry, in which calling he was engaged as chaplain in a military expedition to the north in 1755. Not long afterward he relinquished theology, studied law with Mr. Pratt, (afterward Chief Justice of New York,) and was admitted to practice at the bar.

He commenced law practice in Boston, but alter a short residence there he removed to Taunton, where he became a powerful opponent and rival of the celebrated Timothy Ruggles. He early espoused the popular cause, but so prudently did he conduct himself, that he retained the full confidence of the Governor. In 1768, after Governor Bernard had dissolved the Assembly, and a provincial Convention was called, Mr. Paine attended as a delegate from Taunton. In 1770, when the trial of Captain Preston and his men occurred, the District Attorney being sick, Mr. Paine was chosen his substitute, and he conducted the case with great ability. He was chairman of the Committee of Vigilance in Taunton, in 1773. The same, and the following year (I774) he was elected a member of the Provincial Assembly, and was one of the commissioners appointed to conduct the proceedings in the case of the impeachment of Chief Justice 0liver.

Mr. Paine was an advocate for a Continental Congress. He was a member of the Assembly, when, in spite of Governor Gage, it elected delegates to the General Congress, of whom Mr. Paine was one. He was elected a member of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1774, where he was very active. He was deputed by the General Congress, with two others, to visit the army of General Schuyler at the north for the purpose of observation. It was a delicate commission, but one which Mr. Paine and his colleagues performed with entire satisfaction. The same year, John Adams was appointed Chief Justice of the province of Massachusetts, and Mr. Paine was chosen a side judge. He declined the honor, and in December was again elected to the General Congress, where he was very active, and on the fourth of July, the following year, (1776,) he voted for the Declaration of Independence, and was one of its signers. In I777, he was chosen Attorney-General of Massachusetts, by a unanimous vote of the council and representatives, which office he held until 1790, when he was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court. He was a member of the Convention that framed the Constitution of his native State, which was adopted in l780. For fourteen years, he discharged his duties as judge, and in 1804, he left the bench, on account of the approaching infirmities of age. He died in 1814, at the age of eighty-four years. His long and active life was devoted to the public service, and his labors were duly appreciated by
a grateful people. 1

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.

Robert Treat Paine was a native of Boston, where he was born, in the year 1731. His parents were pious and respectable. His father was for some years the settled pastor of a church in Weymouth, in the vicinity of Boston. His health failing him, however, he removed with his family to the latter place; where he entered into mercantile pursuits. His mother was the grand-daughter of Governor Treat of Connecticut.

At the early age of fourteen, he became a member of Harvard College; but of his collegiate course, little has been recorded. On leaving the university, he was engaged for some time in a public school. As the fortune of his father had, from various circumstances, become much reduced, the support of his parents, with some other relations, seemed to devolve upon himself. In the acquisition of more ample means for their maintenance, he made a voyage to Europe. It was an honorable trait in his character, thus in the morning of life to exhibit such filial affection; a kindness of disposition, which he continued to manifest during his father’s life.

Previously to his commencing the study of laws he devoted some time to the subject of theology, which tended to enlarge his views of Christianity, and to confirm his belief of its truth. In 1755, he served as chaplain to the troops of the province at the northward, and afterwards preached a few times in other places.

At length he directed his attention to the study of law, during which period, having no pecuniary assistance, he was obliged to resort again to the keeping of a school for his support. By most persons such a course would be deemed a serious evil; but experience has shown, that those who are obliged to depend upon their own energies for the means of education, generally enter upon their profession, if not with higher attainments, with more courage to encounter the difficulties with which almost every one meets, and they are more likely to attain to a high elevation, than those whose resources are abundant.

On being qualified for the practice of law, Mr. Paine established himself at Taunton, in the county of Bristol, where he resided for many years. We necessarily pass over several years of his life, during which we meet no occurrences of sufficient importance to merit a notice in these pages. It may be remarked, however, that at an early period, he took a deep interest in the various disputes which arose between the colonies and the British government. He was a delegate from Taunton, to a convention called by leading men of Boston, in 1768, in consequence of the abrupt dissolution of the general court by Governor Bernard. This convention the governor attempted to break up, but it continued in session several days, and adopted many spirited resolutions, designed to awaken in the people a greater attention to their rights, and to show to the ministry of England, that if those rights were violated, the provincial assembly would act independently of the governor.

Mr. Paine was engaged in the celebrated trial of Captain Preston, and his men, for the part they acted in the well known “Boston massacre” of 1770. On this occasion, in the absence of the attorney general, he conducted the prosecution on the part of the crown. Although only a fragment of his address to the jury, at this time, has been preserved, it appears that he managed the cause with the highest reputation to himself, both in regard to his honour as a faithful advocate, and at the same time as a friend to the just rights of those against whom he acted as council.

