Literature Study GuidesRights Of ManPart 1 Preface To The English Edition Summary

Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Rights of Man | Part 1, Preface to the English Edition | Summary



Paine first discusses his friendship with Edmund Burke, a fellow writer who took part in the American Revolution. Paine's feelings toward Burke changed after he wrote a "violent speech" against the French Revolution, a revolution Paine supported. Upon hearing Burke was going to turn his ideas into a pamphlet, Paine promises to write his own rebuttal. After reading Burke's pamphlet, Paine believes it is a misrepresentation of not only the French Revolution, but the principles of liberty as well. He has seen "enough of the miseries of war" that he has come to wish there was another way to settle differences between countries. If the courts of countries were honest, and if people were enlightened enough to see through the dishonesty, peace could be achieved. Although Americans were brought up to harbor prejudices against the French thanks to England's influence, their exposure to the French in America disproved those prejudices. After Paine spent some time in France with the secretary to the archbishop of Toulouse, he came to realize neither nation benefited from seeing the other as its enemy. Paine and the secretary wrote each other letters agreeing on the subject, and Paine passed these letters on to Burke. He hoped Burke would use the letters to dispel errors and prejudices about the French in England. However, as soon as the French Revolution broke out, Burke took the opportunity to continue to fan the flame of conflict between England and France.


Paine is a great admirer of George Washington. By addressing his book to the president of the United States of America he hopes his ideas, principles, and proposals are taken into consideration. Paine's biggest principle is also the title of his work, and he mentions it to President Washington—the rights of man should be the universal operating principle upon which nations create governments and constitutions.

Paine's preface lays out the origin and source of his argument—namely, much of it is in response to a speech and text by English thinker Edmund Burke. Burke is a supporter of England's monarchy and is highly critical of the French and American Revolutions. Paine sees Burke's line of thinking as a threat to liberty. He makes it clear he finds the "miseries of war" to be intolerable and unnecessary if nations would only adopt representative governing. However, many nations are stuck in the cycle of war because of being "duped" by the courts of monarchies. Paine points out the French Revolution was actually an opportunity for Burke to help chart a new course of thinking, but instead "he immediately began sowing the seeds of a new inveteracy, as if he were afraid that England and France would cease to be enemies." This criticism introduces a line of questioning throughout the book: What do monarchies have to gain by keeping things the same? What do citizens have to lose? It also allows Paine to make the case monarchies "get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrel of Nations." By planting the seed money is part of what's at stake, Paine begins to lay the groundwork for taxation alternatives he will later propose to replace the money earned from wars. Paine's accusation of Burke is he has made it his "study to sow discord, and cultivate prejudices between Nations." This offense is just as unpardonable as those who make their living conducting wars.

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