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Rights of Man (1792)

de Thomas Paine

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Rights of Man presents an impassioned defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality that Thomas Paine believed would soon sweep the world. He boldly claimed, "From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished. Without winds its progress from nation to nation." Though many more sophisticated thinkers argued for the same principles and many people died in the attempt to realize them, no one was better able than Paine to articulate them in a way that fired the hopes and dreams of the common man and actually stirred him to revolutionary political action.… (més)
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  hpryor | Aug 8, 2021 |
Paine was a freaking genius! I admire him so much -- his life, his writings, his damn brain. He's one of the few from the past that I would pay a fortune for to sit down for a drink with him and just chat, pick his pray, engage, learn. No longer given enough credit these days, but one of the most influential men of his period, ironically more for the US than for France. This is an excellent treatise and if you've not read it, or his other works, by all means, please do! ( )
  scottcholstad | Jan 28, 2020 |
Thomas Paine

Rights of Man

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback [1996].

12mo. xii+226 pp. Introduction by Derek Matravers [vii-xii]. Cover: “Let us Free Peace from Prison” by French school, cover from Le Monde illustré (1946).

Part I first published, March 1791.
Part II first published, February 1792.
Everyman edition, 1915.
This edition, 1996.



Part One

Preface to the English Edition

Rights of Man
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens by the National Assembly of France
Observations on the Declaration of Rights
Miscellaneous Chapter

Part Two


I. Of Society and Civilisation
II. Of the Origin of the Present Old Governments
III. Of the Old and New Systems of Government
IV. Of Constitutions
V. Ways and Means of Improving the Conditions of Europe, interspersed with Miscellaneous Observations



To begin with a note on the edition, this one contains the appendix, the complete footnotes and the long digression on taxation in Britain (pp. 182-214) omitted in the Signet Classics edition, but the Preface to the French Edition is not included here. The text itself, as we are told in a brief prefatory note, reprints the 1915 Everyman edition with “a few spellings” modernised and “a slight reduction in the use of italics and initial capital letters”. This is light editorial intervention, and quite acceptable when it comes to 18th-century texts.

Both editions have pros and cons. I prefer Signet for reading at leisure, but it’s abridged. Wordsworth is printed in smallish font hard to read, but it’s complete and I’d like to have it handy as a reference.

This was my second reading, partly for the sheer pleasure of Paine’s prose, partly by way of comparison with Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762). I must say this time I’ve found the book harder to get through. Paine’s prose is impeccable, a few extra commas notwithstanding. He is always lucid and readable, and often trenchant and witty. But he spends way too much time repeating, refuting and ridiculing ideas which are safely dead today, most notably monarchy and hereditary succession. Only the wonderful writing makes page after page enjoyable, however dated the subject matter:

Whether I have too little sense to see, or too much to be imposed upon; whether I have too much or too little pride, or of anything else, I leave out of the question; but certain it is, that what is called Monarchy always appears to me a silly contemptible thing. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity; but when, by an accident, the curtain happens to be opened, and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.

All hereditary Government is in its nature tyranny. An heritable crown, or an heritable throne, or by what other fanciful name such things may be called, have no other significant explanation than that mankind are heritable property. To inherit a Government, is to inherit the people, as if they were flocks and herds.

Could it be made a decree in nature, or an edict registered in heaven, and man could know it, that virtue and wisdom should invariably appertain to hereditary succession, the objection to it would be removed; but when we see that nature acts as if she disowned and sported with the hereditary system; that the mental characters of successors, in all countries, is below the average of human understanding; that one is a tyrant, another an idiot, a third insane, and some all three together, it is impossible to attach confidence to it, when reason in man has power to act.

Plenty of other things with Rights of Man aren’t quite right. The French Revolution (Part I) and the American Constitution (Part II) are fascinating and obviously relevant subjects, but both could have been discussed more concisely. Some of the footnotes, too, are miles long and delve into somewhat unnecessary detail. I do like Paine’s notion that low taxes are one of the hallmarks of good government (how many modern states would pass that test?), but more than 30 pages on taxation in Britain are still a little too much. Even that passage, however, contains some highlights, not least the carefully calculated propositions for old-age pensions, child allowance, free education and welfare benefits – things we now take for granted, but also things that didn’t come to pass in Britain until a century after Paine’s death.

