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Thomas Paine, Bridge Builder


[clock] 23-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

To a generation that finds its greatest interest in Benjamin Franklin as the author of some advice on how to choose a mistress, it may come amiss to be reminded that the sage’s most important discovery was Thomas Paine, and that Paine’s most beneficial action was the invention of the iron bridge. Confirmed admirers of the workman, who became the first polemist of the eighteenth century, are apt to claim too much for him—especially when they allege that he inspired the Declaration of Independence, but they stop short of his chief achievement, tta building of the metal cross-over. This, alone, ought to excuse him from having earned the name of infidel.

Following Cromwell’s era in England, the period of 1776 on our side of the sea was the first to give common men a chance. So it was that Thomas Paine, alternately corset maker, exciseman, and agitator, fell athwart Benjamin Franklin while in London lobbying for better pay to collectors of revenue from spirits, and was persuaded to sail for our land of opportunity, where the Revolution was ripening. Here he arrived in due season, with a letter to Richard Bache, describing him as “an ingenious, worthy young man,” to whom the note brought more in the way of acquaintance than employment. Yet he came in the nick of time. Concord and Lexington set the land aflame. The pamphleteer had yet to be superseded by the journalist, and “Common Sense” electrified the colonies when it first appeared on January 10, 1776, half a year ahead of the Declaration. If ever there was a loud note to kings and ministers, this was it!

The burning words of the pamphlet, and the series of “The Crisis,” need not be echoed. We know that the pen of the ex-stay-maker fired the patriot heart as did no other; that a wearied people rose again and again at his trumpet calls. The author did duty as a soldier, fighting the Hessians at Trenton, served the Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs as its secretary, and, with the end of the war, had empty pockets and a pride that kept him from getting them full. Yet he was given a confiscated Tory farm at New Rochelle, where he found it too expensive to live. A little cash and his fame gave him short life as a lion. His genius for invention asserted itself first in devising a candle that would not smoke, a blessing for the period, and next evolved the bridge.

Stone and wood had been the sole material used in arching streams. Paine bethought himself of the use of iron and worked out a plan for bridging the Harlem River, which General Lewis Morris, fonnder of Morrisania on the farther shore, was to have financed. The money failed to appear. Paine then proposed to place it across the Schuylkill, hut funds were not to be had.

Unrest, always his bane, now moved him to depart from the country for Europe, leaving behind his repute and estate. What was proposed to be a temporary stay lasted fifteen years. He sailed in April, 1787, and landed in France, where he met with a warm welcome. France was beginning to ferment, but the Revolution was undreamt of. Jefferson was glad to see him and letters given by Franklin soon put him in the society of the elect. From Paris he journeyed to Thedford, to find his father dead and his mother in her ninety-first year. He had kept her in comfort through all his tribulations, and settled upon her an allowance of nine shillings a week. The village barber, “Jack” Whistler, shaved him. One wonders if he was a kinsman of the Butterfly. The mother lived to be ninety-four.

While Paine was idling in England, his inventive mind evolved a planing machine, a crane for lifting heavy bodies, a concentric wheel, and a scheme for using gunpowder as a motive power by explosion, as we to-day employ gasoline. Blackfriars Bridge and two bridges over the Tyne had just collapsed, and Paine brought out his iron idea. He had fitted up a workshop at Rotherham in Yorkshire, and here he riveted together his device for crossing streams. It aroused great interest. He was granted a patent. There was no rush of custom, but his trusses stood the shop tests. His backers failed and he was mulcted ,620, charged to his bridge, which he managed somehow to pay. It was finally erected over the river Wear, at Sunderland, in County, Durham. It was thirty-four feet wide, with a span of two hundred and thirty-six feet—the father of all the great structures that now serve human convenience everywhere.

The iron bridge greatly interested Thomas Jefferson. From Paris he wrote to Benjamin Vaughan, in 1787: “Mr. Paine (Common Sense) is in Paris on his way to England. He has brought the model of an iron bridge, with which he supposes a single arch of four hundred feet may be made.” He gave the bridge much thought, writing more than once to the inventor. “I will begin with the subject of your bridge, in which I feel myself interested;” he observed in a letter to Paine, “and it is with great pleasure that I learn . . . that the execution of the arch of experiment exceeds your expectations. In your former letter, you mention that instead of arranging your tubes and bolts as ordi-nates to the cord of the arch, you had reverted to your first idea, of arranging them in the direction of the radii. I am sure it will gain, both in beauty and strength. It is true that the divergence of those radii recurs as a difficulty, in getting the rails on upon the bolts; but I thought this fully removed by the answer you first gave me, when I suggested that difficulty, to wit, that you should place the rails first, J

