"I set my heart upon seeing the English Government overthrown."
Thomas Paine Autograph Letter Signed Regarding His Plan for a
Descent on England. Two pages, 7.4" x 9", taking up pages one
and two of a "C & I Honig" watermarked bifolium. Paris,
November 17, 1797. Addressed to Louis Marie de La
Révellière-Lépeaux, president of the Directory, it is a cover
letter to a detailed plan (not present) calling for the French
invasion of England by the use of oar-driven boats upon the
northeast coast. In full:
Paris Rue Theatre du Francais N4
27 Brumaire 6 year [Friday, November 17, 1797]
As I am informed you read English I send you the enclosed in that language.-
The Citizen James Coigly of Ireland was introduced to me, a few days ago, by the Citizen [James] Napper Tandy, whom I presume you know. Coigly brought me some tokens from some friends in England. - Yesterday he called on me again with the enclosed paper, As it is five years since I left England I know not the precise state of that country; but I believe there is a very general discomfort against the Government at this time. --- You will observe that the enclosed paper speaks of the North-east coast of England as the proper place to make a descent. The opinion is a right one. - About 18 months ago, I drew up a plan upon that subject. [Francis Xavier] Lanthenas translated it. As I was then at Surenne at the Americain Consul's ([Fulwar] Skipwith) I gave it to [François Antoine de] Boissy D'Anglas who lived also at Surenne, desiring him to give it to [Lazare] Carnot who was then President. I have never heard of it since, and know not if the Directory has received it. In that plan I pointed out the North-east Coast as the proper place for a descent; and that the passage from the Scheld[t] (l'escaut) over to the English Coast, should be made in Boats with Oars (rames). The passage may be made in less than three days in boats carrying about 150 men, and to row (ramer) with 25 Oars on each side. As the object is not to fight the English Navy, but to elude it, there is no way this can be done so well as by Oars; because the passage can be made in such state of the wind that the british Navy could not act - or in a calm. All the North-east Coast of English is as flat as the shore of the Seine. I have always observed that the English were more alarmed at a fleet of flat-bottom-boats, than at a French Navy. Belgium being now a part of france, gives france an opportunity of making a descent which she had not before. The North-east coast is the weak part of England, and this is one of the reasons that caused the English Government to make so much opposition against annexing Belgium to France.
Coigly will return to Ireland, by the way of England, in a few days. I wish to ask you if I may be permitted to say to him, that if france makes a descent she means to act in the same friendly manner she has acted in Italy. - As a great body of the people of England are tired of the hanover family, and wish a revolution, it is right they should pay france for the expense of making one. If you will favour me with an audience for a few minutes on this subject I will wait on you, any time you will appoint. I set my heart upon seeing the English Government overthrown. If you think an Interpreter necessary, I will bring Derche [of the Foreign Ministry] who is a very good one, or come alone, as you please.
Salut et respect
Thomas Paine emigrated to America in 1774, and immediately became involved in the American Revolution. His principal contributions came in the form of the written word, and his most famous pamphlet Common Sense (1776) advocating independence helped garner support for the cause. Paine first went to France in 1781 to help secure loans to finance the Revolution. He developed many relationships which laid the groundwork for his return in 1792, during the French Revolution. Paine had penned the hugely successful Rights of Man the previous year. In this book Paine focused his attack on the European monarchies and social institutions.
A supporter of the French Revolution, Paine was granted honorary French citizenship, and was elected to the National Convention. Paine fell out of favor with Robespierre and was imprisoned in December 1793. He was released the following year with the help of James Monroe, who was then minister to France. Paine lived with Monroe, but recognizing the potential embarrassment that could be caused by his political activities, Paine felt obliged to find other lodgings. Paine maintained a relationship with Monroe; and Monroe also received a copy of the plans transmitted by this letter. The copy Monroe received was likely a draft, and is presently housed with the rest of Monroe's papers at the Library of Congress (LOC). The LOC catalogued the plan under the year 1812, but this letter clearly proves that Paine devised the plan as early as 1797. Monroe left France in April of 1797, and likely received his copy just prior to his departure. ("Thomas Paine's Plan for a Descent on England", by Alfred Owen Aldridge. William and Mary Quarterly; Jan. 1957)
Paine's plan called for 1000 gunboats, each equipped with 24 or 36 pounders. The boats would each carry 150 men, and would use a combination of oars and small sails for power. Because France had access to an extensive coastline along the North Sea, this fleet could reach England within 24 hours of launching. Paine believed these small crafts would easily evade the bulky English navy ships; the English ports would be helpless in the face of this onslaught. (Aldridge)
Paine published two articles in le Bien Informe in December of 1797. The first gave an outline of his plan, and the second article focused on how the funds could be raised to build such a fleet. Paine believed that the funds could be raised by simply asking for donations of the French citizens. To Paine's thinking, all good French citizens would want to donate towards a cause that would eliminate the English. (Aldridge)
Paine's exclusive focus on England blinded him to the machinations of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was slowly rising to power during these years. Paine initially was a supporter of Napoleon and shared many of his ideas with the French leader. It would be years before he discovered Napoleon's true aspirations.
