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Rights of Man | Main Ideas


Hereditary versus Representative Government

Much of Thomas Paine's arguments revolve around the concepts of hereditary and representative governments. His writing is first and foremost a rebuttal of English writer Edmund Burke, who criticized France's revolution and praised the English monarchy. Paine sees the monarchy and similar forms of hereditary government as unenlightened, absurd, and dangerous. It is an "old" style of government that relies on those in power remaining the same, and in citizens remaining ignorant to the fact they did not choose or agree to this style of government—their ancestors did. Paine insists each generation deserves its own style of government that reflects it. He systematically points out the flaws of hereditary government, namely wisdom and the ability to govern are inherited traits. A king can inherit the throne at age 18, causing Paine to question how wise and experienced a young king can really be at such a young age.

Hereditary government operates from a place of secrecy and the division of class with the aristocracy benefiting the most from the lower and middle classes. Hereditary government also turns war into a profitable industry, placing its citizens at risk. Representative government, on the other hand, can be found in places such as America and France, two countries that have overthrown hereditary government through revolution. Representative government operates according to a constitution that guarantees the people's liberty and equality. This form of government is able to change with the times in order to reflect the needs and desires of succeeding generations. It eliminates oppression by creating a balance of power that keeps the government in check. It also demands its citizens have knowledge about how it operates while hereditary government relies on the ignorance of the populace to maintain power. Representative government also inherently understands the natural rights of man and creates laws accordingly.

Natural Rights and Civil Rights

Natural rights are inherent rights of man, such as liberty, equality, and justice. Paine goes to great lengths to point out men are able to govern themselves as a society according to these natural rights without a government because they are inherent and morally good. Any civil right or law a nation creates should then follow from these natural rights. Paine points out representative governments are able to create constitutions that stem from these rights while hereditary governments ignore them. All governments should take into account citizens' natural rights. Government itself can be created based on these natural rights and should operate according to these principles. By following the natural rights of man, a government adapts to each generation's definition of liberty, equality, and happiness rather than have it dictated by a self-serving power. Natural rights are simply the "divinely decreed" rights of man that proclaim a right to existence, comfort, and happiness. Civil rights have to do with being a member of society and having this right protected.

Right to Revolution

One of Paine's key arguments is the right of the people to stage a revolution when they are oppressed by a government that no longer aligns with their natural rights. Paine also denies any possibility a corrupt or oppressive government can merely reform itself, claiming that "despotic" power is so deeply entrenched that cutting it off at the root is the only solution. He has great conviction a nation inherently knows the kind of government it needs, and the people can even govern themselves if there is no government in place. Governments should not be merely replaced by something similar but should be completely reinvented and reestablished in a way that mirrors the current generation. Paine's excitement at the prospect of a revolution goes back to his earlier idea America should claim its independence from England. Rather than establish its own style of hereditary government, it should create something entirely new. Paine cannot fathom why someone like Edmund Burke would be so opposed to it, and also claims a French-style revolution is precisely what a country like England needs to rid itself of a corrupt monarchy.

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