and drive the bolts through them, and not, as I had imagined, place the bolts first, and put the rails on them. I must doubt whether what you now suggest, will be as good as your first idea; to wit, to have every, rail split into two pieces longitudinally, so that there shall be but the halves of the holes in each, and then, to clamp the two halves together. The solidity of this method cannot be equal to that of the solid rail, and it increases the suspicious parts of the whole machine, which, in a first experiment, ought to be rendered as few as possible. But of all this, the practical iron men are much better judges then we theorists. You hesitate between the catenary and portion of a circle. I have lately received from Italy, a treatise on the equilibrium of arches, by the Abbe Mascheroni. . . . I find that the conclusions of his demonstrations are, that every part of the catenary is in perfect equilibrium. It is a great point, then, in a new experiment, to adopt the sole arch, where the pressure will be equally borne by every, point of it. If any one point is pushed with accumulated pressure, it will introduce a danger, foreign to the essential part of the plan. The difficulty you suggest, is, that the rails being all in catenaries, the tubes must be of different lengths, as these approach nearer or recede farther from each other, and therefore, you recur to portions of concentric circles, which are equi-distant in all their parts. But I would rather propose, that you make your middle rail an exact catenary, and the interior and exterior rails, parallels to that. It is true, they will not be exact catenaries, but they will depart very little from it; much less than portions of circles will.”

“To say another word of the catenarian arch,” he writes in continuation, “without caring about mathematical demonstrations, its nature proves it to be in equilibrio at every point. It is the arch formed by a string fixed at both ends, and swaying loose in all the intermediate points. Thus at liberty, they must finally take that position, wherein every one will be equally pressed; for if any one were more pressed than the neighboring point, it would give way, from the flexibility of the matter of the string.”

Jefferson informed Dr. Willard of Paine’s project, thus: “Mr. Paine, the author of Common Sense, has invented an iron bridge, which promises to be cheaper by a great deal than stone, and to admit of a much greater arch. He supposes it may be ventured for an arch of five hundred feet. He has obtained a patent for it in England, and is now executing the first experiment with an arch of between ninety and one hundred feet.”

When the bridge was at last complete, Jefferson wrote: “I congratulate you sincerely on the success of your bridge. I was sure of it before from theory: yet one likes to be assured from practice also.”

Paine kept Jefferson informed of his inventive progress. The latter kept close track of the planing machine; surely his was an active mind.

During Paine’s struggle to market his amazing invention, he fell athwart the redoubtable Edmund Burke and produced his greatest work “The Rights of Man.” The French Revolution had broken out the year before and Burke had written his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Paine’s book was in rejoinder. Burke had been so outspoken a friend to the colonies during the American revolt that Paine had foregathered with him in London as a familiar soul. He was astounded at the “Reflections” and could not at first believe that in this later period at least Burke had been playing double in the interest of royalty and a French pension of .1,500, as was finally developed. It is not saying too much that in “The Rights of Man,” issued to answer Burke and dedicated to George Washington, Paine produced the most powerful political polemic ever written. It left Burke not only no legs to stand on, but amputated those of his client, the King. Burke could meet it only with the cry that “criminal justice” was the sole treatment fit to deal with it. Paine had in mind the transference of complete freedom to the unwritten Constitution of Great Britain, arid the idea has succeeded: for, although the king survives, his powers do not; the people rule in Britain as nowhere else in the world. Written on the heels of the American Revolution and in the shadow of that of France, the pamphlet attracted enormous attention. Only a few copies of the first issue were published, Johnson, the printer, becoming alarmed and stopping his press. J. S. Jordan, 166 Fleet Street, a fearless man, took over the type, and William Godwin, Thomas Brand Hollis and Thomas Holcroft stood its sponsors, Paine having departed for Paris. It came out under Jordan’s imprint, March 13, 1791.

Never before had the printed word made such a stir in Britain. The island rocked. Unnumbered copies were published. Paine’s immediate royalties reached the great sum of a thousand pounds, all of which he turned over to the society for Constitutional Information. Paris rose to him even though Gouveneur Morris, then our fastidious minister, found him in “wretched apartments” and deemed him a little mad. Morris had been one of those who urged his dismissal as secretary to the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs. Oddly enough, the first reaction over “The Rights of Man” came in America. A copy reached one Beckley, who loaned it to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State under President Washington.

