Rights of Man
Thomas Paine
1791-1792 (first editions)
1999 edition
Mineola New York, Dover Publications
ISBN 0-486-40893-0

"My country is the world, and my religion is to do good."

What an amazing book! It covers a range of political subjects, in a manner very clear and concise (for an eighteenth century writer.) It is a detailed explanation and defense of representative republican government, along with a reasoned condemnation of monarchy, based on the concept of universal rights. He condemned inherited monarchy and aristocracy on common-sense grounds, as well - they were parasites descended from conquerors, and nobility = no-ability. There is an essay on the definition of "constitution", the significance of having one, and how England does not have one. There are proposals and calculations for tax reform, international disarmament, and social security. The main target audience was the British public, and the main subject was the British political system.

"When a set of artful men pretended, through the medium of oracles, to hold intercourse with the Deity, as familiarly as they now march up the back-stairs in European courts, the world was completely under the government of superstition. The oracles were consulted, and whatever they were made to say, became the law; and this sort of government lasted as long as this sort of superstition lasted.

After these a race of conquerors arose, whose government, like that of William the Conqueror, was founded on power, and the sword assumed the name of a scepter. Governments thus established, last as long as the power to support them lasts; but that they might avail themselves of every engine in their favour, they unite fraud to force, and set up an idol they called Divine Right, and which, in imitation of the Pope, who affects to be spiritual and temporal, and in contradiction to the Founder of the Christian religion, twisted itself afterwards into an idol of another shape, called Church and State. The key of St Peter, and the key of the Treasury, became quartered on one another, and the wondering cheated multitude worshipped the invention." p.32

Rights of Man
was published in 2 sections, in 1791 and 1792. The American Revolution was well over, the US Constitution was in place, and George Washington was President. The French Revolution had just begun, and seemed to be a fairly peaceful success. (The Terror began later, in 1793.) Paine ignored American slavery, and mostly ignored women.

Edmund Burke had published long attacks on the French Revolution, accurately seeing its success as a threat to all European monarchies. Part 1 (dedicated to George Washington) of Rights of Man lists, describes and analyzes the French Rights of Man, as voted by the National Assembly. It is partly a rebuttal of Burke's version of the French Revolution, and Paine was close to that action. It is also a rebuttal of Burke's justification for the Byzantine British political and social system. Paine thought that a wave of revolution would quickly overthrow all the European tyrannies, and lead as well to independence for Latin America.

"Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is produced by the two Revolutions of America and France. By the former, freedom has a national champion in the Western world; and by the latter, in Europe... The present age will hereafter merit to be called the Age of reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world."

Part 2 describes his social schemes and calculations. Paine ascribed all wars to monarchical greed and to despotic governments' needs for tax revenues. His focus on taxes as the root of most social evils is pretty naive, but perhaps that was the hook to convince middle-class readers. Apparently the tax on beer was a major revenue source, as were the taxes on houses and on windows! Then, as now, the rich politicians passed tax laws that screwed the poor and enriched themselves.

" How strangely is antiquity treated! To answer some purposes it is spoken of as the times of darkness and ignorance, and to answer others, it is put for the light of the world." p. 134

"A nation under a well-regulated government, should permit none to remain uninstructed. It is monarchical and aristocratical government only that requires ignorance for its support." p.173

From the book jacket:

"Written in the language of common speech, Rights of Man was a sensation in the United States, defended by many who agreed with Paine's defense of republican government; but in Britain, it was labeled by Parliament as highly seditious, causing the government to suppress it and prosecute the British-born Paine for treason."

There certainly are some obscure parts. Editors should have a glossary or footnotes for some of those references and terms. What was a "commutation" tax, anyway? Or a "tontine"? A time-line for American, British and French history would be helpful, too.

I hadn't known how politically well-connected Paine was - he knew many of the American Founders, and Lafayette, and Burke. He was briefly an American diplomat.

David Kew, March 2002

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