A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

About The Robert Treat Paine Papers

The Robert Treat Paine Papers project is an active MHS venture to make Paine’s (RTP) correspondence and personal papers publicly available. The published edition, a subseries within the Society’s Collections series, is a work in progress: three of five projected volumes are in print. Thanks to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant received in 2016, we are now progressing rapidly with the plan to publish volumes 4 and 5 in print and to create, simultaneously, a digital edition of all five books. While the content of this edition draws primarily from the Society’s Paine Family Papers collection, it also includes items from almost 30 archives and several private collections.

While preparing volume 4 for publication, we have been immersed in a wealth of fascinating material that will be of interest to political, economic, and social scholars. This volume encompasses papers from 1778 to 1786, a transformative period for Massachusetts. The legal process of fighting the Revolutionary War provided a challenge for RTP, the state’s attorney general, presenting him with cases that dealt with an enormous range of topics, including treason, prisoners of war, privateers, and food shortages. His fiery views on seemingly mundane topics, like price control and counterfeiting, shed new light on the immediate challenges facing the state.

In addition to RTP’s descriptions of his own experiences and views, researchers will find here the voices of many early Americans who did not leave their own written sources. RTP’s trial notes contain testimonies that can provide insight into the lives of non-elites, women, and enslaved and free African Americans. Remarkable cases abound in these notes, examples include a woman’s murder of her abusive husband, a burglary case in which a free black man testified against white accomplices, and a treason trial against a man who declared he wanted to broil and eat the rebels. RTP's notes also contain women’s testimonies for rape trials and detailed accounts of anti-tax riots by impoverished men. Letters from his wife, Sally Cobb Paine, and sister Eunice Paine will be similarly valuable for social and gender history scholars. Sally detailed wartime shortages and the challenges of raising a growing brood of children on her own due to RTP’s frequent absence as he traveled the court circuit, while Eunice expressed the difficulties an unmarried woman faced in the eighteenth century, including her growing frustrations with dependency.

The new digital edition will also give scholars access to volumes 1 to 3, which span 1746 through 1777. These years include papers from RTP’s youth, Harvard education, mercantile endeavors, early political career, and involvement at the Continental Congress. The correspondence networks illustrate his family relationships and friendships as well as his growing professional connections. Volume 5 (1787-1814), scheduled for publication in 2018, will cover his last years as the attorney general—presiding over the Shays’s Rebellion treason trials—and his service on the state Supreme Judicial Court.