By Beckley’s request, Jefferson sent it to J. B. Smith, whose brother, S. H. Smith, promptly republished it, with a foreword quoting the Secretary of State as “extremely pleased” to learn that it is to be reprinted, and that “something is at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which have sprung up among us.” To this he added: “I have no doubt our citizens will rally a second time around the standard of Common Sense.” Now the “heresies” were those of Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton in favor of Federal power, as against democracy. Hue and cry followed. Bitter letters signed “Publicola” appeared in the Boston Columbian Centinal, attacking Jefferson for his endorsement, especially its form. In England these were attributed to Vice-President John Adams. They were really written by John Quincy, Adams, bis twenty-four year old son. The resulting reflex against Adams was enormous. Jefferson deprecated the storm. He was deeply attached to John Adams; indeed, their gallant souls kept company to Heaven on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the Declaration they, had both done so much to produce. “We differ,” he said, “as friends should.” He alluded to their “long habits of concurrence” in the days of Adams’ republicanism, and spoke of him with the utmost esteem. Jefferson gained rather than lost by the endorsement, which he disclaimed having intended to be public.

The incident was seized upon cunningly by British agents in America, who made great use of it to increase the friction between parties. One of these, a Major Beckwith, even felt out Tobias Lear, Washington’s secretary, as to the heinous conduct of Paine in dedicating his polemic to Washington, and Jefferson’s affront to his chief in its endorsement. Lear gave him no satisfaction. Jefferson said qnite properly that while he endorsed Paine’s principles, he was not, for proprieties’ sake, enlisted in the cause. He came in later with his Bill of Rights amendment to the Constitution. Madison, it may be said, stood squarely behind Paine. The latter sent Washington fifty copies. He allowed eight months to pass before acknowledging their receipt. His belated thanks were cordial, and he rejoiced in the information that Paine was enjoying “personal prosperity.” G. W. rarely went back on anybody.

The consequences of Burke’s double dealing were fast becoming terrible. He had misled Marie Antoinette into courses that were to bring her and Louis the Sixteenth to the scaffold, the first step toward which was their dethronement and the establishment of the French republic. Paine was in the midst of it all. Did he hear rightly Robespierre rise in the Assembly and offer a resolve to abolish the penalty of death? He did, indeed, and thought his longest fought cause won! The king and his family fled, to be brought ignominiously and tragically back. It was a whirlwind in which Paris revolved, breathless, unstable, and uncertain. The king’s secret renunciation of the decrees he had signed came to light and sealed his doom. Soon the axe began falling.

Paine, however, revelled in the storm. To him it was the arrival of the Apocalypse. He wrote a manifesto of endorsement, “Address and Declaration of the Friends of Universal Peace and Liberty,” which, sent to England, was adopted by an assemblage gathered at the thatched Horse Tavern, August 20, 1791, Home Tooke signing it as chairman. He acclaimed George the Third as “an expensive sinecure,” and aroused the aristocracy to a sense of peril. Paine had now returned to London, where he kept good company, such as Joel Barlow, the American, author of “Hasty Pudding” and “The Columbiad,” Dr. Priestley, Marv Wollstoncraft, and Home Tooke. He is well de-

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scribed at this time as being “about five feet, ten inches high and rather athletic.” He was broad-shouldered and stooped a little. “His eye, of which the painter could not convey the exqnisite meaning, was full, brilliant and piercing; it had in it the muse of fire! In his dress and person he was generally very cleanly, and wore his hair cued, with side curls and powdered, so that he looked altogether like a gentleman of the old French school. His manners were easy and gracious ; his knowledge was universal and boundless; in private company and among his friends his conversation had every fascination that anecdote, novelty and truth could give it. In most company, and among strangers, he said little and was no public speaker.”