From this time, Mr. Paine appeared still more conspicuously was erected a representative to the general assembly from the town of Taunton. It was now becoming a period of great alarm in the colonies. Men of principle and talent were selected to guard the ancient rights of the colonies, and to point to those measures which, in the approaching crisis, it was proper to pursue. It was a high honour, therefore, for any one to be elected a representative of the people. The rights, the liberties, and even the lives of their constituents were placed in their hands; it was of the utmost importance that they should be men of sagacity, patriotism, and principle. Such, fortunately for the colonies, werethe men who represented them in their provincial assemblies, and in the Continental Congress. Of this latter body, Mr. Paine was elected a member in 1774. A general account of the proceedings of this assembly has already been given. At that time a separation from the parent country was not generally contemplated, although to more discerning minds, such an event appeared not improbable, and that at no distant day. The Congress of 1774, were appointed mainly to deliberate and determine upon the measures proper to be pursued, to secure the enjoyment and exercise of rights guaranteed to the colonies by their charters, and for the restitution of union find harmony between the two countries, which was still desired by all. Accordingly they proceeded no farther at that time, than to address the people of America, petition the King, state their grievances, assert their rights, and recommend the suspension of importations from Great Britain into the colonies.

The assembling of such a body, and for objects of so questionable a character, was a bold step; and bold must have been the men, who could thus openly appear on the side of the colonies, in opposition to the British ministry, and the royal power. In concluding their session, in October of the same year, they presented a solemn appeal to the world, stating that innovation was not their object, but only the preservation and maintenance of the rights which, as subjects of Great Britain, had been granted to them by their ancient charters. “Had we been permitted,” say they, “to enjoy in quiet the inheritance left us by our fathers, we should, at this time, have been peaceably, cheerfully, and usefully employed in recommending ourselves, by every testimony of devotion to his majesty, and of veneration to the state from which we derive our origin. Though now exposed to unexpected and unnatural scenes of distress, by a contention with that nation whose general guidance, on all important occasions, we have hitherto with filial reverence constantly trusted, and therefore can derive no instruction, in our present unhappy and perplexing circumstances, from any former experience; yet we doubt not, the purity of our intentions, and the integrity of our conduct, will justify us at that great tribunal, before which all mankind must submit to judgment. We ask but for peace, liberty, and safety. We wish not a diminution of the royal prerogatives; nor do we solicit the grant of any new right in our favour.”

To the Continental Congress, which met at Philadelphia in May, 1775, Mr. Paine was again a delegate from Massachusetts. At that time, the colonies were greatly in want of gunpowder. The manufacture of salt petre one of its constituents, was but imperfectly understood. Congress appointed a committee, of which Mr. Paine was chairman, to introduce the manufacture of it. In this particular, he rendered essential service to his country, by making extensive inquiries into the subject, and by inducing persons in various parts of the provinces to engage in the manufacture of the article. The following is among the letters which he wrote on this subject, which, while it shows his indefatigable attention to the subject, will convey to the present generation some idea of the multiform duties of the patriots of the revolution. Mr. Paine also rendered himself highly useful, as a member of a committee for the encouragement of the manufacture of cannon, and other implements of war.

Philadelphia, June 10th, 1775.

My very dear Sir,

I cannot express to you the surprise and uneasiness I received on hearing the congress express respecting the want of gunpowder; it was always a matter that lay heavy on any mind; but the observation I made of your attention to it, find your alertness and perseverance in everything you undertake, and your repeatedly expressing it as your opinion that we had probably enough for this summer’s campaign, made me quite easy. I rely upon it that measures are taken in your parts of the continent to supply this defect. The design of your express will be zealously attended to, I think. I have seen one of the powder mills here, where they make excellent powder, but have worked up all the nitre; one of our members is concerned in a powder mill at New-York, and has a man at work making nitre. I have taken pains to inquire into the methods Dr. Franklin has seen salt-petre works at Hanover and Paris; and it strikes me to be as unnecessary, after a certain time, to send abroad for gunpowder, as for bread; provided people will make use of common understanding and industry; but for the present we must import from abroad. Major Foster told me, at Hartford, he suspected he had some land that would yield nitre; pray converse with him about it. Dr. Franklin’s account is much the same as is mentioed in one of the first of the American magazines; the sweeping of the streets, and rubbish of old buildings, are made into mortar, and built into walls, exposed to the air, and once in about two months scraped and lixiviated, and evaporated; when I can describe the method more minutely I will write you; meanwhile, give me leave to condole with you the loss of Colonel Lee. Pray remember me to Colonel Orne, and all other our worthy friends. Pray take care of your important health, that you may be able to stand stiff as a pillar in our new government.

