Seth Kaller, Inc.

Inspired by History

Other Early Republic (1784 - c.1830) Offerings


Thomas Paine Tries to Pull Strings in France for an American Friend
Click to enlarge:
Select an image:

Paine writes on behalf of a Connecticut-born merchant-adventurer, Nathan Haley, who had captured an American vessel, the Hare, because it carried British contraband. This occurred in 1797, a year before the “Quasi-War” between the U.S. and France. Haley and Paine were each violently opposed to Britain and to the pro-British Federalist Party in America. This letter does not paint Paine in a good light, as he is, by implication, advocating French attacks on American vessels. Paine refers to his famously harsh public letter to George Washington of July 30, 1796, written after Paine narrowly escaped the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, to appeal to his correspondent’s anti-British bias – therein, Paine had condemned Jay’s Treaty, negotiated between the United States and Britain. Paine writes this letter as Merlin of Douai’s “ancient colleague” in the hopes that Merlin of Douai would overturn the ruling that “condemned” Haley’s prize at Dieppe. “[Haley] had been cruelly treated by the British whilst he was their prisoner in the American Revolution, and, as I am informed, has been cheated by the London insurencers, and besides the British made no ceremony of seizing American vessels.... It was Hayley who carried my letter to America addressed to the ex-President Washington, on the subject of the British [Jay’s] Treaty, to be printed....

THOMAS PAINE. Autograph Letter Signed, to “Citizen Directer” [Philippe-Antoine, Comte Merlin, of Douai]. [ca. 1798-1799, Dieppe, France]. 3 pp., 8⅞ x 5⅞ in.

Inventory #21479.99       Price: $45,000

Complete Transcript

Citizen Directer

            It is at the request of several friends that I trouble you with this letter, the purport of which is, to remove an unfavourable impression from your mind with respect to the case of a prize cargo, in which Captain Hayley is concerned. It was condemned at Dieppe as a Prize to the Republic as if it had been a smuggled cargo, and the report was made to you in that manner whilst you were Minister of Justice. The appeal is now depending at Roen.

            I enter not into the case whether it was right or wrong in Hayley to make a prize of the cargo by the stratagem he employed. He had been cruelly treated by the British whilst he was their prisoner in the American Revolution, and, as I am informed, has been cheated by the London insurencers, and besides those things the British made no ceremony of seizing American vessels. I admit the supposition that under a sense of such injuries, he may have sought to redress himself by an act which though it appears right to him, may not appear in the same light to others. I know that [2] his resentment against the British and the British Party in America are high. It was Hayley who carried my letter to America addressed to the ex-President Washington, on the subject of the British [Jay’s] Treaty, to be printed. Your colleage Revilliere Lepeaux has read that letter in English; and I recompence the trust which Hayley executed for me by writing you this letter in his behalf. From every thing that I know of the case, and of the political sentiments of Hayley, who has been uniformly attached to the French Revolution, and has been engaged in several broils with the English Party in America in supporting it, the cargo in question is not a smuggled cargo. The capture was a stratagem, and the tribunal of Dieppe has mistaken the stratagem for smuggling.

            Whether (as have just said) Hayley has done right or wrong in making the capture is not with me a question; but as he stands exposed to be pursued for it at some future day, by the owners or insurers of the cargo, it is no other than Justice that he be left with the means in his hands to defend himself, or to repair the injury if he has done one. But no error on his part can justify the Judgment at Dieppe. This, Citizen Directer [3] is my candid opinion of the case. I could mention to you several kind as well as patriot things, that Hayley has done, but I seek not to influence your mind by any thing but a representation of the case itself. I pray you to accept the respect of your ancient colleague.

Historical Background

While living in Dieppe, France, under the regime of the 5-man Directory (1795-1799), Paine borrowed seven thousand livres from a wily American adventurer, Nathan Haley. In 1796, Haley had delivered Paine’s famous 36-page public letter to George Washington, mentioned herein, to Benjamin Franklin Bache, editor of the Democratic-Republican Aurora of Philadelphia. Paine was personally insulted that George Washington had not empowered Gouverneur Morris, U.S. Minister to France, to seek Paine’s release from prison during the Reign of Terror, in which time Paine was frightfully close to execution.

