Object of the Month

A Cool Day for a Declaration

Robert Treat Paine diary, unnumbered page with entries for July 1776

Robert Treat Paine diary, unnumbered page with entries for July 1776

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In his diary entry for 4 July 1776, Robert Treat Paine, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Massachusetts, records the weather and gives us a matter-of-fact description of the epochal events in Philadelphia: "Cool, the Independence of the States Voted and declared." Paine provides some contextual information about the Declaration of Independence (the weather), but frustrates our wish for a more detailed eyewitness account.

Robert Treat Paine, the Signer

Robert Treat Paine was born in Boston in 1731, the son of Thomas Paine, a minister who moved his family to Boston and became a merchant, and Eunice Treat Paine. Bob Paine attended Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in the Class of 1749. He tried school teaching and preaching and travelled widely, including a whaling voyage to Greenland and service as a chaplain in the French and Indian War, before settling on a career as a lawyer. Paine moved his law practice from Boston to Taunton, Massachusetts in 1761. In 1770, just as he was—at the age of 39—about to marry 25-year-old Sally Cobb in Taunton, the patriot leadership of Boston recruited him to aid in the prosecution of the British soldiers who had been accused of murder after the Boston Massacre. The trials that followed were for Paine and his co-counsel Samuel Quincy a "windmill adventure," but Paine's quixotic role did not damage his legal or political career (a description of Robert Treat Paine's extensive notes on the Boston Massacre is available).

Robert Treat Paine was elected first to the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) in 1773 and then a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774, where, after the Revolution began, he devoted much energy and time to encouraging the production of cannon and gunpowder—and attempted to bring order and decorum to meetings of Congress. In July 1776, he drafted "rules and orders for the government of this house" including a prohibition on reading "any printed Paper" while Congress was in session or speaking—or even whispering—while another member had the floor. Unfortunately, in all of his attention to good order in Congress and the manufacture of munitions, he devoted little time to his diary or his correspondence—other than letters that he exchanged with Henry Knox about cannon founding. For the most part, we know of letters that Paine wrote in the first days of July 1776 only by references to them in the letters of his wife, Sally Cobb Paine, and other members of his family, and a letter to Joseph Palmer written on 6 July 1776 that only survives in a tantalizing brief extract published in the nineteenth century.

What is not included in Paine's diary entries and surviving correspondence from July 1776 is evidence about how he overcame a bitter feud with fellow Massachusetts delegate and long-time rival John Adams to work together in the Continental Congress to promote the move for Independence. Only a few months earlier, a "malicious and slanderous" letter from James Warren to John Adams had accidently fallen into Paine's hands, revealing what his more radical colleagues thought of him. Paine's diary entries are so cryptic that it is difficult to know how to interpret them: when he writes, "the Independence of the States Voted and declared," is he referring to the vote in Congress for Independence on 2 July? Or to a separate, but unrecorded vote to approve the Declaration on 4 July? When the Declaration was actually signed on 2 August, all that Paine recorded was that the day was "exceeding hott."

Although Robert Treat Paine was reelected to the Continental Congress in 1777 and 1778, he remained in Massachusetts where he was briefly the speaker of the House of Representatives and then the first attorney general of Massachusetts from 1777-1790. The Paines raised eight children, first in Taunton and later in Boston where they lived after the Revolution. After serving as attorney general during the crisis of Shays' Rebellion, Paine was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court where he served until 1804. Age did not mellow "Ursus Major" (the Great Bear), as Judge Paine was known by young lawyers who appeared before him, although his old foe John Adams was saddened by Paine's death in 1814. It marked the end of the "triumvirate" of surviving Massachusetts signers of the Declaration of Independence: Paine, Adams, and Elbridge Gerry. With the death of Vice President Elbridge Gerry a few months later, John Adams was left the sole survivor of the Massachusetts delegation. Adams lived on, to die—along with fellow patriot and president Thomas Jefferson—on the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of Independence on 4 July 1826.

For Further Reading

Hanson, Edward W. "‘A Sense of Honor and Duty': Robert Treat Paine (1731-1814) of Massachusetts and the New Nation." PhD diss., Boston College, 1992.

Journals of the Continental Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937. 34 vols.

The journal entries for 4-5 July 1776 are available online.

Smith, Paul H. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789. Washington: Library of Congress, 1976-1985 (19 vols.).

The correspondence of members of the Continental Congress during the spring and summer of 1776 is available online.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Random House, 1997.

Paine, Robert Treat. The Papers of Robert Treat Paine. Volume III: 1774-1777. Ed. by Edward W. Hanson. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 89. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005.

Riley, Stephen T. "Robert Treat Paine and John Adams: A Colonial Rivalry," in Sibley's Heir: A Volume in Memory of Clifford Kenyon Shipton (Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 59). Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1982, 415-429.

Savage, Edward, completed by John Coles, Jr. Robert Treat Paine. Oil on canvas, 1821-1823.

The only portrait of Paine from life, but completed after his death.

More on the Declaration of Independence

The Massachusetts Historical Society has a great deal of information about the creation, public proclamation, and publication of the Declaration of Independence at its website. A convenient place to begin is the display of John Adams's letter to Abigail Adams in which he describes the day the Continental Congress voted for Independence (2 July 1776) as "the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America." There are links from the display of that letter to related materials in the MHS online collections.