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Biographical Sketches

Robert Treat Paine
Robert Treat Paine

A clergyman turned lawyer-jurist, Robert Treat Paine spent only a short time in Congress but enjoyed considerable political prestige in Massachusetts. His second son (1773-1811) and great-grandson (1835-1910), both bearing exactly the same names as he, gained fame respectively as poet and businessman-philanthropist.

Among the ancestors of Paine, who was born at Boston in 1731, were many New England religious and political leaders. His father was a merchant who had once been a clergyman. Young Paine led his class at Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard in 1749. He then taught school for a time before yielding to family tradition and entering the ministry.

In 1755, during the French and Indian War, he served as chaplain on a military expedition to Crown Point, N.Y. To improve his health, he made a voyage to the Carolinas, England, Spain, and Greenland. About this time, he decided to forsake the ministry for the law, in which he had become interested during his theological studies. Admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1757, he opened an office in Portland but in 1761 moved to Taunton.

Paine, a friend of John Adams and John Hancock, early became involved in the patriot movement. As a result, he was chosen in 1770 as one of the prosecuting attorneys in the Boston Massacre trial and thus gained recognition throughout the Colonies. That same year, he married, siring eight children. Between 1773 and 1778, except in 1776, he served in the Massachusetts legislature, in 1777 being speaker of the lower house. He was one of the first five Delegates sent by Massachusetts to the Continental Congress (1774-76), where he specialized in military and Indian affairs. He gained the nickname "Objection Maker" because he argued against so many proposals.

Although reelected to Congress in 1777, Paine chose to stay in Massachusetts. In addition to his legislative speakership, he was elected as the first attorney general, a position he held until 1790. Between 1778 and 1780 he played a prominent role in drafting the Massachusetts constitution. From 1790 until 1804, appointed by his old friend Hancock, he sat as an associate justice of the Superior Court.

Meantime, in 1780, Paine had moved from Taunton to Boston and become active in civic affairs. Indicative of his lifelong interest in science, that same year he was one of the founders of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In religion, he broke away from Calvinism and embraced Unitarianism. Politically, he alined himself with the Federalists. In 1804 increasing deafness brought about his retirement from the Superior Court, and he died a decade later at the age of 83 in Boston. He was buried in the Old Granary Burying Ground.

Drawing: Oil, 1876, by Richard M. Staigg, after Edward Savage, Independence National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004