Robert Treat Paine

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Robert Treat Paine
Robert Treat Paine portrait.jpg
Portrait by Edward Savage & John Coles, Jr. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
Born(1731-03-11)March 11, 1731
DiedMay 11, 1814(1814-05-11) (aged 83)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting placeGranary Burying Ground, Boston
EducationHarvard College
OccupationLawyer, politician
Known forSigner of the Declaration of Independence
Spouse(s)Sally Cobb (m. 1770–1814; his death)
Robert Paine signature.png

Robert Treat Paine (March 11, 1731 – May 11, 1814) was an American lawyer and politician, best known as a signer of the Declaration of Independence as a representative of Massachusetts. He served as the state's first attorney general, and served as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court. Paine was also a founding member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and had always opposed slavery.[1]

Early life and ancestors[edit]

Coat of Arms of Robert Treat Paine

Robert Treat Paine was born in Boston, Massachusetts, British America on March 11, 1731. He was one of five children of the Rev. Thomas Paine and Eunice (Treat) Paine.[2] His father was pastor of Franklin Road Baptist Church in Weymouth but moved his family to Boston in 1730 and subsequently became a merchant there. His mother was the daughter of Rev. Samuel Treat, whose father Maj. Robert Treat (later a Governor of Connecticut) was one of the principal founders of Newark, New Jersey. Robert Treat Paine's Treat family had a long history in the British colonies and his Paine family, in particular, can trace a lineage back to the Mayflower.[3]


Paine attended the Boston Latin School and at the age of fourteen entered Harvard College, from which institution he graduated in 1749 at age 18. He then was engaged in teaching school for several years back at the Boston Latin and at Lunenburg, Massachusetts. He also attempted a merchant career with journeys to the Carolinas, the Azores, and to Spain, as well as a whaling voyage to Greenland. He began the study of law in 1755 with his mother's cousin in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Paine was unsuccessful in gaining an officer's commission in that regiment and so volunteered to serve as chaplain. When he returned from a brief military campaign to Lake George (the Crown Point Expedition), he did some occasional preaching and returned to his legal studies. In 1756 he returned to Boston to continue his legal preparations with Samuel Prat, and he was admitted to the bar in 1757. He first considered establishing his law practice at Portland (then part of Massachusetts but now in Maine), but instead in 1761 moved to Taunton, Massachusetts, then back to Boston in 1780.[4]

Legal career[edit]

In 1768 he was a delegate to the provincial convention which was called to meet in Boston. Paine, along with Samuel Quincy, conducted the prosecution of Captain Thomas Preston and his British soldiers following the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. John Adams was opposing counsel, and Adams' arguments won the jury's sway, and most of the troops were let off.[5]

Paine served in the Massachusetts General Court from 1773 to 1774, in the Provincial Congress from 1774 to 1775, and represented Massachusetts at the Continental Congress from 1774 through 1776. In Congress, he signed the final appeal to the king (the Olive Branch Petition of 1775), and helped frame the rules of debate and acquire gunpowder for the coming war, and in 1776 was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.[6]

He returned to Massachusetts at the end of December 1776 and was speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1777, a member of the executive council in 1779, a member of the committee that drafted the state constitution in 1780. He was Massachusetts Attorney General from 1777 to 1790 and prosecuted the treason trials following Shays' Rebellion. (From 1777 to 1785, his acting Attorney General was Benjamin Kent.)[7][8] In 1780, he was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[9] He later served as a justice of the state supreme court from 1790 to 1804 when he retired. When he died at the age of 83 in 1814 he was buried in Boston's Granary Burying Ground.[10] Many of his papers, including correspondence and legal notes, are now held by the Massachusetts Historical Society.[11]

Robert Treat Paine was a Congregationalist and a devout Christian. When his church, the First Church of Boston, moved into Unitarianism, Paine followed that path.

Family and legacy[edit]

Statue of Robert Treat Paine by Richard E. Brooks (1904), Taunton, Massachusetts.

Paine married Sally Cobb, the daughter of Thomas and Lydia (née Leonard) Cobb and a sister of General David Cobb, on March 15, 1770. She was born May 15, 1744, and died June 6, 1816.

