Rights Of Man

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History has come to regard him as the figure who gave political cogency to the liberating ideas of the Enlightenment, and his great pamphlets, Common Sense and Rights of Man, are seen as classic arguments in defense of the individual's right to assert his or her freedom in the face of tyranny.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781408632307
  • Publisher: Baltzell Press
  • Publication date: 11/16/2007
  • Pages: 284
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.64 (d)


In the Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, one of the most influential eighteenth-century proponents of American independence, presents an impassioned defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality that he believed would soon sweep the "arbitrary authority" of monarchy and aristocracy from Europe and the world. Writing as the French Revolution had just struck its most celebrated blow for freedom in the act of storming the Bastille, Paine boldly claimed: "From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished. Without consuming ... it winds its progress from nation to nation, and conquers by a silent operation. Man finds himself changed, he scarcely perceives how. He acquires a knowledge of his rights by attending justly to his interests and discovers in the event that the strength and powers of despotism consist wholly in the fear of resisting it, and that, in order to be free, it is sufficient that he wills it." Though many more sophisticated thinkers of the day argued for the same principles and many people on two continents died in the attempt to realize them, no one was better able than Paine to articulate them in a way which fired the hopes and dreams of the common man and actually stirred him to revolutionary political action. It is for this reason that Paine's writings and especially his Rights of Man - the only comprehensive account he gave of his understanding of Enlightenment humanism - are of enduring importance to contemporary readers fascinated by the ideals that motivated multitudes during the "age of revolutions" and that can still excite a passion for universal justice today.

A participant inboth the American and French revolutions and in the governments that first arose from them, Thomas Paine is best remembered as the highly popular pamphleteer whose incendiary Common Sense (published in January 1776) was largely responsible for motivating the American colonists to declare independence. He was born in England on January 29, 1737, and his impoverished early life offered scant evidence of the qualities that would later elevate him to literary and historical prominence. Taking the first available opportunity to improve his lot, he moved to America in 1775, coincidentally arriving at the time when revolutionary fervor was just taking hold. Common Sense's famous rallying call for an American declaration of independence was followed by a series of Crisis papers in which Paine inspired Washington's demoralized troops with such notorious phrases as "These are the times that try men's souls." His subsequent writings, urging the French and English to abandon their oppressive styles of government and replace them with representative republics, also met with great public success, but they had less practical effect than Common Sense and the Crisis papers. They were written with the same vigor and literary flare as his earlier works and contained numerous striking turns of phrase that remain in the public consciousness, but the revolutionary tide had begun to ebb and Paine had failed to adjust his rhetoric. By clinging overmuch to his genuinely radical egalitarianism and attacking unwarranted privilege wherever he found it, especially in the institutions of organized Christianity, he eventually alienated almost all of his onetime allies and ultimately died almost unnoticed in 1809. His words, however, went on to live a life of their own, persisting in such popularly quoted phrases as, "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil."

Few who knew Paine in his youth could have expected him to achieve what he rightly, if immodestly, called "an eminence in political literature." Raised a Quaker, like his father, in Thetford, England, he was fortunate to have been sent to Thetford Grammar School, where apparently he was sufficiently trained in English to write uncommonly lucid prose later in life. The events of his early years are little known and seem to have been largely unremarkable. He followed his father into the corset-making trade, which he seems unhappily to have pursued when no other opportunities presented themselves.

Few who knew Paine in his youth could have expected him to achieve what he rightly, if immodestly, called "an eminence in political literature." Raised a Quaker, like his father, in Thetford, England, he was fortunate to have been sent to Thetford Grammar School, where apparently he was sufficiently trained in English to write uncommonly lucid prose later in life. The events of his early years are little known and seem to have been largely unremarkable. He followed his father into the corset-making trade, which he seems unhappily to have pursued when no other opportunities presented themselves.

Paine married in 1759, but his wife died only one year later. In 1771, he married again, but this union ended in permanent separation in 1774. That same year he moved to London, where he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who was in England on behalf of the American colonies. With a letter of introduction from Franklin to his son-in-law in Philadelphia, Paine headed for America and the greater prospect of gainful employment. His budding interest in the political tumult of the time caused him almost immediately to leave the mundane tutoring job that Franklin's son-in-law had secured for him and become a journalist. It is suspected that during his first year in America Paine had a hand in writing several articles published under pseudonyms, but these offered little indication of the literary talent and rhetorical acumen that would immanently catapult him to fame.

In January 1776, at the age of thirty-nine, Paine's life of anonymous obscurity came to an abrupt end with the publication of his hugely popular pamphlet, Common Sense. The brisk and spirited arguments presented in this work in favor of American independence and against colonial reconciliation with England seized the American imagination and irrevocably turned American sentiment toward independence - the declaration of which followed only six months later.

Common Sense bore all the hallmarks of Paine's subsequent masterpiece, the Rights of Man. Stylistically, it was clear, concise, direct, and fiery. It captured the revolutionary spirit of the most elevated Enlightenment authors, brought their ideas to the level of the average reader, and injected them with an unparalleled sense of urgency. The Enlightenment's leading proponents all held that the individual, through the exercise of his or her own reason, could understand the laws of nature ordering the universe as well as those that ought to govern free and moral individuals and societies. In Common Sense Paine fused the Enlightenment's general notion of progress with the specific cause of the American colonists: "The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected.... The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling...."

