Paine’s Anti-Slavery Legacy

Paine’s Antislavery Legacy: Some Additional Considerations

Mariam Touba

Slipped into the newspaper in 1827 was an “Anecdote of Thomas Paine.” As such stories go, it was far from the worst, but it was meant to be denigrating. A visitor stops in to see the elderly Paine while he is denouncing the Bible among his cohorts and interrupts with questions of his own, and Paine, supposedly bested in argument, leaves the room without so much as a word. This little vignette was repeated often and was typical and mild fare for the time, especially as the newspaper was co-edited by a Presbyterian minister. The paper was not otherwise ordinary, as Freedom’s Journal was the first newspaper in the United States to be issued by and for African-Americans and, significantly, was begun in New York City in the year that slavery was to be finally abolished in the Empire State. This, however, was how the editors chose to depict Thomas Paine, an early and consistent opponent of black slavery in all forms.

The pattern can be seen even more starkly elsewhere in much of the antislavery press in the decades before the Civil War. A Massachusetts paper representing the distinctly abolitionist Liberty Party had this to say of Thomas Paine in 1845:

He was an open blasphemer and a contemner of God and all things sacred. He was a shameless debauchee, and a most loathsome, degraded sot. He trampled upon the decencies of civilized society, and was a slave to the vilest and most sensual of the animal appetites and passions. He was also void of moral honesty: for, on his dying bed, he called, in the bitterness of his soul, upon Jesus Christ, whom, during his life, he had affected to despise and had uniformly ridiculed and blasphemed.

And so, Thomas Paine’s strong antislavery stand was hardly appreciated and often unknown to those “in the trenches,” the 19th century abolitionists who were actually fighting the peculiar institution in antebellum America.

Reasons for this ignorance can easily be found: For one, scholars contend that revolutionary era abolitionism had little hold over this new generation of mostly New England reformers. Except for his 1804 “To the French Inhabitants of Louisiana,” Paine’s antislavery publications were contained in unsigned newspaper articles and were entirely unknown before being brought to light by his dedicated biographer Moncure Conway-an abolitionist in his own right-only late in the 19th century, when the fight against North American slavery was over. Paine’s religious writings made him unpalatable to the churched, many of whom provided the energy for the abolitionist and reform movements of the first half of the 19th century. Thus, the very Northern, Christian-based publications that printed arguments against slavery ran them virtually side-by-side with denigrating stories about the “infidel” Thomas Paine.

The exceptions to this pattern were rare and noteworthy, and one is stunned by Wendell Phillips lecturing the New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1858 where he goes so far as to say that Thomas Paine and the Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards - “their names found side by side in the anti-slavery societies of the revolutionary periods”-would “embrace” as they mount this antislavery rampart together (although he does not make the distinction, Phillips is undoubtedly referring to Jonathan Edwards, Junior, more of Paine’s contemporary). Nonetheless, Phillips is very much the exception both in being aware of Paine’s antislavery commitment and daring to make this bold link with Edwards. Wendell Phillips would move farther away from conventional Christianity in the post-Civil War period, and this pattern can be found in other abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and, of course, Moncure Conway. As Harvey Kaye documents, the appreciation of these longtime radicals for Paine augments with their post-Christian evolution, but it is largely a post-War phenomenon. Phillips stands out as the only prominent leader who links Paine to the cause at hand.

There was, however, something additional that added fuel to this abolitionist ignorance about Thomas Paine. Turning up in the abolitionist press in 1849 was “Mr. Rushton’s Letter to Thomas Paine.” “Mr. Rushton” was Edward Rushton, a British poet and early abolitionist with an interesting life story: Like John Newton, he found himself working on an 18th-century slave ship, but, unlike Newton, young Rushton seems to have been forced there as part of his apprenticeship in a Liverpool shipping company. Appalled by what he witnessed, Rushton threatened mutiny; later, he went himself and ministered to the sick among the shackled slave cargo. The contagion on this particular ship was one that affected the eyes, and Rushton, at age 19, was blinded as a result of his compassion. He spent the rest of his years advocating for the blind and the enslaved. Unlike his contemporary, William Wilberforce, who approached antislavery from the Tory side, Rushton was a radical, a Paineite himself, and his enthusiasm for the American revolutionary cause led him to address letters to his heroes George Washington and Thomas Paine pleading with them to use their influence against slavery. In recounting Rushton’s admirable life and writings, it is common to lump the two letters together, but they differed in tone and circumstance. The letter to Washington was intemperate and written just at the close of Washington’s second term as President. Washington was smarting from criticism (not least by Thomas Paine) and returned Rushton’s missive unopened. Feeling rebuffed, Rushton then printed his communication as an angry pamphlet in 1797. The letter to Paine was written after Paine had returned from Europe to live in New York and probably dates from 1804 or 1805. It is admiring in tone and, as it appears with some later editorial commentary, suggests that Rushton was aware of Paine’s comment on Rushton’s native Liverpool, wondering why God Almighty did not blast it with a thunderbolt given its prominent role in the slave trade (Paine, it be might recalled, wrote something similar to Thomas Jefferson). In an addendum Rushton admits that “since his [Paine’s] receipt of this, he has frequently sent me his verbal respects, but will not commit himself to paper on the subject.” Nonetheless, Rushton’s original letter, later published in the main antislavery literature of mid-century America, has this unfortunate misstatement: “As the clear and energetic champion for broad and general liberty, you have not a superior in the annals of mankind; yet through the whole of your writings I do not recollect a single passage that is particularly pointed against the slavery of the negroes.”   