Meanwhile, the slow Tory wrath of England was rising against the crusader’s assault on the Divine Right of Kings. A second part of “The Rights of Man” was issued in mid-February, 1792. In it he plainly called the English people fools. May, 14th, Jordan, the printer, was summoned to appear before the King’s Bench on the 8th of June to answer for publishing the book. The pretext for his prosecution was that Paine could not be found. Paine wrote the Attorney-General that he was among those present, ready and willing to appear. At this, “information” was laid against him in a voluminous complaint of forty-one octavo pages, and the king issued a majestic proclamation forbidding seditious writings, which brought out a lot of “loyal” replies. June 8th, Paine appeared, but his case was put over until December. In truth, many, including Pitt, thought he was right and were willing to let it all blow past. This did not fit Paine’s humor. Lord Onslow called a meeting at Epsom to prepare a loyal address, to which Paine sent one hundred copies of “The Rights of Man” and one thousand copies of a letter to Lord Dundas, raking him over the coals. Home Tooke went with them and tried to make a speech, but was suppressed; though not until he had twitted Lord Onslow with receiving a sinecure of 1,000 and a pension of 3,000.

The bridge builder was fast becoming more powerful than the Kin. He accumulated a rare circle of friends. Rom-ney, the painter, worshipped at his shrine. He painted Paine’s portrait to admiration. It was engraved and widely sold. The lower strata in England hailed him as a deliverer, hut conservatism took fresh alarm. His works were burned at Exeter and a man who looked like him was expelled from Manchester. He was burned in effigy and on Guy Fawkes day the boys stuck a pair of corsets under the arms of the dummy of that gentleman, before touching it with a torch. Across the channel, Calais elected him to the French Assembly and sent Achille Audibert to beg his acceptance. He had already, in 1792, been proclaimed a citizen, along with a companionship that included Joel Barlow, Dr. Priestley, Schiller, Kosciusko, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Christie, and Home Tooke.

On the night of September 12th, Paine addressed a meeting of “Friends of Liberty” in such terms as to alarm his associates. William Blake, the poet-engraver, warned him; “You must not go home or you are a dead man.” He was hurried to Dover by a secret route that led through Sandwich and past his wife’s grave. He left Dover twenty minutes ahead of a warrant that would have taken his head. He never saw England again. Calais greeted its new deputy, and Audibert, who kept him company, gloriously. A lovely lady pinned a tri-color cockade on his hat, a battery banged out a salute and all the people cheered, “Vive Thomas Paine.” The Mayor embraced him and gave him the freedom of the town. Great doings for the corset maker!

The year One began September 21st. “Royalty is from this day abolished in France” was the curt proclamation of that event. Paine issued an address to his new fellow citizens and at once became prominent in the Assembly, In England he contrived again to be hanged and burned in effigy. This happened at Croydon, Warrington, Lyming-ton, and Plymouth. At Swaffham his replica was swung from a gibbet on Market Hill, then burned in a bonfire. So much for “The Rights of Man”! In absentia he was put on trial for high treason before Lord Kenyon, December 18, 1792. A special jury had been picked to ensure conviction. The Attorney-General Sir Archibald Macdonald, prosecuted with a corps of assistants. Paine did not lack bold defenders. The great Thomas Erskine headed the list of counsel. Messrs. Piggott, Shepard, Fitzgerald and Vaughan and Bonne)’ were his aids, Erskine’s friends warned him to keep out of the case. He declined to be scared. If Paine had any chance of acquittal he spoiled it in a letter from Paris telling the prosecution to do its worst. “Is it possible,” he asked, “that you or I can believe, or that reason can make any other man believe, that the capacity cf such a man as Mr. Guelph (George III), or any of his profligate sons, is necessary to the government of a nation?” Beyond this he said none but a picked jury would convict and begged Sir Archibald to spare the twelve men from a situation that might prove injurious to them! Now Er-skine was attorney-general for the Prince of Wales, worst of the profligates, and with serene audacity treated the letter as a forgery. He did his best with the case, but did not sum up. The foreman of the jury told him it would be a waste of time. Paine was convicted of high treason and outlawed. By way of contrast, the crowd carried Erskine from the court room on their shoulders and huzzahed approval of his courage.

Banished himself, Paine tried to save the Capets by securing their banishment from France. He was too late. The royalties of Europe were coming against the republic, and the leaders in the rising knew their heads were not safe while the king kept his on. The death grapple now began between the Jacobins and the Girondist?. Paine warned both sides that the king had two brothers in exile, who would rejoice at his death and continue to distract the country with their pretenses. Robespierre and Marat were both contemptuous of his idealism. Marat sneered at Paine’s pattern of a republic. The king was doomed and with him those who had dared temper the wind. Paine made one last appeal. He could not speak the tongue, but in English he spoke as coming from the American republic to appeal for the life of one who had been its friend. “Could I speak your language,” he concluded, “I would descend to your bar, and in their name become your petitioner to respite the execution of the sentence on Louis.”