The letter offered here is unpublished, and gives evidence to Paine's continued efforts to disrupt the English government and his alliances with Irish factions. Father James Coigly was an Irish-born Catholic priest and a leader of the United Irishmen who was convicted of high treason and executed at Kent, England on June 7, 1798. While en route to France soon after the date of this letter, Coigly was arrested. Hidden in his garments was found a letter addressed to the French Revolutionary Government calling for an invasion of England. Coigly's participation in transporting these plans for an invasion of England cost him his life. James Napper Tandy (1740-1803) was an Irish rebel leader, revered by his own country and France, but despised and feared by England. A member of the United Irishmen, Tandy found in 1795 that the English Crown had placed a price on his head; he fled to America while others of his group went to France. By the date of this letter, Tandy had just arrived in France from the United States and was actively lobbying for French support of an Irish revolution. In 1798, he and several United Irishmen were given command of a small fleet of French ships carrying arms for distribution in Ireland. He landed at the isle of Arranmore on September 16, 1798, but soon realized that the cause was hopeless. He quickly pulled up anchor and ended up in Hamburg, but not before capturing two British ships.
The letter is gently toned with slight traces of cello tape along the top and bottom margin (about 2 mm). Light mat burn is evidence of prior framing. For extended biographies of all of the individuals referenced by Paine please go to HA.com/6049-44001.
Father James Coigly (1761-1798) (aka James Quigley, James O'Coigly, James John Fivey) was an Irish-born Catholic priest and a leader of the United Irishmen who was convicted of high treason and executed at Kent, England on June 7, 1798. The aim of this group had originally been to unite Catholics and Presbyterians toward Parliamentary reform in Ireland. Once they allied with revolutionary France, though, their goal became the end of British rule over Ireland. These Irishmen were heavily influenced by Thomas Paine and his 1790 publication Rights of Man. While en route to France soon after the date of this letter, Coigly was arrested; hidden in his garments was found a letter addressed to the French Revolutionary Government calling for an invasion of England. He, along with his travelling companions, were tried on the basis that they (in small part): "maliciously and traitorously did procure and obtain and in their custody and possession conceal and keep a certain paper writing theretofore composed and prepared to signify and represent ... to the aforesaid enemies of our said Lord the King that divers of the subjects of our said Lord the King were ready to assist the said enemies of our said Lord the King in case the said enemies of our said Lord the King should make or cause to be made an hostile invasion of this kingdom with ships and armed men to prosecute and wage war against our said Lord the King within this kingdom... [that they] might unlawfully and traitorously carry and convey and cause to be carried and conveyed the said last mentioned paper writing to parts beyond the seas to be delivered to certain persons of the said enemies of our said Lord the King such persons being called in the said last-mentioned paper writing the Executive Directory of France and might thereby incite encourage persuade and procure the said enemies of our said Lord the King to make and cause to be made an hostile invasion of this kingdom with ships and armed men to prosecute and wage war against our said Lord the King within this kingdom." Coigly's participation in transporting these plans for an invasion of England cost him his life.
James Napper Tandy (1740-1803) was an Irish rebel leader, revered by his own country and France, but despised and feared by England. A Dublin Protestant, Tandy's early career in politics led to a seat in the Irish Parliament; he became known for exposing official corruption. Tandy was apparently the author of an Irish vote of congratulations to the United States for their independence and led a boycott of English businesses in Ireland. The Irish goal of independence from England was encouraged and radicalized by the revolutionary activity in France. A member of the United Irishmen, Tandy found in 1795 that the English Crown had placed a price on his head; he fled to America while others of his group went to France. By the date of this letter, Tandy had just arrived in France from the United States and was actively lobbying for French support of an Irish revolution. In 1798, he and several United Irishmen were given command of a small fleet of French ships carrying arms for distribution in Ireland. He landed at the isle of Arranmore on September 16, 1798, but soon realized that the cause was hopeless. He quickly pulled up anchor and ended up in Hamburg, but not before capturing two British ships. Tandy was controversially arrested and deported at the request of the British authorities and at the protest of the French Directory. In 1801, he was released from prison and allowed to return to France, partly at the behest of Napoleon. Purportedly, his release was a condition of signing the Treaty of Amiens. James Napper Tandy lived out his days in France as a republican hero.
François Xavier Lanthenas (1754-1799) was a French physician and legislator who was a doctor in Paris at the time of the revolution. He became a chief clerk in the Interior Ministry, was elected a member of the Convention and later, a Member of the Council of Five. A close friend of Paine as well as Nicolas de Bonneville, Lanthenas worked to spread revolutionary ideas throughout France. He was the chief translator of Paine's works into French, including Common Sense, Theory and Practice of Human Rights, and The Age of Reason.
Fulwar Skipwith (1765-1839) was an American diplomat who served under Ambassador James Monroe in France from 1791 until 1795 when he was appointed Consul-General in Paris. He would later be a key negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.
François-Antoine de Boissy d'Anglas (1756-1826) was a moderate French political leader who served during the Revolution, the First Republic, and the Empire. He was on the committee which composed the constitution that established the Directory in 1795. His outspoken opinions in favor of total freedom of the press and other reactionary ideas led to his exile after the 18 Fructidor (September 4, 1797) coup. He was likely living in England at the time of this letter but would return in late 1799 at the establishment of the Counsulate.
Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot (1753-1823) was a French engineer and mathematician as well as a powerful political force in Revolutionary France. His genius as a military administrator earned him the title "Organizer of Victory." Carnot had studied with Benjamin Franklin at the Mezieres School of Engineering and, as a member of the "American Party" in France was associated with both Franklin and Thomas Paine. Carnot served, consecutively, in the Legislative Assembly, Committee of Public Safety, the Thermdorian Committee, the Five Hundred, and as one of the five initial members of the Directory. It was here where he ran afoul ideologically of three other members, including Révellière-Lépeaux. This led to a two year exile in Geneva after the 18 Fructidor coup, where he resided when this letter was written. Upon his return in 1799, he served as minister of war and in the tribunate under Napoleon who named him a Count of the Empire. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Carnot was exiled by King Louis XVIII and died in Prussia.
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