How did, what was meant to be a private letter from Rushton to Paine in about 1805, find its way into the antislavery newspapers of 1849? We can trace that with some probable accuracy as it appeared just after Paine’s death in the Belfast Monthly Magazine of December 1809. Nearly 40 years later, in 1848, the Massachusetts abolitionist, Anne Warren Weston was helping to compile a gift annual called the Liberty Bell. Gift annuals, as their name implies, were attractive books issued each year and stocked with poems, illustrations, and light literature, and marketed as Christmas or New Year’s presents. With the Liberty Bell, however, the American Anti-Slavery Society was adopting this popular medium for the cause, and Weston, always desperate for more material, implored her contact in Dublin, activist Richard Davis Webb, for more antislavery writings. Webb complied in part by sending the published letter of Rushton’s, most likely taken from the Irish magazine of 1809. From the Liberty Bell, the Rushton letter rather naturally found its way into both William Lloyd Garrison’s the Liberator and the National Anti-Slavery Standard, both additional organs of the American Anti-Slavery Society, papers with a relatively small circulation but deeply influential with activists.

The well-meaning Rushton unwittingly did Paine a lasting disservice then, but his basic question is a reasonable one: Why did Paine oppose slavery and yet devote so little of his writings to the injustice of slavery?

In addressing this, we should first be aware that we may not have access to all of Paine’s writings: Most of his unpublished papers burned, and he was not in the habit of signing everything he had printed. Approaching a subject such as antislavery, with adherents on both sides of the ramparts of Federalist and Republican in the United States, Tory and Whig in England, Girondist and Jacobin in France, may have caused Paine to step lightly or work anonymously. One notes that Henry Redhead Yorke, upon visiting Paine in Paris in 1802, observed that Paine was isolated and held in contempt, and he attributed it to Paine’s support of the black Haitians against the French general Charles LeClerc. These Paris writings have not surfaced and beg the question, Are there fugitive writings by Paine that were translated into the French newspapers?

One of Paine’s biographers, David Freeman Hawke, sees a partial answer to Paine’s seeming reticence on slavery in his letter from Paris to Benjamin Rush in 1790, “I despair of seeing an Abolition of the infernal traffic in Negroes-we must push that matter further on your Side the water [sic]-I wish that a few well instructed Negroes could be sent among their Brethern [sic] in Bondage, for until they are enabled to take their own part nothing will be done.” On the one hand, Hawke is dismissive of Paine’s suggestion that the cause needed the input of the African victims themselves. But to contemporary ears, Paine’s prescription, far from passing the buck, sounds acutely modern, and one that black activists such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth would embrace.

Hawke goes on about Paine, “He was not a joiner; rather, he was something of a prima donna, disinclined to share credit when honors were being handed out. No reform movement that required group action ever attracted his interest.” Paine did refrain from joining clubs in the flurry of the French Revolution and seems not to have been a conventional committee man, but Hawke overreaches when suggesting that Paine was not likely to work as a simple foot soldier in a cause. Paine not only wrote on behalf of groups he supported, but did so anonymously: In England, he penned John Horne Tooke’s speech for the Friends of Universal Peace and Liberty, he wrote the manifesto for the Société Républicaine in the immediate aftermath of the Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes; during the American Revolution he offered to go on a dangerous mission incognito to England to write in support of the American cause; some have suggested, and there is a bit of evidence for this, that Paine may have contributed in perfect anonymity to the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Hawke does quote Paine’s most succinct statement on the subject: The question was put to Paine by the English physician John Walker, “How it was to be accounted for, that he had not taken up the pen to advocate the cause of blacks,” and where Paine’s response was recalled by Walker as, “an unfitter person for such a work could hardly be found. The cause would have suffered in my hands. I could not have treated it with any chance of success; for I could never think of their condition but with feelings of indignation.”

