Literature Study GuidesRights Of ManPart 1 Rights Of Man Summary

Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Rights of Man | Part 1, Rights of Man | Summary



Paine feels Burke's attack on the French Revolution is unprovoked and unpardonable. Burke once believed the French didn't have the "spirit" or support to undertake any kind of revolution—and now that it has transpired, he condemns it. In his pamphlet Burke attacks the notion people have the right to choose their own government or hold it accountable for misconduct—or even to organize a government themselves. Paine therefore accuses Burke of working against his own (and England's) interest by advocating against these rights. Burke, for his part, points out anyone who advocated for revolution in England is long since dead, and everyone has since renounced those ideals. Therefore, his thinking goes, the French are usurpers for attempting their own revolution. Paine responds in kind there can never exist any sort of parliament or government that maintains control until the end of time. Every age and generation must be free to act for itself. Every generation must create the government it needs. When people die, they no longer have any authority on how government should be run.

This notion brings up the question of the rights of man for Paine, particularly the rights of the living over the rights of the dead. Burke, he points out, is in favor of giving authority to those who are long dead. Because the dead will never encounter those yet to be born, there can be no obligation or control between the two. Men who made laws a century ago have no jurisdiction over men in the future. In a way, though, Paine sees Burke's pamphlet as helpful because it shows how necessary it is to guard against the encroachment of power. Still Burke has no proof humans have the right to endless power. When laws are carried down through succeeding generations, it is because the living consent to them—they always have the right to repeal them. Immortal power is not a human right. The circumstances of the world and the opinions of people are constantly changing, and, therefore, ideas about government should be given to those who are alive to benefit from it. If one generation decides a law has become wrong and inconvenient, they should have the right to do away with that law. Since Paine finds Burke's clauses regarding the immortality of laws to be flawed, he finds Burke's conclusions flawed as well.

Paine claims if a nation is to embrace liberty and freedom, the people must first know it before they can will it. He also points out Burke seems oblivious to the ideals and principles from which the French Revolution sprang. Burke believed the people were revolting against the king, but Paine points out they were revolting against the principles of the government itself. The government's ways went much further back than the king's reign, and, therefore, revolution was the only way to overthrow it. Paine accuses Burke of failing to notice the distinction between the monarch and the monarchy, and he is therefore unable to see the revolt was against the latter as an institution. Not even the king himself could stop the hereditary nature of the monarchy's despotism. Burke's position is shortsighted in this regard since it doesn't take into account the entire history of the monarchy. Paine believed there were "a thousand despotisms to be reformed in France" that were rooted in the monarchy. The revolution itself was about the rights of man, not a protest of one king's actions. The revolution attempted to destroy a set of principles, not a person.

Paine gives an account and defense of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, particularly in regards to what the Bastille represented—despotism. The citizens of Paris armed themselves with the weapons at their disposal and prepared not only to defend their city, but to declare themselves free. The new ministry went to great lengths to defend itself from the coming attack. But the citizens won, and the new ministry fled and the troops dispersed. He also defends the violent nature of the revolt, claiming the citizens learned it from their leaders themselves—they "retaliate the punishments they have been accustomed to behold." It's only when government learns the art of humanity that things will change.

Paine also accuses Burke of omitting a great deal of facts to suit his argument in order to "exhibit the consequences without their causes." He gives the example of an escalating conflict between the Garde du Corps and the citizens of Paris while the Declaration of the Rights of Man was waiting to be signed. The situation was defused and citizens embraced the king after the declaration was signed. All of these omissions on Burke's part prove to Paine what little credit his book should earn. However, Paine is also interested in tracing the fundamental rights of man back to their origins. Humans in the past were also once considered modern, and the humans before them ancient. This generation, too, will be considered ancient one day. If there is to be considered a precedent, it shouldn't be the pitting of one generation's authority against another's. Paine, therefore, aims to go back to the first man according to the Bible, Adam. He points out every history of religious creation agrees all humans are born equal—and the world is as new to each person born as it was to Adam. Paine argues if the Bible is the divine authority of God, then the equality of man is the oldest doctrine on record and not a modern idea. There is a distinction to be made between the natural rights of man (divinely decreed) and the civil rights of man, which follow naturally. Natural rights are a right to existence, comfort, and happiness. Civil rights deal with being a member of society and being protected and secure within it. One can apply this theory to the rights of governments as well. One kind of government rules through religious superstition—whatever the gods say is the divine law of the land. Another kind of government rules through power or the conquering of others. The third and final kind of government—the kind Paine believes in—is the kind that arises out of society. He strongly believes since humans existed before government, it must be true individuals chose to enter into an agreement with each other to create a government. Therefore, this kind of government is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise and exist.