Loosely echoing thinkers like Locke and Rousseau, Paine distinguished between "society," the natural product of the association of peoples based on their mutual needs and affections, and "government," the sole rational purpose of which is the protection of societies' members from threats to their pursuit of happiness and freedom. Paine cogently argued that government rests on the natural bonds of society and obtains its power and authority solely from the (often unconsciously given) consent of the governed. Monarchies and aristocracies, according to Paine, were at their core frauds that had to be maintained through ignorance and force. Their purpose was to redistribute through taxation the property of the majority to a few wealthy landowners and members of the royal court. Moreover, Paine stipulated, since the most persuasive rationale for raising unbearably high taxes was a "war of necessity," monarchies and aristocracies were inevitably driven to international provocations. In contrast, a government directly rooted in the needs and desires of its people and directly answerable to them - i.e., a representative republic - would be inclined to do everything possible to encourage peaceful relations with other nations for the sake of increased commerce and general prosperity. In light of these considerations and the unprecedented opportunity the American colonists possessed to found a benevolent republic based on the knowledge of the natural rights and true interests of all mankind, Paine argued that the idea of restoring the colonies' allegiance to the crown was unthinkable.

Following the conclusion of America's war of independence, Paine briefly retired from politics in order to pursue his scientific and engineering interests, most famously designing a single-arch iron bridge, on behalf of which he traveled to France in 1787 and then to England the following year. It was not long, however, before he was once again drawn into politics, this time by the growth of revolutionary activity in France and the publication, in November 1790, of Edmund Burke's conservative attack upon the French revolutionaries and their principles.

Burke was a member of the British House of Commons and in this role had consistently been a supporter of the cause of American independence. Paine was friendly with Burke, and the two had spent time together while Paine was in England following the American Revolution. But when Burke let loose a withering attack on the French Revolution in a speech to Parliament on February 9, 1790, and then elaborated upon it for hundreds of pages in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine could not resist taking up the gauntlet.

Excited to no end by the prospect that the French Revolution was the first European fruit growing from the seed of rational republican government planted in America, Paine was at a loss to understand how a man who had eloquently supported the American Revolution could turn upon the very principles which had motivated it at precisely the moment when they appeared to be taking hold in Europe. It was Paine's outrage at Burke's reactionary conservatism in defense of England's corrupt monarchy and bloated aristocracy that gave birth to the Rights of Man.

In the Rights of Man, Paine vigorously sets forth a comprehensive account of his extraordinarily radical Enlightenment humanism. The work was issued in two parts: the first containing both an attack on Burke's defense of the crooked English system and a description of the "rights of man" as endorsed by France's revolutionary National Assembly, the second primarily occupied with a detailed plan for using existing British tax revenue to set up a welfare state and eliminate poverty. The most important aspect of the Rights of Man is that it reveals far more explicitly than any of his other works that at the core of Paine's ideology lies a belief that political and economic inequality is rationally indefensible and morally intolerable. It was on this principle that, when push came to shove, Paine would not give an inch, whereas his more pragmatic allies recognized that, in order to actually run a government, adherence to such a principle must be curtailed.

Paine would hear none of this. Throughout his polemic against Burke, his defense of the rights to "liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression," and his detailed scheme for redistributing existing tax monies to the poor there runs a persistent theme: "It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders." The central argument of the Rights of Man is one that earned Paine some fleeting friendships in revolutionary France but ultimately cost him many allies in America and led to his being outlawed for sedition in England. It is also one that would win him few adherents among the prosperous and powerful in any nation today. The truth of the contemporary human condition, according to Paine, which needs only to be recognized in order to be changed, is as follows: Men are born by nature equal and good, content to live with a relatively equitable distribution of material goods, provided these are adequate to the maintenance of a comfortable life. But the majority of people are everywhere corrupted by a few rapacious members of the species who use force and deception to establish governments, the sole purpose of which is to satisfy their unlimited avarice. Such governments enslave their people, driving the bulk of them into desperate circumstances in order to pay for their rulers' debauchery, and conduct wars simply to legitimate excessive taxation and perpetuate a decadent status quo.

The enlightened governments that would arise in the wake of the age of revolutions would, Paine believed, be dramatically different, and he described the criteria by which they should be measured as follows: "When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government."

After publishing the Rights of Man, Paine went on to play an active role in the early stages of the French Revolution and to write the Age of Reason, the third and last of his major works, in which he attacked organized religion, and Christianity in particular, for colluding with oppressive governments in the subjugation of mankind. This work, however, merely served to further tarnish Paine's reputation in America and Europe, both of which had by this time taken big steps away from the sort of revolutionary freethinking he espoused. In fact, a rise in reactionary conservative thinking would dominate the intellectual currents of both continents for the rest of Paine's life, and so the man who first coined the phrase "United States of America" would ultimately die and be buried in the country of that name without public recognition of his contribution to its existence or to the cause of human freedom.

Paine's prediction of the global spread of representative government has been borne out by the events of the last two centuries, but his hopes that this would inevitably produce a more equitable distribution of property have not. The industrial revolution and the rise of monopoly capitalism in the nineteenth century brought with them an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and a growing trend toward the abusive treatment of labor. It was in this context that Paine's brilliantly articulate and impetuous writings against entrenched wealth and in favor of the elimination of poverty were rediscovered by American and European workers' rights movements. Though the strength of such movements has waxed and waned since the mid-1800s, Paine's stature as spokesman for the oppressed and underprivileged has slowly but steadily risen to the point where he is now celebrated in his native England and his adoptive America as, if not a favorite son, at least a remarkable and important member of the revolutionary era's political and literary pantheon.

David Taffel is the author of Nietzsche Unbound: The Struggle for Spirit in the Age of Science and managing editor of The Conversationalist, a global news and culture website. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University where his dissertation was awarded the Hans Jonas Memorial Prize for Philosophy.
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