Paine’s explanation requires a certain amount of self-awareness about himself and his role as a writer. Those who tend to view Paine as a sort of “natural talent,” who wrote easily and without hesitation on what he believed, may be cynical about this reason, but Paine does more than once write about the need to be “always the master of one’s temper in writing,” and how a writer’s argument is lost when his judgment is “disordered by an intemperate irritation of the passions.” Even Hawke, one of the more skeptical of Paine’s modern biographers, concludes, this “excuse from one known for his impassioned writing sounds flimsy, but given his literary credo-warm passions must always be combined with a cool temper-it may have been the truth.” And, indeed, we may have to leave it at that.

Just about the time Rushton was chiding him for his inaction, Paine expressed once more his feelings about slavery. This is found tucked away in a greeting right here in the Thomas Paine National Historical Association/Iona Collection, in an unpublished letter, written from New Rochelle to his good friend John Fellows on April 18, 1805. Paine offers news about the farm, gives instructions about the Bonneville boys, and provides specifications for wallpapering the cottage. And then he tells Fellows, “And also call on Counsellor Emmet with my congratulations on his eminent success in the Affrican [sic] Affair.” What is the African Affair?

Counselor Emmet is Thomas Addis Emmet, the Irish émigré lawyer whose sojourn was not so different from other prominent participants in the failed Irish uprisings of the 1790s. It would involve years of imprisonment, followed by exile to the Continent (where Emmet spent time in Paris and got to know Paine’s good friend Nicolas de Bonneville) before Emmet could emigrate to the United States in late 1804. He was persuaded to remain in New York and practice law, and since there was a vacancy in the local bar-given that a prominent lawyer, Alexander Hamilton, had met an untimely death that summer-New York’s Republican leaders were willing to expedite the process for Emmet’s entry into the profession. Some Federalists resisted, and the matter became just became more fodder for partisan controversy. The Republicans prevailed, and Emmet was allowed to argue before the New York bar in 1805. And his 19th century biographer describes

Very soon after Mr. Emmet appeared at our bar, he was employed in a case peculiarly well calculated for the display of his extraordinary powers. Several slaves had escaped from a neighbouring state and found a refuge here. Their masters seized them, and the rights of these masters became a matter of controversy. Mr. Emmet, I have been informed, was retained by the society of friends…and of course espoused the cause of the slaves. His effort is said to have been overwhelming. The novelty of his manner, the enthusiasm which he exhibited, his broad Irish accent, his pathos and violence of gesture, created a variety of sensations in the audience.

Records of this case have not been found, but the tradition is repeated even into this decade when writing of Emmet. The diligent records of a current researcher into slavery cases in the Early Republic reveal, however, that this most likely was not a fugitive slave case, but rather the major prosecution of a slave trader. Emmet assisted, on behalf of the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves, in seeing to it that one Philip M. Topham was brought to justice in federal court on April 1, 1805. The Manumission Society was one place where prominent Federalists and Republicans worked together in this highly partisan age, and Emmet may have found it a natural entry to the polarized legal community. The case did not receive newspaper publicity, but Paine could have heard of it from his friend Walter Morton, serving as the Manumission Society’s secretary. Emmet and Morton were two of Paine’s most trusted friends; indeed he would choose them as co-executors of his will. Looking further from this event, one learns that Emmet goes on to become counsel for the Manumission Society. In addition to clarifying a long-obscured aspect of Thomas Addis Emmet’s biography, the episode illustrates how deeply Thomas Paine’s closest friends were engaged in the antislavery struggle, demonstrates Paine’s own interest in the matter, and suggests that there is indeed more to be discovered in the collection here at Iona.




Freedom’s Journal (New York), March 30, 1827. The paper was edited by the Presbyterian minister Samuel Cornish and by John Russwurm.

