Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man

February 06, 2004


Our first paper topic is on Thomas Paine Rights of Man. The paper is due on Wednesday, February 18, in class. The question is deceptively simple: "What were the rights of man? Why were they controversial?" This handout is a brief historical background to Thomas Paine and his book.

Thomas Paine was a professional rabble rouser. He inspired the American Revolution, defended the French Revolution, and spent much of his later life trying to create a third revolution in Britain. He was acquainted with Timothy Burke, a Member of Parliament, spokesman for several ministers, advocate of religious toleration, and defender of the American Colonies during the Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s. The two men exchanged several letters in 1789.

Burke had long been a supporter of constitutional government and human rights; Paine was thus surprised when Burke first gave a speech in Parliament condemning the French Revolution in February, 1790 and then, in November, 1790, issued a long pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France. This pamphlet was written in the form of a critique of a political sermon given in November, 1789 by Richard Price, a Dissenting English clergyman, but it moved on to a complete critique of the National Assembly and its actions. Burke argued that rights and liberties were a contract between those who lived before, those now alive, and those not yet born. He identified that inter-generational transfer of rights with the inter-generational transfer of property, especially landed property, and argued that the National Assembly's expropriation of church property completely destroyed the social contract. He said more than this brief precis; Burke's book is the foundation text of modern conservativism. I flipped a coin as to whether this class would read Burke or Paine and almost assigned both. If any of you are interested in conservative thought or conservative politics I strongly suggest that you read Burke.

Burke was answered by a who's who of the British left, including enlightenment feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. The most famous reply was written by Thomas Paine from Paris. The first volume of Paine's Rights of Man, Feb 1791, was a direct and detailed refutation of Burke's pamphlet. The second volume, published in Feb 1792, was a call for revolution in Britain and in the rest of the world. Paine's books became the foundation texts of the English working-class movement. Selling them was declared a seditious libel and several booksellers were charged with this capital offence for daring to spread radical thought in cheap editions. Following Paine's later book, Age of Reason, the British government shifted from political to religious persecutions and successfully prosecuted a number of English radicals for blasphemy for selling Age of Reason, thus halting sales of Rights of Man.

For your paper, dig through Paine's book, both volumes, and figure out what he means by his title: "Rights of Man." I suggest that you look both for abstract and detailed descriptions of these rights. As you do so, ask why Paine's depiction of rights was so dangerous that people were tried for their lives for selling the book, and so attractive that English radicals continued to take that risk and spread Paine's ideas.

Posted by Red Ted at February 6, 2004 02:48 AM | TrackBack