Revolutions are notoriously unwieldy, and no one knew that better than the consummate revolutionary of the 18th century, Thomas Paine. His work Common Sense, the first best-seller of America, was hugely influential among the general public in turning the tide of opinion to supporting independence from Britain in January of 1776. But he wasn’t finished there; Paine headed to the revolution in France and wrote one of its defining texts, The Rights of Man. In gratitude, Robespierre and the French imprisoned him.
It seemed inevitable that Paine would be guillotined. In July of 1794, this was in the midst of the Reign of Terror, during which tens of thousands were executed. It appears that Robespierre’s belief was “Spare the guillotine, spoil the revolutionary.” Men came to visit Paine and left via guillotine.
Paine reached out to the Americans for aid. The problem was that Paine had two talents: speaking for revolutions and making enemies. The American minister, Governeur Morris, felt no love for Paine. After a few tepid attempts to secure Paine’s release, Morris gave up, claiming he couldn’t do anything because Paine was an English citizen.
In jail, Paine developed a severe fever, probably typhus. For days it seemed he might succumb to the illness rather than kiss the blade. To aid his fever, the other prisoners asked their guards to keep their prison door open at night to let the air circulate more freely. The guards permitted this, and it saved Paine’s life.
The night before an execution, a man would walk around the jail cells and mark an X in chalk on the door of the prisoner who was to be executed the next morning. Because Paine’s cell door was opened so wide that it lay flat against the wall, the man marked the X on the inside of the door. In the morning, the prisoners closed the door and the executioner walked right by.
Three days later the Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre’s head in the guillotine.
Soon thereafter, a new American Ambassador to France was chosen: James Monroe, the future president. Monroe was a huge fan of Paine and worked tirelessly for his release, which he secured in November. Paine spent the next two years living with the Monroes and continuing to write on the Revolution.
In times of war and revolution, one’s fate can hang on a slender thread such as this. Other great minds of 18th century France, such as the pioneer chemist Antoine Lavoisier, were not so lucky.
What is your favorite piece of writing related to the French Revolution?