They were the parents of eight children:

  • Robert Paine, b. May 14, 1770; d. July 28, 1798, died unmarried. Graduate of Harvard College, 1789.
  • Sally Paine, b. March 7, 1772; d. January 26, 1823, died unmarried.
  • Thomas Paine, b. December 9, 1773; name changed by law in 1801 to Robert Treat Paine, Jr.; d. November 13, 1811. Graduate of Harvard College, 1792.
  • Charles Paine, b. August 30, 1775; d. February 15, 1810. Graduate of Harvard College, 1793. m. Sarah Sumner Cushing (niece of both US Supreme Court associate Justice William Cushing and Massachusetts Governor Increase Sumner). Issue Robert Treat Paine, Sr..[12] Grandfather of Robert Treat Paine (philanthropist)[13]
  • Henry Paine, b. October 20, 1777; d. June 8, 1814; m. Olive Lyman, daughter of Theodore Lyman (1755–1839). Issue.
  • Mary Paine, b. February 9, 1780; d. February 27, 1842; m.1825 Rev. Elisha Clap,[Graduate of Harvard College 1797[14] no issue.
  • Maria Antoinetta Paine, b. December 2, 1782; d. March 26, 1842; m. Deacon Samuel Greele, no issue.
  • Lucretia Paine, b. April 30, 1785; d. Aug. 27, 1823, died unmarried.

Some of his notable descendants include;


A statue of Paine by Richard E. Brooks was erected at Taunton's Church Green in 1904.[15][16]

Paine is an honoree of the Washington, D.C. Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence.


  1. ^ "Thomas Paine: African Slavery In America". Retrieved 2020-06-22.
  2. ^ Sarah Cushing Paine (1912). Paine Ancestry. The family of Robert Treat Paine, Signer of the Declaration of Independence. Boston, Mass.: Dabid Clapp & Son. p. 317. Retrieved 2009-11-11. Robert Treat Paine Storer.
  3. ^ "Family Relationship of Robert Treat Paine Signer of the Declaration of Independence 3rd Great-grandson to Stephen Hopkins Mayflower Passenger". Retrieved 3 Jun 2020.
  4. ^ "A Sense of Honor and Duty: Robert Treat Paine (1731–1814) of Massachusetts and the new nation," by Edward W. Hanson. Ph.D. dissertation, Boston College, 1992.
  5. ^ "National Park Service - Signers of the Declaration (Robert Treat Paine)". 2004-07-04. Retrieved 2019-05-08.
  6. ^ American National Biography, sub Paine, Robert Treat
  7. ^ p. 290
  8. ^ "Robert Treat Paine, Attorney General" by Edward W. Hanson, in Massachusetts Legal History 8 (2002):95-123
  9. ^ "Charter of Incorporation of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
  10. ^ Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College, by Clifford K. Shipton (Boston, 1962), 12:462-482; The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, vols. 1-2 edited by Stephen T. Riley and Edward W. Hanson (Boston, 1992), vol. 3 edited by Edward W. Hanson (Boston, 2005).
  11. ^ Collection Guide to Robert Treat Paine Papers Microfilm Edition, which also includes the papers of Thomas Paine, among others.
  12. ^ Paine Family ancestory p.47 accessed Feb 3, 2019
  13. ^ Paine Family ancestory p.50 accessed Feb 3, 2019
  14. ^ [Clapp, Ebenezer The Clapp Memorial: Record of the Clapp Family in America : Containing ...” 1876]
  15. ^ frontispiece in Two Men of Taunton in the course of human events, 1731-1829 by Ralph Davol. Taunton, Mass., 1912
  16. ^ Tuoti, Gerry (18 November 2010). "LEST WE FORGET: Robert Treat Paine monument tells of Taunton's Revolutionary War history". Taunton Gazette. Retrieved 21 August 2016. Standing in the middle of a busy intersection in the heart of downtown Taunton, a larger-than-life statue of local patriot Robert Treat Paine gazes out onto Main Street.


  • Robert Treat Paine Papers Digital Edition.
  • The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, ed. Stephen T. Riley and Edward W. Hanson, vol. 1, 1746–1756, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 87 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1992).
  • The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, ed. Stephen T. Riley and Edward W. Hanson, vol. 2, 1757–1774, Collections 88, (1992).
  • The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, ed. Edward W. Hanson, vol. 3, 1774–1777, Collections 89, (2005).
  • The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, ed. Edward W. Hanson, vol. 4, 1778–1786, Collections 92, (2018).

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Benjamin Kent
Attorney General of Massachusetts
Succeeded by
James Sullivan
Preceded by
David Sewall
Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Seat ended