Unlike some reviewers, I have no problem with the demolition of Edmund Burke. This is devastating, but seldom gratuitous. The jibes at Burke are usually used as a springboard for refutation of his points. Paine gamely admits that, albeit not without making some fun of Burke’s flowery prose:

I know a place in America called Point-no-Point, because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all. Just thus it is with Mr Burke’s three hundred and fifty-six pages. It is therefore difficult to reply to him. But as the points he wishes to establish may be inferred from what he abuses, it is in his paradoxes that we must look for his arguments.

I understand Paine’s all too human desire to get even. He seems to have been subjected to some spectacular insults. I am no longer going to pretend that I am even trying to read Burke’s Reflections, much less his lesser works. I have given up the struggle; life isn’t long enough for it. But if Tom Paine is to be believed, Burke published two works in the eleven months between the two parts of Rights of Man. In neither of them did he attempt a refutation of Paine’s arguments and principles: “I am enough acquainted with Mr Burke to know that he would if he could.” Mr Burke was asking for it, and he got it.

In Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, written in the third person and published in August 1791, Burke quoted some ten pages (according to Paine’s calculations) from Rights of Man and concluded that he “will not attempt in the smallest degree to refute them. This will probably be done (if such writings shall be thought to deserve any other than the refutation of criminal justice) by others”.

No wonder Paine was angered. He did smuggle a good deal of purely personal insults in Part I. But he mostly attacked Burke’s opinions. Indeed, he refuted them patiently with a long list of arguments. He was ready for a debate in print. He only got a lame ad hominem attack in response, without even the feeblest attempt at refutation of his refutation. Instead of counter arguments, Burke offered the author to the criminal court. In the Preface to Part II, Paine offers an answer that cannot be bettered:

Pardoning the pun, it must be criminal justice indeed that should condemn a work as a substitute for not being able to refute it. The greatest condemnation that could be passed upon it would be a refutation. But in proceeding by the method Mr Burke alludes to, the condemnation would, in the final event, pass upon the criminality of the process and not upon the work, and in this case, I had rather be the author, than be either the judge or the jury that should condemn it.

I really would have been sorry to lose passages like this. I do think English letters would have been poorer without Paine’s anti-Burkian tirades. Some of them are sheer masterpieces of imagery, irony and sarcasm. Here is a famous example, given with more context than usual:

From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

That’s the kind of pen truly mightier than the sword. Nobody had written an English prose like that before Tom Paine. Only one of his contemporaries (Gibbon) and two of his successors (Hazlitt and Shaw), in their very different ways, have managed to raise rhetorical slaughter to the heights of literary art.

Enough about Burke! Let’s read Tom Paine.

It must be said that the book’s title is something of a misnomer. The “rights of man” are not much discussed on these pages. Paine simply quotes from the Declaration by the French National Assembly: “liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression”, things we now take for granted, however exotic they may have sounded two and a half centuries ago. Paine’s real subject is rather the type of government that might best secure the rights of man. “The Social Contract” would have been a better title, but Rousseau had already taken it three decades earlier.

Rousseau and Paine make for a fascinating comparison. They seem to want the same thing, but they differ as to the means of achieving it. “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before,” says Paine, “but to have those rights better secured.” Rousseau wants to substitute “moral and lawful equality for the physical inequality which nature imposed upon men, so that, although unequal in strength or intellect, they all become equal by convention and legal right.” So far, so nice. It sounds like a place worth going to. The question is how to get there.

While Rousseau preaches about vague and rather utopian concepts like “general will”, not to mention general assemblies and Greek democracy, Paine is a hard and practical man who advocates “representation” as the best form of government. He is careful never to call it democracy, and we might do worse than follow the example. But he certainly means what we call today “representative democracy” (nonsensical phrase), and he all but raves about it. One may try to understand. Those were heady times. America had shown the way, France followed, and it was to be expected that sooner or later “all Europe may form but one great Republic” (Tom Paine looking beyond the EU), perhaps ultimately the whole world may be united by reason and representation. Talk about utopian visions!

But representation is not democracy, and even if it were it would still have much the same problems. “I wonder that the people who are concerned for the survival of democracy”, Somerset Maugham wrote in 1941, “are not anxious at the inordinate power it gives to oratory.”[1] Bertrand Russell agreed with that – “To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy.” – and went on to point out plenty of other limitations and disadvantages[2]. I would only add that the party system is equally pernicious. Party orthodoxy is more likely to produce bigoted quarrels than rational debates.

But one can hardly blame Tom Paine for not looking centuries ahead. I still wonder what he would have thought could he see America and France, not to mention Britain in the throes of Brexit, today. I somehow doubt he would have been very pleased with our achievements after two centuries of representative government.