To understand the relationship between government and man means to understand the nature of a constitution, for "a government is only the creature of a constitution." It contains the principles on which the government will be established, organized, and maintain power. Paine points out the English government is one that arose out of power rather than out of society—and therefore arose over the people rather than out of the people. Paine also points out some contrasts between the French constitution and English laws. In France every man who pays a tax is an elector. In England only one in 100 men can vote. The French constitution also allows for a proportional number of representatives per inhabitants while England has no such rule, and, therefore, an odd ratio of representatives. An Englishman is not free in his own country, Paine argues, because of its chartered monopolies. England's government does not exist to keep its power in check—it is as if it were a criminal acting as its own judge. He also posits England wages war to carry on taxes rather than the other way around, which again takes power away from its people. The French constitution, for its part, has stripped the king of his right to declare war and instead places the right on those who will pay its expense—the people. The French constitution also declares there shall be no titles, which does away with the notion of different classes.

All of these decisions affect the interests of society, such as England's law of primogeniture that declares the firstborn child in a family inherits all the family's wealth and property. The French constitution destroyed this law in order to restore the relationship of children to their parents. The erasure of this law is another blow to the concept of aristocracy. Eliminating the aristocracy means government positions are no longer hereditary, and no man owns another man or governs him by personal right. The French constitution also allows for religious tolerance, thereby guaranteeing no one religion is wrong or right. Burke, for his part, has criticized France for not uniting church and state. Paine rebuts this criticism by stating when church and state are married, they create a sort of hybrid in which the religion changes drastically from its original intent. Another difference is the French constitution names its national assembly before its king, unlike England. In France the law comes before the king.

Paine also takes issue with Burke's assumption the French Revolution sprang forth from nothing and points out the "the mind of the nation had changed beforehand." The revolution merely followed this new order of thinking. He points to the political writings that began to appear during the reign of Louis XV, which instigated a period of political inquiry throughout France. Many were also influenced by the American Revolution, particularly its constitution which recognized the rights of man and justified resistance to oppression. When French officers returned from America after its revolution, they spread the ideals of liberty in France. Throughout the process, tensions and conflicts mounted between the Parliament of Paris and the cabinet concerning taxes and establishing a new court. During this time, societies were formed in Paris to enlighten the common people and explain to them the principles of civil government. A National Assembly was then formed, freely elected by the people to act as their representatives. The people also decided to create their own constitution. It was while the king was deciding how to unite the different branches that the ministry composed of the aristocracy plotted an overthrow of the national assembly because it ran counter to their interests in maintaining the status quo. They failed, however, and the national assembly attempted no retaliation since they were busy establishing a new constitution. Its first act was to publish the Declaration of the Rights of Man.


Since Paine's book is largely framed as a response to Burke's argument against the French Revolution, he is careful to analyze Burke's ideas systematically in order to offer concrete counterevidence. Their differing points of view boil down to the government's role in the lives of its citizens. Burke believes in a hereditary, monarchical government that knows best, and Paine believes such a system is poisonous, and representative government is the only fair and just system. Paine's main critique used to dismantle Burke's argument is no government can exist until "the end of time," and therefore the concept of a hereditary monarchy is "null and void." He makes the case that because every generation is different, they must be free to act for themselves rather than have the government dictate to them from the past. Paine makes his case, "The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man." This concept of men as property is integral to Paine's argument—the monarchy considers citizens its rightful property, whereas representative government sees citizens as the society it represents. Paine demonstrates a government veers into dangerous territory when it refuses to see the humanity of its citizens. More so, Paine reminds the reader that "it is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated." Why govern according to dead men of the past, he asks, when they had no idea what the future would be like for society and its citizens? Only each current generation can know what its needs are regarding government, and so each age of government should shift and change accordingly. One generation simply cannot "control the other to the end of time" because there is no basis for the first generation's authority over succeeding generations—which is one of Paine's main problems with hereditary government.

