Academic journal article Journalism History

Tom Paine's Plan for Revolutionizing America: Diplomacy, Politics, and the Evolution of a Newspaper Rumor

Academic journal article Journalism History

Tom Paine's Plan for Revolutionizing America: Diplomacy, Politics, and the Evolution of a Newspaper Rumor

Article excerpt

What man, whose heart had not received its last degree in the schools of infamy, could be wicked enough to devise a scheme like this?" challenged the Boston Federalist newspaper, J. Russell's Gazette, in 1799. What followed was an outline of a plan for Revolutionary France's conquest of the newly independent United States, the work, the newspaper claimed, of Thomas Paine.(1) Although some recent scholars have lent credibility to this attribution, textual and circumstantial evidence does not support the claim of Paine's authorship.(2) The charge nonetheless retains interest as an example of the bitter domestic partisanship of the early national period where, as such, it was one of many shrill accusations levelled against the Republican opposition during the Quasi-War with France. More important, the rumor's origins at the Hague in 1798 embed it within the sensitive diplomacy that averted full-scale war between the United States and France. An exploration of the story's genesis provides insight into the way diplomats on the Continent interpreted and acted upon news reports in an age when the press took on growing importance in shaping events.

Although the American diplomats at the Hague received news accounts from Paris only fitfully, press reports commanded their attention. This episode illustrates how these envoys read newspaper stories not as sources of impartial intelligence, but rather as part of the public record that had to be acknowledged and answered. One recognizes this impact of the press when observing how a report in the most respected and authoritative of these European newspapers, the Gazette de Leyde, became as Jeremy D. Popkin states, "known in principle to the entire world, and actors on the public stage had to conduct themselves accordingly.(3) As for the proliferating Revolutionary French newspapers, these Americans viewed them with cynicism and understood them imperfectly; still they sought them, less for objective truth than for messages the French government felt compelled to present. Meanwhile, their French interlocutors, the foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord and his deputy, served a government averse to an autonomous press, but they understood the need to take heed of newspapers, and they skillfully employed press reports to present their case.

The odd attribution of "Tom Paine's Plan" would grow out this subtle but effective diplomatic scenario. By contrast, in the United States, "Tom Paine's Plan" became a partisan document meant for public consumption. As such, it was operative only if believed by a mass of readers to be true. The implausibility of the charge set among other alarmist reports, the diminishing threat of war, and Paine's ultimate denial lessened its impact in the party press. In taking a closer look at the life of this rumor, this study will explore its diplomatic origins, examine the evidence of its attribution, and follow its path in the American press.

The scheme for a French invasion of the United States appeared in the Paris newspaper le Bien Informe on September 12, 1798. Edited by Nicolas de Bonneville, a Frenchman with firm republican credentials and a close friend of Thomas Paine, le Bien Informe often carried its creator's political imprimatur, and its abundant foreign correspondence reflected his facility in translating English and German.(4) At the height of the Quasi-War between France and the United States le Bien Informe displayed a fixed hostility to the administration of President John Adams.(5) At the very same time, the paper's independent line was irking France's governing Executive Directory, and its publication was suspended briefly that same September.(6)

The American invasion plan that appeared in le Bien Informe describes how a small squadron of French gunboats could begin in Savannah and proceed rapidly up the Atlantic coast, burning and plundering the seaports while reserving only the well-fortified positions in New York and Boston for bombardment. …

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