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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

In a French Prison, 1794

By Thomas Paine (1737–1809)

[From a Letter written after Paine’s return to America.]

I WAS one of the nine members that composed the first committee of constitution. Six of them have been destroyed. Syeyes and myself have survived. He by bending with the times, and I by not bending. The other surviver joined Robespierre, and signed with him the warrant of my arrestation. After the fall of Robespierre, he was seized and imprisoned in his turn, and sentenced to transportation. He has since apologized to me for having signed the warrant, by saying, he felt himself in danger and was obliged to do it.

Herault Sechelles, an acquaintance of Mr. Jefferson, and a good patriot, was my suppliant as member of the committee of constitution; that is, he was to supply my place, if I had not accepted or had resigned, being next in number of votes to me. He was imprisoned in the Luxemburg with me, was taken to the tribunal and the guillotine, and I, his principal, was left.

There were but two foreigners in the convention, Anacharsis Cloots and myself. We were both put out of the convention by the same vote, arrested by the same order, and carried to prison together the same night. He was taken to the guillotine, and I was again left. Joel Barlow was with us when we went to prison.

Joseph Lebon, one of the vilest characters that ever existed, and who made the streets of Arras run with blood, was my suppliant as member of the convention for the department of the Pas de Calais. When I was put out of the convention he came and took my place. When I was liberated from prison, and voted again into the convention, he was sent to the same prison and took my place there, and he went to the guillotine instead of me. He supplied my place all the way through.

One hundred and sixty-eight persons were taken out of the Luxemburg in one night, and a hundred and sixty of them guillotined the next day, of which I know I was to have been one; and the manner in which I escaped that fate is curious, and has all the appearance of accident.

The room in which I was lodged was on the ground floor, and one of a long range of rooms under a gallery, and the door of it opened outward and flat against the wall; so that when it was open the inside of the door appeared outward, and the contrary when it was shut. I had three comrades, fellow-prisoners with me, Joseph Vanhuile, of Bruges, since president of the municipality of that town, Michael Robins, and Bastini, of Louvain.

When persons by scores and hundreds were to be taken out of prison for the guillotine, it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal by which they knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take. We, as I have said, were four, and the door of our room was marked unobserved by us, with that number in chalk; but it happened, if happening is a proper word, that the mark was put on when the door was open and flat against the wall, and thereby came on the inside when we shut it at night, and the destroying angel passed by it. A few days after this Robespierre fell, and the American ambassador arrived and reclaimed me and invited me to his house.

During the whole of my imprisonment, prior to the fall of Robespierre, there was no time when I could think my life worth twenty-four hours, and my mind was made up to meet its fate. The Americans in Paris went in a body to the convention to reclaim me, but without success. There was no party among them with respect to me. My only hope then rested on the government of America that it would remember me. But the icy heart of ingratitude, in whatever man it may be placed, has neither feeling nor sense of honor. The letter of Mr. Jefferson has served to wipe away the reproach, and done justice to the mass of the people of America.