Robert Treat Paine

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Paine, Robert Treat

PAINE, ROBERT TREAT. (1731–1814). Signer, jurist. Massachusetts. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 11 March 1731, Robert Treat Paine graduated from Harvard in 1749, served as chaplain on the Crown Point Expedition of 1755, and signed on as a whaler for a long sea voyage to Carolina, Europe, and Greenland. Admitted to the bar in 1757, he practiced first in Boston, but in 1761 moved his office to Taunton. His identification with the Patriot movement led to his selection as associate prosecuting attorney in the trial resulting from the Boston "Massacre," and his prosecution of British Captain Thomas Preston, although unsuccessful, gave him widespread publicity as an advocate of colonial rights. He represented Taunton in the Provincial Assembly during the periods 1773–1775 and 1777–1778. He was delegate to the first Continental Congress, and served in the Second Congress until the end of 1776. Initially opposed to independence, Paine signed both the Olive Branch petition (a final attempt to avoid war with Britain) and the Declaration of Independence. He also had been chairman of the committee to provide gunpowder for the Patriot forces, and after leaving the Congress he continued to experiment with its manufacture. Again elected to Congress in 1777, Paine declined to assume his office, remaining in Massachusetts to serve as speaker in the assembly. Later that year he became the first attorney general of the state. In 1787 he prosecuted those charged in Shays's Rebellion, a clash between local farmers and merchants which had occurred in the previous year. Paine declined a Massachusetts supreme court appointment in 1783 on financial grounds, but finally accepted the position in 1790. After 14 years in this post he was forced by increasing deafness to retire from the bench. He died in Boston on 11 June 1814.

SEE ALSO Olive Branch Petition; Shays's Rebellion.


Hanson, Edward W. "'A Sense of Honor and Duty': Robert Treat Paine (1731–1814) of Massachusetts and the New Nation." Ph.D. dissertation. Boston College, 1992.

Riley, Stephen T., and Edward W. Hanson, eds. The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, 2 vols. to date. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992–.

                             revised by Michael Bellesiles

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Robert Treat Paine was born March 11, 1731, in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1749 and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1757. After a brief career in the ministry, he became an eminent lawyer, politician, and judge.

Paine first won fame as an associate prosecuting attorney in the boston massacre trial. The Boston Massacre, which occurred in 1770, was a violent response to the passing of the townshend acts by Great Britain. These acts decreed that customs duties would be imposed on the importation of tea, lead, glass, paints, and paper. When British troops were sent to Boston to enforce payment of the duties, the colonists harassed them to such an extent that they fired into a crowd, killing five men.

Subsequently Paine served two terms as a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly, from 1773 to 1775 and from 1777 to 1778, acting as speaker during 1777 and 1778. During the next four years, he was an active member of

two congresses: the Provincial Congress, in 1774 and 1775, and the continental congress, from 1774 to 1778. In 1776 he signed the Declaration of Independence.

Paine continued to be active in Massachusetts government after the American Revolution. In 1777 he became the first attorney general of Massachusetts and held that office until 1790. From 1778 to 1780, he was involved in the enactment of the Massachusetts constitution and was instrumental in the establishment of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780.

In 1790, Paine became a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, where he remained until 1804.

Paine died May 11, 1814, in Boston, Massachusetts.


Boston Massacre Soldiers; Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.