Thomas Paine’s "Rights of Man"

The London Independent once called polemicist Christopher Hitchens “a Tom Paine for our troubled times,” and while the appropriateness of the moniker is debatable, the choice of Hitchens to write on Paine’s Rights of Man in the Atlantic Monthly Press’s Books That Changed the World series is a good one. (Other volumes in the collection include the ubiquitous Karen Armstrong on the Bible and P. J. O’Rourke, oddly enough, on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.)

Hitchens’s principal qualification for this gig is not so much a resemblance to Paine as his nice ability to see beyond historical clich?s and platitudes. The debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine over the French Revolution has over the last two centuries come to be thought of as the prototype of all arguments between conservatives and radicals. But as Hitchens points out, it was more truly a conflict between a liberal and a radical. Burke, who championed the American colonists in their struggle for independence, criticized the slave trade, sympathized with the oppressed Irish Catholics, and fought against the depredations of the British East India Company, was a classic liberal whose 1790 attack on the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France, came as a real shock to his left-wing political cronies. Paine’s Rights of Man was a direct response to Burke’s counterrevolutionary screed.

Hitchens correctly defines the “project” of Rights of Man as “in the first instance an attempt to marry the ideas of the American and French Revolutions, and in the second instance an attempt to disseminate these ideas in Britain.” Paine strongly objected to what Hitchens calls Burke’s “end of history” view, the idea that Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 had produced a close-to-perfect system of constitutional monarchy that should not be further meddled with. For Paine, revolution was ongoing if not permanent: “Little ebbings and flowings, for and against, the natural companions of revolutions, sometimes appear, but the full current of it is, in my opinion, as fixed as the Gulf Stream.”

In response to Burke’s sentimental defense of the doomed Marie-Antoinette, Paine famously attacked the principle of all hereditary monarchy. “I have always considered monarchy to be a silly, contemptible thing,” he wrote provocatively. “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 open and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter” — an image picked up many years later by L. Frank Baum in his Wizard of Oz. Aristocratic titles Paine scorned as nothing but “nick-names”: “The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character, which degrades it.”

In his famous pamphlet Common Sense (1775) and other writings of the same period, Paine had goaded the American revolutionaries to be more radical, but as the French Revolution progressed and became increasingly sanguinary, he urged moderation. Much as he disliked hereditary monarchy, he disapproved of the execution of Louis XVI and his wife on principle, enjoining the revolutionaries to “punish by instruction, not revenge.” Louis, a citizen like any other, should be given a proper trial. “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty,” Paine insisted. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his own enemy from repression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Paine’s own experiences proved the truth of this contention. The huge success of Part One of Rights of Man, with its call for the French Revolution to spread all over Europe, aroused the animus of Prime Minister William Pitt’s government, and in 1792 Paine fled to France. He was given what Hitchens describes as a “show trial” in absentia and convicted, but the popular demonstrations in his favor showed that the book had hit its mark. In France, Paine was honored and made a d?put?, or member of Parliament, but events had already begun to spiral out of control — just as Burke had predicted! — and Paine, like so many friends of the Revolution, soon found himself thrown into prison; he narrowly escaped the guillotine during the Terror. In 1802, he was welcomed back to the United States by his old friend Thomas Jefferson, now the president.

In 1793, Paine had written to Jefferson, “Had this Revolution been conducted consistently with its principles, there was once a good prospect of extending liberty through the greatest part of Europe; but I now relinquish that hope.” Burke could have said “I told you so.” But the degeneration of the Revolution into the Terror and the subsequent rise of Napoleon Bonaparte were not inevitable, as Hitchens reminds us: “Had there been no guillotine and no Bonaparte in the immediate future of France, Paine’s rebuke to Burke might have been studied to this day as a proof of the superiority of the Enlightenment and of radicalism over the hidebound attachment to tradition, faith and order.”

Like so many passionate democrats, Paine had too high a regard for the common will and mass judgment. “The greatest characters the world have known, have rose on the democratic floor,” he insisted. “Aristocracy has not been able to keep a proportionate pace with democracy. The artificial NOBLE shrinks into a dwarf before the NOBLE of nature.” One need only take a look at today’s prominent American politicians to see that this is untrue — or at least, that as many criminals and fools are regularly elevated to high office under a democracy as under a monarchy. Hitchens might have pointed that out, but does not. But then, his mandate is clearly to praise Paine rather than to question him too deeply, and indeed the brief format of the Books That Changed the World series does not really allow for any extended critique. It calls instead for an introduction and companion volume to the great book in question, and this Hitchens has produced with his usual flair.