Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington

There is an interesting incident during the revolutionary era (see links below for more detailed discussion). In Philadelphia, certain politicians and financiers were accused of profiteering and even treason. Paine was at the center of this, but he wasn’t alone in this fight. It was one of the incidents that made it clear how much the Revolutionary War was also a class war.

Besides the profiteering trials, the revolutionary era and the era immediately following was filled with conflicts between those who fought for the new country and those who wanted to rule over it. For example, consider some of the ‘rebellions’ following the Revolutionary War. While many of the elites profited from the war, many of the soldiers lost their property, their patriotic sacrifices having meant nothing to those who valued only profit and power.

Although having been close allies with Paine in ensuring the army survived, Washington found himself on the opposite side of Paine when it came to this class war. The side of Washington’s friends and associates (Silas Deane, Gouverneur Morris, etc) also happened to be the wrong side for some of these elites turned out to not be trustworthy people of high moral standards. I don’t know that Washington ever directly defended these corrupt aristocrats, but it nonetheless drove a wedge in between his relationship with Paine.

It appears Washington’s identity as an elite was greater than his identity as a revolutionary defender of liberty. In the end, Washington was more of a typical politician in seeking compromise and political advancement whereas Paine was more of a typical revolutionary in refusing compromise and never abandoning the radical impulse. As I understand it, Washington never fully or publicly acknowledged Paine after this time (such as not acknowledging Paine’s dedicating Rights of Man to Washington), despite how closely they had worked together, and despite how much Paine had helped him and respected him.

Paine didn’t initially blame Washington, but like other elites Washington seemingly held a grudge against Paine. It took Paine to end up abandoned in a French prison awaiting the guillotine to realize Washington’s true allegiance.

The accusations of that time have been debated ever since. In some cases, though, documents were later revealed to show Paine was right. America was built on war profiteering and it continues to this day with no-bid contracts being given to companies with political connections.

“A majority of Congress wasn’t bothered by the Deane’s and Morris’s corruption (many of whom engaged in similar practices themselves), but they were particularly annoyed that Paine had revealed the secret arrangements with the French. Paine was dismissed from his post as Secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs for this supposed indiscretion. (Even though England probably new about it anyway.) In the end, of course, an interim compromise was reached and America paid part of the bill. Congress took no action on the allegations against Deane. The affair was dropped form the public press and Deane went to Europe, never to return, dying in poverty.

“Paine, back in private life, continued to attack Robert and his friend Geuvenor (his name) Morris who were continuing to profit from the Revolutionary War. Inflation was rampant, but the war profiteers were seemingly immune, further outraging Paine. The unpaid French debt demanded by Beaumarchais and Deane floated around in the back rooms of Congress for several decades, and in 1839 Congress mysteriously voted to give the heirs of Silas Deane $39,000. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that historians would uncover documents in British archives which showed that Deane had been an English loyalist all along-a war profiteer AND a traitor. Paine was finally vindicated, but the war profiteers had long since taken the money and run.”

“What had started out as debate over the conduct and role of an American Commissioner to France had become a struggle between radicals and conservatives in Pennsylvania. Wealthy merchants and professional aristocrats there had been organizing to overthrow the state’s 1777 Constitution, which, according to them, committed the cardinal sin of allowing the common people a voice in their government.77 The radical wing in this contest was comprised of small farmers and mechanics, whom Paine supported. He saw himself as a sentry doing his duty to protect the ideals of classical republicanism and defend the American cause. In a series of articles sent to press Paine defended the 1777 Pennsylvania Constitution and attacked those who sought to deprive the people of their democratic rights.78 Following the state elections in 1779, the Constitutionalists – those whom Paine defended – won a resounding victory and, as a reward for his part in arousing popular support for the Constitution, the new Assembly appointed Paine its Clerk. This new position not only gave him a new job, but also a chance to befriend many influential and powerful leaders in the Pennsylvania Assembly and the opportunity to influence legislation. The Silas Deane Affair, however, brought out many powerful enemies that would resurface later in Paine’s life. Throughout this ordeal, Paine received no support from his ally George Washington. Because of Deane’s involvement in the supplying of the army, Washington understood the ramifications of the controversy and his correspondence shows that he was actually well informed on the situation.

“It is true that Washington and Deane were friends before the war and in its early years. Washington, in fact, had supported Deane’s commissioning to travel to France and continued to support Deane until July 1778. After Deane’s correspondence was revealed, however, Washington remarked “I wish never to hear or see anything more of so infamous a character.”79 As Deane’s world was falling apart he appealed to Washington and John Jay for help, but was met with silence.80 One would think that the General would have, at this point, acknowledged Paine’s positive and constructive involvement in exposing a war profiteer and traitor to the cause. And yet, Washington neither wrote to nor mentioned Paine in his correspondence concerning the controversy. Perhaps it was Paine’s attacks on the wealthy elites of Pennsylvania that turned Washington off to Paine. He was after all a wealthy, conservative, elite himself and had worked hard to be considered in that mode. Washington had only known Paine as a propagandist that defended the same things he believed in – independence, high morale, supplying the army, the American war effort – and it is entirely possible that Washington was off put by Paine’s successful and populistic attempts to sway public opinion in a direction that ran counter to Washington’s own sentiments.”

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