Government is but now beginning to be known”, Tom Paine says twice, once in italics. He lived through momentous times, and he knew it. He also had faith in human reason that is not easy to match today. If there is a single message that Tom Paine tried to impart with Rights of Man, it is that man is a rational creature able to govern himself, not a dumb brute that ought to be governed in herds and flocks. The author is even more than usually emphatic on this point, including out of the blue in the digression on taxation:

It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders. To read the history of Kings, a man would be almost inclined to suppose that Government consisted in staghunting, and that every nation paid a million a year to a huntsman. Man ought to have pride or shame enough to blush at being thus imposed upon, and when he feels his proper character he will.

This was certainly a very unpopular notion in the 18th-century. It wasn’t very popular in the 20th, either, when Bertrand Russell was its great apostle, prophet and crusader. It doesn’t seem to be gaining in popularity in the 21st century. Who are the prophets of rationality today? The so-called “New Atheists” seem to be the closest approximation. Well, they look pretty small fry compared to the likes of Tom Paine and Bertrand Russell. They don’t look very influential, either.

Most people today seem to agree with what Burke apparently believed, namely that things could be left as they have been for ages – an especially convenient doctrine if you belong to the privileged class. Tom Paine would have none of this, no doubt partly because he was the son of a stay-maker, but mostly because he was, as Derek Matravers says in his nice introduction, “disinterested idealist, that most troublesome of all character-types”. It was inconceivable to him that a law should be based on a precedent, no matter how ancient. He maintained it should be based on reason, aimed at the general happiness of the people, and constantly re-examined and updated. Precedents are bad in every way:

I have always held it an opinion (making it also my practice) that it is better to obey a bad law, making use at the same time of every argument to show its errors and procure its repeal, than forcibly to violate it; because the precedent of breaking a bad law might weaken the force, and lead to a discretionary violation of those which are good.

If Paine’s optimism is hard to emulate, Burke’s pessimism is even harder to accept. It’s a bad job, Paine says, but let’s make the best of it and it will become good. It’s a horrible job, Burke says, but let’s do nothing and it might become, in time, just a little less horrible – because we’ll get used to it. My mind believes Burke is closer to what’s happening, but my heart wants to follow Paine to what might conceivably happen one day. That is not a healthy dichotomy, but there it is.

“Perhaps this is why the argument between Paine and Burke is so compelling: each of their positions is plausible, but neither wholly convinces.” So says, provocatively, Mr Matravers in his introduction. There is, however, a logical contradiction here. The Paine and Burke positions are mutually exclusive. Either you must embrace one of them or you have to reject both. You can’t have it both ways. Reason cannot become a slave of tradition without first becoming irrational and then, in time, turning into something else – religion, for example.

Personally, I also believe that “love is preferable to hate, co-operation to competition, peace to war”. These are words of Bertrand Russell[3], but I’m sure Tom Paine would have agreed with them. He might have added freedom to slavery, commerce to conquest and colonialism, and diversity of religious devotion to fanatical persecution. If you could accuse him of being way too optimistic about man’s rationality, he probably would have replied as another great writer did 207 years later: “I am not ashamed of what some may consider my naïve optimism: surely it is preferable to the all-too-common alternative, naïve pessimism.”[4] Quite so! Because if Paine is wrong and Burke right, we might blow ourselves up right away.

Last but not least, at least not for me, one of the major delights while reading Rights of Man is Tom Paine’s character. This is stamped on pretty much every sentence. It has the perfect balance of modesty and self-assurance, courage and common sense, reason and passion. A wonderful passage in the Preface to Part II encapsulates this fascinating personality, so far as it is possible, in two paragraphs:

Not less, I believe, than eight or ten pamphlets intended as answers to the former part of the Rights of Man have been published by different persons, and not one of them to my knowledge has extended to a second edition, nor are even the titles of them so much as generally remembered. As I am averse to unnecessarily multiplying publications, I have answered none of them. And as I believe that a man may write himself out of reputation when nobody else can do it, I am careful to avoid that rock.

But as I would decline unnecessary publications on the one hand, so would I avoid everything that might appear like sullen pride on the other. If Mr Burke, or any person on his side the question, will produce an answer to the
Rights of Man that shall extent to a half, or even to a fourth part of the number of copies to which the Rights of Man extended, I will reply to his work. But until this be done, I shall so far take the sense of the public for my guide (and the world knows I am not a flatterer) that what they do not think worth while to read, is not worth mine to answer. I suppose the number of copies to which the first part of the Rights of Man extended, taking England, Scotland, and Ireland, is not less than between forty and fifty thousand.