From the Worcester County Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), as reprinted in the Liberator (Boston), December 5, 1845. Some of the vehemence is a reflection of the rivalry between the Liberty Party and the American Anti-Slavery Society (or Garrisonians). This quotation was, in fact, a direct response to William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, but the statements about Paine were believed to be true, and neither mentions Paine’s firm opposition to slavery. Similarly, some of the attacks on Paine in moderate Christian antislavery publications were ultimately directed toward doctrinaire Christian abolitionism that had begun to be seen as “infidel” See, for example, “Thomas Paine,” New York Evangelist, January 31, 1850, p. 19.

James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996) p. 43.

“‘Speech of Wendell Phillips,’ New York Anti-Slavery Society: Phonographically reported for the Liberator by Mr. Yerrinton” Liberator, May 28, 1858. Phillips was arguing against letting sectarian considerations weaken the abolitionist movement, demonstrating that he had already moved toward making the antislavery cause paramount over theology.

Even the most historically minded abolitionist would have known little of Paine’s antislavery opinions: Phillips’s awareness that Paine joined an antislavery society may have been because his name appears in the published history of the Pennsylvania Society, Edward Needles, An Historical Memoir of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Thompson, 1848), p. 29. This is when Paine was elected to join the Society as it was reconstituted after the war in 1787. Not surprisingly, he comes with an asterisk and this note:

Perhaps it might be proper to remark, that the latter individual, who subsequently acquired an unenviable notoriety as an infidel writer, was only known at this time as a patriot and lover of equal rights to all men, his peculiar principles in regard to theology not having been publicly known, as they were subsequently developed during his residence in France, where, in the time of the Revolution, he made the public avowal of his sentiments by the publication of his most obnoxious work, “The Age of Reason.”

Benjamin Rush’s recollection that he was drawn to Paine by his early antislavery essay had been published in James Cheetham’s otherwise hostile biography of 1809, but the specific discovery that Paine wrote the essay, “African Slavery in America” in the Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser (postscript) March 8, 1775, was an outgrowth of Conway’s research in the late 1880s or early 1890s; Conway clearly just followed the lead in Rush’s reference to [William]“Bradford’s paper” by paging through the newspaper in an archive until he hit upon an essay that obviously fit that description (See “Thomas Paine and Charles Bradlaugh,” The Open Court, March 5, 1891). Some recent scholars, such as Alfred Owen Aldridge and Eric Foner, thought Conway’s evidence was unpersuasive, given that Rush’s memory proved to be faulty, Aldridge, Thomas Paine’s American Ideology (Newark: University of Delaware, 1984) pp. 289-290; Eric Foner, ed., Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (Library of America, 1995) p. 835; this is more strongly stated in James V. Lynch, “The Limits of Revolutionary Radicalism: Thomas Paine and Slavery,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 123, no. 3 (July 1999) pp. 177-199. Similarly, Paine’s authorship of “A Serious Thought,” signed Humanus, in the Pennsylvania Journal of October 18, 1775 was also only brought to light by Conway who credited a Joseph N. Moreau with this unpublished attribution (Moncure Conway, The Life of Thomas Paine [New York: G. P. Putnam, 1892] vol. 1, p. 59). Conway also claimed to be the first to include “The Forester’s Letters” of 1776 (No. 3 contains Paine’s footnote: “Forget not the hapless African.”) among Paine’s published works. Thus it may be that Paine’s letter of 1804, “To the French Inhabitants of Louisiana,” that does appear in earlier versions of Paine’s collected writings, was his only published antislavery work that was available to mid-19th century abolitionists.

Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005) p. 150. Reasons for this departure from Christianity may have had its roots in James Brewer Stewart’s assertion about the abolitionists at the height of their struggle, “These spiritually restless young men and women had now invented a religion of their own, a sanctified community which filled the enormous void created when they had rejected orthodox revivalism and which would sustain them during the struggles that lay ahead,” Stewart, Holy Warriors, pp. 57-58; see also this “antislavery theological innovation” described in detail in Molly Oshatz, Slavery and Sin: The Fight Against Slavery and the Rise of Liberal Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) pp. 44-51. For many, there was no turning back to orthodox Christianity.

Rushton’s name may sound familiar to dedicated Paineites because his son, Edward, Jr., figures in the long saga of William Cobbett and Paine’s remains, Paul Collins, The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), p. 273-274.

Rushton’s Expostulatory Letter to Washington, of Mount Vernon, in Virginia, on his Continuing to be a Proprietor of Slaves (Liverpool, 1797) may have had its greatest impact in New York City, where it was reprinted in the Republican newspaper the Time Piece on May 26, 1797, and where it touched off a debate, much of it in poetic form. See David N. Gellman, Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006) pp. 167-169.