Paine emphasizes citizens and nations should understand wholly the concept of liberty and freedom. Paine says that "for a nation to love liberty, it is sufficient that she knows it; and to be free, it is sufficient that she wills it." Liberty is a two-pronged approach: it requires citizens understand what it truly means and then act accordingly to elect a government that will enable and fulfill it. To take the issue further, Paine investigates the origins of liberty as one of the rights of man. He traces it back to God and the Bible to show that "the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record." One of Burke's main criticisms is liberty is a modern notion, and here Paine goes to great lengths to disprove him. Paine claims liberty is a "natural right" of man, and these "natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights." He makes the connection between natural and civil rights to demonstrate how governments should align themselves in accordance with upholding these natural rights and all laws should descend from them. This line of thought brings Paine to the importance of a constitution as a nation's way of guaranteeing these rights since "a government is only the creature of a constitution." It is the constitution that should create a government, not the other way around, since a constitution is made by and for the people it governs. Paine claims that "governments arise either out of the people, or over the people," and a constitution is a way to make sure only the former occurs.

Paine also wants to clarify the citizens of France did not revolt against the king himself but against the "despotic principles of the government." The king is merely a byproduct of a hereditary government, and these principles did not originate with him. Paine argues because they go so far back in history, they are "too deeply rooted to be removed," and therefore "a complete and universal revolution" is required. It's notable Paine doesn't advocate for mere orderly reformation of a corrupt hereditary government, but he instead calls for a complete teardown and rebuilding of the system as the only option. The French citizens were correct in being able to see the difference between "persons and principles"—they weren't interested in punishing the king but in restoring the rights of man to their country. Violent revolutions are not only necessary but predictable, as Paine points out, citizens "learn [violence] from the governments they live under, and retaliate the punishments they have been accustomed to behold." When a government operates according to the principle of peace, its citizens will adopt peaceful methods of resolution. When it operates according to violence and war, its citizens will resort to violent methods of resolution since "it instructs them how to punish when power falls into their hands." The only way forward, according to Paine, is to "lay ... the axe to the root, and teach governments humanity." This is why Paine advocates for revolution since governing systems can only be upended and started from scratch according to new principles that guarantee the rights of man.

The issue of who wields power and why is an important one to Paine. He abhors the concept of monarchy and aristocracy because it bestows power, wealth, and influence on those who have inherited it rather than on those who have proven themselves wise and trustworthy. Paine points out "the idea of hereditary legislation is ... as absurd as a hereditary mathematician, or a hereditary wise man." Here he shows the absurdity of "inheriting" a position of power and influence with no qualifications. Paine is so excited by the French Revolution in large part because it aimed to do away with the meaningless aristocratic titles. Paine asks, "What are they? What is their worth? ... What respect then can be paid to that which describes nothing, and which means nothing?" A title is just an inherited name. The longer citizens remain ignorant of this power imbalance, the longer they give up their natural rights of equality and representation. When they become wise to the fact the titles mean nothing, and even begin to find them contemptuous for what they represent, "all their value is gone, and none will own them." Paine points out, "It is common opinion only that makes them anything, or nothing, or worse than nothing."

This shift in the thinking of citizens is exciting to him because it shows revolutions can begin as soon as people start thinking and questioning the status quo. Speaking of the French Revolution, Paine reminds readers "the mind of the nation had changed beforehand, and the new order of things has naturally followed the new order of thoughts." This principle is important for all governments to include in their constitution.

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