It is not surprising that one of the finest tributes ever paid to Tom Paine has come from Bertrand Russell. He defined with disturbing precision the one thing Paine’s character lacked. Ironically or not, it has proved most harmful to his posthumous reputation:

When public issues were involved, he forgot personal prudence. The world decided, as it usually does in such cases, to punish him for his lack of self-seeking; to this day his fame is less than it would have been if his character had been less generous. Some worldly wisdom is required even to secure praise for the lack of it.[5]

There is something heroic in Tom Paine’s lack of worldly wisdom. He was ready to sacrifice everything but his principles. That’s how he lost all three of his motherlands, one by birth (Britain) and two by adoption (France, America). Rights of Man, regarded as insanely subversive at the time, made him persona non grata in England. He wisely run away and was convicted in absentia for seditious libel. When he opposed the execution of Louis XVI, his French revolutionary friends quickly deserted him. He spent almost a year in a Parisian prison, not least thanks to the American ambassador who refused to help because he didn’t consider Paine his compatriot.

Finally, the publication of The Age of Reason (1794-5) – so mild today, so explosive then – made his final years in America rather unhappy. Even those who agreed with his politics could not stomach his anti-Christian position. He was never in danger of being hanged or guillotined, as he certainly was in England and France respectively, but his old American friends certainly gave him a pretty cold shoulder. The sad climax came when Tom Paine was not allowed to vote, even though he had as much right to do so as Washington or Jefferson. That must have been painful. But since he was not persecuted, Tom Paine didn’t leave in search of a new motherland. He died in 1809, aged 72, in what is today a piano bar in Manhattan with the cute name “Marie’s Crisis”.

This shifting home country is more than a little symbolic. Tom Paine was a citizen of the world long before this phrase became so hackneyed that it’s virtually devoid of meaning. He thought globally and he thought nobly: “Thus wishing, as I sincerely do, freedom and happiness to all nations, I close the Second Part.” He was so ahead of his times that the two most powerful countries at the time, plus one that was just born but would later become one of the most powerful, couldn’t keep up with him at all. No wonder. In some ways, he is ahead of our times as well.

For all of its apparently dated parts, Rights of Man remains one of the most depressingly modern books to come out of the 18th century. Too bad it is so little read today. To quote Mr Matravers for the last time: “Only the morally moribund could fail to feel its force.” But it’s more fitting to conclude with another piece of advice from Tom Paine we could do a lot worse than follow:

Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.

[1] A Writer’s Notebook (1949), Chapter “1941”.
[2] Power: A New Social Analysis (1938), Chapters 12 and 18.
[3] Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1954), Part I, Chapter 4.
[4] Arthur Clarke, Profiles of the Future, Millennium Edition, 1999, Chapter 8, prefatory note.
[5] “The Fate of Thomas Paine” (1934), reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957), ed. Paul Edwards. This essay was my introduction to Tom Paine. I had never heard even his name before. I put him on my to-be-read list immediately after I read Russell’s appreciation and, some time afterwards, discovered a great writer and a lovable human being. ( )
3 vota Waldstein | Nov 1, 2019 |
One of Paine's greatest and most widely read works, considered a classic statement of faith in democracy and egalitarianism, defends the early events of the French Revolution, supports social security for workers, public employment for those in need of work, abolition of laws limiting wages, and other social reforms
  aitastaes | Jun 18, 2019 |
  OberlinSWAP | Jul 21, 2015 |
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Nom de l'autorCàrrecTipus d'autorObra?Estat
Paine, Thomasautor primaritotes les edicionsconfirmat
Collins, HenryEditorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Foner, EricIntroduccióautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Seldon, ArthurIntroduccióautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
Ward, LyndIl·lustradorautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
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To GEORGE WASHINGTON, President of the United States of America
Sir, I present you a small Treatise in defence of those Principles of Freedom which your exemplary Virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish. - That the Rights of Man may become as universal as your Benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the Happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old, is the prayer of
Sir, Your much obliged, and Obedient humble Servant, THOMAS PAINE
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Among the incivilities by which nations or individuals provoke and irritate each other, Mr Burke's pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance.
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Wikipedia en anglès (1)

Rights of Man presents an impassioned defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality that Thomas Paine believed would soon sweep the world. He boldly claimed, "From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished. Without winds its progress from nation to nation." Though many more sophisticated thinkers argued for the same principles and many people died in the attempt to realize them, no one was better able than Paine to articulate them in a way that fired the hopes and dreams of the common man and actually stirred him to revolutionary political action.

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