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Rights of Man | Context


American Revolution

The American Revolutionary War lasted from 1775 to 1783 and was also known as the United States War of Independence. It began when 13 of England's colonies in North America campaigned to become independent, and its success led to the formation of the United States of America. Tensions began mounting between England and the colonies when the British monarchy attempted to gain greater power over them. Massachusetts became the hotbed of activity after staging the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773 as a way to protest British taxes. In retaliation British Parliament punished the colony and replaced its elected council with a military government that began to seize the colony's weapons. This action pushed the colonies of New England to react by storming a fort to regain access to their weapons. Tensions escalated, and soon militias gathered to take on the English in various skirmishes.

The Continental Congress decided to go on the defense and elected George Washington as commander in chief. By 1776 a growing majority of the colonists were in favor of independence. On July 4 of that year, the Continental Congress signed into law the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Paine was greatly influenced by the formation of this new style of representative government and used it at length in his book Rights of Man. It also inspired the French to create their own national assembly and representative government.

Over time, the colonies allied themselves with France, Spain, and the Netherlands to fight the English. The army of the colonies formed through a coalition of various militias was known as the Continental Army. However, many of the men were farmers and laborers who lacked the necessary military training. The army struggled to keep the men paid and fed, and they lost many men to desertion and exhaustion over the course of the war. The army also faced the military might, experience, and wealth of the English army. Many English soldiers came from military families and considered it a lifelong career. The French ultimately aided the Americans in forcing the English to surrender at the battle of Yorktown in 1781 although fighting continued for two more years. England formally acknowledged the United States' independence during negotiations at the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.

French Revolution

The French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in 1799. The events that precipitated it—discussed at length in Rights of Man—were born out of the people's growing dissatisfaction with the laws of feudalism and the power of the monarchy. France's middle class was earning wealth and status, and they wished to increase their political clout—something that was withheld from them because of the laws of hereditary government. Even poor commoners were becoming more educated and yearned to become landowners in their own right. Many public intellectuals began writing on the issues at hand, arguing for social, political, and economic reform. Their ideas spread like wildfire throughout different levels of society.

Meanwhile, the monarchy worried about how to pay for the many wars it had waged over the last century and began to tax the nobility and clergy. Notably, this kind of tax was also what sparked the American Revolution 10 years prior—American citizens refused to pay a tax to the king of England. The French were inspired by stories of the American Revolution and were eager to stage a revolution of their own. The monarchy, for its part, was ill-equipped to deal with the growing restlessness among the populace.

During the French Revolution, citizens worked to destroy the concept of monarchical—or hereditary—government and establish in its place a representative government. Paine, along with many others, was inspired by what he witnessed during the American Revolution, and he believed true government should take into account the natural rights of its citizens—particularly concerning ideals of freedom and liberty. Many were also dissatisfied at the high taxes levied at the middle class and poor despite a scarcity of resources. This feeling, in turn, led to riots and looting.

Yet the nobility had no desire to give up the status and privileges it had enjoyed for centuries under the feudal system. A national assembly was formed to veto the nobility's wishes. The assembly also demanded constitutional reform, and others in the government soon joined the protest. A growing unease over these disruptions led rioting citizens to storm the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure weapons on July 14, 1789. Many saw this moment as the start of the French Revolution, and its date has since become a commemorative holiday in France. Later that year, orders were signed to abolish the feudal system. A constitution was created that embraced the rights of man and emphasized equality, freedom, and representative government.

The Constitution

Paine saw the United States as one of the most influential and inspiring forms of representative government after the country gained its independence. He doggedly believed a nation without a constitution could not claim to have a healthy government. Fifty-five delegates created the United States Constitution in 1787. It took a number of years after the American Revolutionary War ended in order to create it because the United States was now an independent country just beginning to debate and define its own principles of government. Delegates debated issues surrounding states' rights, slavery, and representation. The issue of representation came down to the idea of how many representatives each new state should have in the legislature. Another topic was that of slavery, with northern colonies voting for abolition and southern states demanding its inclusion in the Constitution. To reach a compromise, the representatives came up with the Great Compromise, leading to the establishment of a Senate and a House of Representatives to provide equal representation for all states based on their populations. Another compromise was the agreement that three-fifths of the states' slave population would be wagered into this representative count. However, Congress did not revise the Constitution to ban slavery until 1808.

The Constitution was sent first to the 13 states for inspection and ratification. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison published a series of essays that became known as the Federalist papers to persuade the state of New York to agree to the Constitution. Some of the guiding principles of the Constitution—and the ones that most inspired Paine to make his argument—centered on the ideas of independence and freedom. The Constitution aimed to create a strong representative federal government with three distinct branches that could hold each other accountable, guaranteeing no single branch would ever gain too much power. A bill of rights was introduced in 1791 to establish freedom of speech, religion, and press as well as the right to bear arms, peacefully assemble, and have a fair public trial by jury.

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