I must now subscribe, with great respect and affection,

Your humble servant,

R. T. Paine.

Of the congress of l776, Mr. Paine was also a member; and to the Declaration of Independence, which that body published to the world, he gave his vote, and affixed his name. In the December following, the situation of Congress be came justly alarming. The British army were, at this time, making rapid advances through New-Jersey, towards Philadelphia. The troops of Washington, amounting to scarcely one third of the British force, it was thought would not be able to resist their progress, or prevent their taking possession of Philadelphia. During the alarm excited by an approaching foe, Congress adjourned to Baltimore. Of the state of Congress, at this time, the following letter of Mr. Paine gives an interesting account.

“Our public affairs have been exceedingly agitated since I wrote you last. The loss of fort Washington made way for that of fort Lee; and the dissolution of our army happening at the same time, threw us into a most disagreeable situation. The interception of an express gave the enemy full assurance of what they must have had some knowledge of before, the state of our army; and they took the advantage of it. In two days after the possession of fort Lee, on the 9th of November, where we lost much baggage, and the chief of our battering cannon, then marched to the Hackensack, and thence to Newark, driving General Washington before them, with his 3000 men thence to Elizabethtown. General Washington supposed, from the best information he could get, that they were 10,000 strong; marching with a large body of horse in front, and a very large train of artillery. We began to be apprehensive they were intended for Philadelphia; and Congress sat all Sunday in determining proper measures on the occasion. I cannot describe to you the situation of this city. The prospect was really alarming. Monday, 9th; yesterday, General Washington crossed the Delaware, and the enemy arrived at Trenton on this side, thirty miles from this place; close quarters for Congress! It obliges us to move; we have resolved to go to Baltimore.”

For the years 1777 and 1778, Mr. Paine was a member of Congress, during the intervals of whose sessions, he filled several important offices in the state of Massachusetts. In 1780, he was called to take a part in the deliberations of the convention, which met for the purpose of forming a constitution for the commonwealth. Of the committee which framed that excellent instrument, he was a conspicuous member. Under the government organized according to this constitution, he was appointed attorney general, an office which he continued to hold until 1790, when he was transferred to a seat on the bench of the supreme judicial court. In this situation he remained till the year 1804, at which time he had attained to the advanced age of 73 years. As a lawyer, Mr. Paine ranked high among his professional brethren. His legal attainments were extensive. In the discharge of his duties as attorney general, he had the reputation of unnecessary severity; but fidelity in that station generally provokes the censure of the lawless and licentious. Towards the abandoned and incorrigible he was indeed severe, and was willing that the law in all its penalties should be visited upon them. But where crime was followed by repentance, he could be moved to tenderness; and while, in the discharge of his official duty, he took care that the law should not fall into disrespect through his inefficiency, he at the same time was ever ready to recommend such as might deserve it to executive clemency.

The important duties of a judge, he discharged with honour and great impartiality for the space of fourteen years. During the latter part of this time, he was affected with a deafness, which, in a measure, impaired his usefulness on the bench. Few men have rendered more important services to the literary and religious institutions of a country, than did Judge Paine. He gave them all the support and influence of his office, by urging upon grand jurors the faithful execution of the laws, the support of schools, and the preservation of strict morality.

The death of Judge Paine occurred on the eleventh of May, 1814, having attained to the age of 84 years. Until near the close of life, the vigour of his mental faculties continued unimpaired. In quickness of apprehension, liveliness of imagination, and general intelligence, he had few superiors. His memory was of the most retentive character, and he was highly distinguished for a sprightly and agreeable turn in conversation. A witty severity sometimes excited the temporary; disquietude of a friend; but if he was sometimes inclined to indulge in pleasant raillery, he was willing to be the subject of it in his turn.

As a scholar, he ranked high among literary men, and was distinguished for his patronage of all the useful institutions of the country. He was a founder of the American Academy established in Massachusetts in 1780, and active in its service until his death. The honorary degree of doctor of laws was conferred upon him by Harvard University.

Judge Paine was a firm believer in the divine origin of the Christian religion. He gave full credence to the scriptures, as a revelation from God, designed to instruct mankind in a knowledge of their duty, and to guide them in the way to eternal happiness. 2



Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, Robert Treat Paine

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, 1848 original
  2. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1829 original
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