Paine shared similar commentary about Liverpool when writing to Thomas Jefferson at about the same time: “Had I the command of the elements I would blast Liverpool with fire and brimstone. It is the Sodom and Gomorrah of brutality.” Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 25, 1805 in The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. by Philip S. Foner (New York: Citadel Press, 1945) vol. 2, p. 1462 (Conway, Life of Thomas Paine, vol. 2, p. 350).

Richard Davis Webb to Anne Warren Weston, October 20, 1848, Antislavery Collection, Boston Public Library, HYPERLINK “” _blank”; Ralph Thompson, “The Liberty Bell and Other Anti-Slavery Gift Books,” New England Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 1 (March 1934) pp. 154-168.

Liberator, February 23, 1849; National Anti-Slavery Standard, June 14, 1849; the latter may have come directly from Richard Davis Webb since he was a regular correspondent for the paper.

Henry Redhead Yorke, Letters from France, in 1802 (Printed for H.D. Symonds by Bye and Law, 1804) vol. 2, p. 338.

Thomas Paine to Benjamin Rush, Paris, March 16, 1790, reprinted in The Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions [vol. 1, no. 1], 1943, p. 20-22.

David Freeman Hawke, Paine (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) p. 150.

Mariam Touba, “Thomas Paine’s Offhand Remark,” Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends, vol. 12, no. 1 (Spring 2011) HYPERLINK “” For Paine and clubs, see Conway, Life of Thomas Paine, vol. 2, p. 46

John Epps, The Life of John Walker, M.D. (London: Whittaker, Treacher, and Co., 1831) pp. 140-41.

“Thomas Paine to the Citizens of the United States, Letter IV” [December 3, 1802] in Foner, Complete Writings, vol. 2, p. 926 (Conway, Writings, III, 402); Letter to Abbé Raynal in Foner, Complete Writings, p. 214 (Conway, Writings, II, 70). These writings are identified and discussed in Harry Hayden Clark, “Thomas Paine’s Theories of Rhetoric,”  Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, vol. XXVIII (1933) pp. [307]-339. Clark puts great emphasis on Paine’s recognition of the need for self-discipline in writing, a legacy, he believes of 18th century deists who believed in living in harmony with the laws of nature, pp. 330-334.

Hawke, p. 37, also citing Clark.

Thomas Addis Emmet, Memoir of Thomas Addis and Robert Emmet with their Ancestors and Immediate Family (New York: Emmet Press, 1915), vol. 1, pp. 395, 406.

Charles Glidden Haines, Memoir of Thomas Addis Emmet (New York: G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1829) pp. 87-88.

Emmet’s law firm, Emmet, Marvin & Martin, LLP included this fact in their bicentennial publication in (naturally) 2005:

HYPERLINK “” _blank” ; Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law, edited by Roger K. Newman, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 187.

New York Manumission Society Records, 1785-1849, vol. 7, p. 278, New-York Historical Society. The minutes suggest that the case was heard on April 1 in the Second Circuit court with Justice William Paterson hearing the case. Emmet and his fellow counsel were commended by the society for their “very zealous able ingenious management of this complicated and severely contested suit.” I am very much indebted to Sarah Levine-Gronningsater for finding this case and adding further insight into the role the Manumission Society may have played in Emmet’s legal career. Emmet’s admission to the U.S. Supreme Court bar preceded his clearing his final hurdle to be admitted to the New York Bar, Emmet, Memoir, vol. 1 p. 406. William Paterson’s presence can merely be inferred from John E. O’Connor, William Paterson, Lawyer and Statesman, 1745-1806 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1979) p. 276; William Paterson to Euphemia Paterson, New York, April 1, 1805, Folder 14, William Paterson Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries. Topham’s case appears to have dragged on in the courts, and President Jefferson would pardon Topham in 1808. The pardon was due to his inability to pay the $16,000 fine, and was apparently approved by the Manumission Society, Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President, Second Term, 1805-1809 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1974) p. 547, n. 19.

All that could be gleaned from the newspapers is: “The Circuit Court of the United States, was opened yesterday morning at the City Hall. An elegant address was delivered to the grand jury by the hon judge Patterson [sic],” Morning Chronicle [New York], April 2, 1805.”

“Report of Dr. Macneven in relation to Mr. Emmet’s Monument,”in Emmet Monument (New York: Printed for the subscribers, 1833) p. 1.

Mariam Touba

October 2012