Paine also believed that Jay’s Treaty marked Washington as a pro-British wolf in sheep’s clothing, pretending to promulgate American neutrality in the wars of the French Revolution. Washington’s approval of Jay’s Treaty was, according to Paine, a piece of “barefaced treachery.... The character which Mr. Washington has attempted to act in the world is a sort of nondescribable, chameleon-colored thing called prudence. It is, in many cases, a substitute for principle, and is so nearly allied to hypocrisy that it easily slides into it.” Reviewing Washington’s military performance during the Revolution, Paine went further: “No wonder we see so much pusillanimity in the President, when we see so little enterprise in the General.” He did nothing, while other generals won victories – if anything, it was the French alliance that, to Paine, was decisive.

Interestingly, it was Paine who was himself treacherous in the publication of this letter, for he and Washington had been friends during the Revolution. As historian Richard Rosenfeld relates, “Washington told John Adams that Paine’s ‘letter’ was the most insulting letter he ever received. ‘He must have been insane to write so,’ John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail.”

It appears from this letter that Paine was willing to use his public letter as evidence of the pro-French, anti-British sentiments of himself and his friend Haley. The key to Paine’s persuasion was Jay’s Treaty, which Comte Merlin of Douai and the French Directory castigated. Haley and other French privateers were, by Paine’s read, doing what Jay’s Treaty allowed the British to do. Operating out of Dieppe in 1797, Nathan Haley attacked and seized an American vessel, Hare, taking prisoners and £50,000 sterling in confiscated goods. The vessel was on its way from London to New York, according to diplomat Charles C. Pinckney. Pinckney, writing to Secretary of State Pickering, felt that such actions threatened “avowed hostilities” between France and the United States – indeed, President Adams, later that year, sent Elbridge Gerry and John Marshall to join Pinckney in Paris to try to forestall war. When the Directory demanded a bribe in the so-called “XYZ Affair,” Adams and Congress mobilized for war and empowered American privateers and naval vessels to retaliate against French shipping.

Interestingly, in 1797, the French courts disavowed Haley’s actions and “condemned” his prize. A faction within the French government, possibly including Comte Merlin of Douai (who as Minister of Justice had viewed Haley’s protest), was opposed to highhanded provocations of the Americans. It is not known how Comte Merlin of Douai received Paine’s letter, or whether the “appeal at Rouen” went in Haley’s favor. Both Paine and Haley returned to America after the election of Thomas Jefferson and the defeat of the Federalist Party.

In August 1803, Paine went to see Haley at Stonington, presumably to pay off some of his debt accrued in Dieppe. As Paine biographer John Keane notes, Paine ended up staying with Haley for several months, becoming an “itinerant lecturer on political affairs,” prognosticating the imminent conquest of Britain by Napoleon.

Philippe-Antoine, Comte Merlin, of Douai (1754-1838) was a French lawyer, jurist, and politician, and one of the five co-leaders of France during the Directory. He was a member of the Third Estate in the Estates-General, which initiated the French Revolution in 1789. He became a criminal court judge and a member of the National Assembly. After Robespierre’s execution, Merlin of Douai became president of the Convention, and produced a major revision of the French legal code. In late 1795, the Directory made him Minister of Justice. After the failed coup d’etat of 18 Fructidor (September 5, 1797), he was named one of the five Directors. He retired from public life amidst charges of corruption and incompetence, just before Napoleon’s successful coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799). At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with the Bourbon Restoration, Merlin of Douai was banished from France.

Nathan Haley was a friend of Paine, a pro-French merchant and privateer from Stonington, Connecticut, who for a brief time, operating out of French ports, preyed on American merchant ships carrying British contraband. Like Paine, he apparently felt safe in returning to America once Thomas Jefferson won the presidential election of 1800. Paine stayed with Haley at his house in Stonington for a few months in 1802. Little else is known of his background or future activities.


State Papers and Publick Documents of the United States …, Vol. III. 1819 (Pinckney to Secretary of State, March 8, 1797, on pp. 117-118).

Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. Boston, 1995. p. 489.

Rosenfeld, Richard. American Aurora. New York, 1997. p. 33.

Add to Cart Ask About This Item Add to Favorites