Thuriot cried out, furiously: “This is not the language of Thomas Paine!” Marat, after some questions, denounced the interpreter. “I maintain that such is not the opinion of Thomas Paine. It is a wicked and faithless translation.” Who could prevail against such odds? Paine affirmed his position: “I voted against it both morally and politically,” he said. Brissot, from the Gironde, supported him. A vote then might have saved the king; it was not taken. The next day, with fifty-five members absent, a majority of seventy in a vote of 690 condemned Louis XVI to die before the second day’s end.

Yet in England’s Parliament it was debated that Paine was the cause of Capet’s death! Fox defended him, as did others. The great Pitt told Hester Stanhope that “Tom Paine is quite right.” Right, indeed, he was, but without potency. The close of his career as a factor in the Revolution was now at hand. The king was dead. So was Marat, thanks to Charlotte Corday. Robespierre ruled and Paine went seldom to the Assembly chamber. He lived in a house that had been Madame de Pompadour’s, and here he lodged with some friends and had for company Nicholas Bonneville, from New Rochelle, New York, Joel Barlow, from Redding, Connecticut, and Mary, Wollstoncraft. Brissot de Warville came until he was imprisoned. So did Madame Roland and her husband, who were on the path to death. For six or seven weeks in the summer Paine spent much time in the garden and drank more brandy than was good for him, in despair over the ways of a country he was trying to save. Samson, the executioner, lived on the same street and once called to enlist Paine’s sympathy for two young Englishman under duress. Securing this, he politely tendered his services. Paine was soon near to receiving them.

So matters went on. His lodgings were searched, his papers found innocuous. Christmas night, 1793, he was denounced in the Assembly by Bourdon de l’Oise and expelled â–  from that body. On the 28th, he was arrested and committed to the Prisons of the Luxembourg.

The cynical Gouveneur Morris was American Minister, with small use for corset makers who could build bridges across oceans as well as streams, and bring men’s minds together. He left him languishing in jail, where the error of a wrongly marked door alone saved him from the guillotine, but soon the kind James Monroe got him out and made it possible for him to return to an America that did not want him. Why not? Because he had put together in prison and later published a strange book called “The Age of Reason,” that took much folly out of the slavish regard for scriptures and gave his political enemies a chance to dub him infidel and antichrist. The reputation was awaiting him when he landed. His old home town of Burlington, New Jersey, was covered with posters showing him being carried away by Satan. Samuel Rogers, his best friend, turned his back on him. When he sought to depart for New York a seat in the stage was denied him. He was mobbed and hooted on the route after taking another vehicle.

In New York he was met in better grace. The good John Pintard had found clearance of doubts in “The Age of Reason.”

“Then,” Paine said, “I have made at least one Christian.”

Robert Fulton sought him out and wrote vigorously in his defense. Retiring to New Rochelle, Thomas Addis Em-mett greeted him as a friend. Most others were hostile. They were fundamentalists with a big F. He was refused the right to vote and the courts sustained the refusal. The bridge builder had become a man without a country, when three owed him an unpayable debt. The rustics drove him from his estate to the more hospitable New York. Ill and old, he lived a few months obscurely until, on June 8, 1809, at eight o’clock on a bright morning he left his life of storm. Two zealous ministers pushed their way to his bedside just before the end, eager to offer sacrament to the “infidel” and boast of their triumph over the devil. “Let me alone. Good morning!” was his response.

The body was taken to New Rochelle for burial and there lay until William Cobbett, the British busybody who aped him and pestered Philadelphia as “Peter Porcupine,” dug up his bones and transported them to England in 1819, for a triumphant reinterment. The proposition raised such opposition that Cobbett never reburied them. The town crier at Bolton was jailed for nine weeks because he proclaimed the funeral! Cobbett’s estate was put into receivership in 1836 and Paine’s bones were listed as an asset, which the Lord Chancellor refused to accept. They then passed into possession of Benjamin Tilley, a furniture dealer of 13 Bedford Square, London. By 1849, the bones had vanished, and James Chennell owned the empty coffin with its silver plate reading, “Thomas Paine. Died June 8, 1809, aged 72.”

Lord Byron paid Cobbett a compliment in these lines:

In digging up your bones, Tom Paine,

Will Cobbett has done well: You visit him on earth again;

He’ll visit you in hell!

Although he was not an infidel, “infidel” societies the world over celebrate his birthday. The bridge builders, however, do not remember him.

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