Revisionist Patricide: Thomas Paine's 'Letter to George Washington.'

By Blakemore, Steven | CLIO, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Revisionist Patricide: Thomas Paine's 'Letter to George Washington.'


Blakemore, Steven, CLIO


Thomas Paine's Letter to George Washington (1796) is one of the most overlooked and underrated works of his oeuvre. It has been conventionally read as a polemical piece which Paine had written after being imprisoned in revolutionary France - convinced that Washington had personally betrayed him by acquiescing in his incarceration during the Terror. The Letter, however, constitutes a crucial ideological move by Paine to rewrite himself as the author of both the American and French Revolutions. Throughout his writings, Paine engages in a series of linguistic assassinations of "founding fathers" in an endeavor to (author)ize himself as the ur-source of linguistic revolution, repeatedly empowering himself through the texts in which he rewrites himself as the ur-Creator. This was his predominant personal fiction, and The Letter to Washington particularly underscores the intertextual links between public texts and private histories. In my essay, I explore the rhetorical strategies that underwrite Paine's Letter (and texts) through the historical truth Paine insists he is writing. Because Paine inscribes a variety of historical contexts in the Letter, I begin by providing the immediate context (Paine's initial relationship with Washington, his subsequent imprisonment in France, and the historical circumstances coloring the Letter) and then refocus my thesis before proceeding to show how other Painean texts also impinge on the writing (and reading) of the Letter. I conclude with a close analysis of Paine's Letter and its place within his revolutionary oeuvre. The Letter, as we will see, emerges as a founding document in Paine's presentation of himself as the linguistic creator of world revolution.

During the American Revolution, Thomas Paine was an admirer and a friend of George Washington, frequently praising Washington's character and his conduct of the war. He visited Washington various times, once at Valley Forge, and Washington helped Paine gain compensation for his articles and essays. In March 1782, Paine wrote Washington, inviting him "to spend part of an Evening at my apartment and eat a few oysters or a crust of bread and cheese."(1) After the war, Paine asked Washington to use his influence to obtain a pension from the Continental Congress - something Washington discreetly did. In the autumn of 1783, Washington invited Paine to visit him at his residence in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, suggesting that Paine's visit might remind Congress, then sitting at nearby Princeton, of Paine's services to the American cause. In 1784, after Paine was awarded the confiscated estate of a Tory by the Assembly of New York, Washington (without Paine's knowledge) wrote James Madison and other members of the Virginia Assembly, urging them to follow New York's example and grant Paine some form of economic compensation.(2)

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson (15 September 1789), Paine asked him to "tell our beloved General Washington" that he was looking forward to seeing him.(3) In 1791, Paine tried, unsuccessfully, to time the publication of the Rights of Man to coincide with Washington's birthday, writing a dedicatory paragraph for that purpose (see Writings 1:244). In the second part of the Rights of Man (1792), he used Washington as an example of a selfless leader, freely devoting his services to the republic (Writings 1:381). In a letter (6 June 1792) to Henry D. Dundas, the British Home Secretary, Paine referred to Washington as "more of a gentleman, than any king I ever knew of" (Writings 2:452). Thus Paine admired Washington until 1794, when he was released from the Luxembourg prison in Paris, and became obsessed with the notion that Washington had personally betrayed him by silently consenting to his imprisonment.

The historical background is as follows.(4) Paine had been in Paris since September 1792 and had associated himself with the Girondins - a fact that caused him problems once the Jacobins took power in June 1793. …

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