Literature Study GuidesRights Of ManPart 2 Chapter 3 Summary

Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Rights of Man | Part 2, Chapter 3 : Of the Old and New Systems of Government | Summary

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Summary

The old systems of government assumed power through forceful means, but new systems of government delegate their power to benefit the people. Old governments support themselves through wars while new governments support themselves through peace. Old governments exploit prejudices while new governments promote universal societies. Another distinction can be made that old governments are hereditary while new ones are representative and reject hereditary government. According to Paine, all hereditary government is tyranny since to inherit a government is also to inherit its people as though they were animals. Hereditary government has no fixed character because each king differs in his mental and moral capacity, which changes according to the temper of each successor. Any other office that requires wisdom and ability is not hereditary. By this logic Paine claims any child or idiot might become king through heredity. Even more, all the civil wars in France arose from the hereditary system. England has a similar history in its civil wars.

Representative governing systems, on the other hand, use society and civilization as the basis of their government. The order of government should follow the order of nature, in which society is continually changing. Government should bring forward in its citizens the capacity for thinking and action one sees in revolutions. Hereditary government does the opposite because it requires "obedience to ignorance." Governments should instead act on behalf of the republic to which they belong—the "public good." A republican government is one established for the public's best interest. Hence, it naturally associates with a representative government. Paine claims America is the only true republic in both character and practice. In this light it is "representation ingrafted upon democracy." In ancient Greece democracy worked on a smaller scale, but when combined with representation, it can work on a much larger scale. Government is merely a common center in which all the parts of society come together. The only way various interests can be united is through representation. While a monarchy often operates in secret, a representative government's flaws are open for all to see. A nation shouldn't have secrets, and should diffuse its knowledge among its citizens. Therefore, every man is part of his government, and thus considers it necessary to understand it. Paine also points out the flaw that, while an American must be 35 before he can become president, a boy can become king at age 18.

Analysis

After investigating the origin of present governments and explaining why some still wield power while others have disintegrated with time, Paine sets out to define the difference between hereditary and representative governments. Both systems are entirely at odds in terms of their principles and actions. Paine aligns hereditary government with "old" government and representative government with "new" government—and the new entirely rejects the old. Paine is clearly in favor of the latter as he has systematically shown the flaws—both philosophical and legal—of a hereditary government such as a monarchy. Even more, he declares, "All hereditary government is in its nature tyranny." His declaration boils down to the fact he believes power cannot—and should not—be inherited. This tyrannizes future generations who did not agree to the governing systems set forth by their ancestors.

Paine finds it abhorrent kings succeed each other based on inheritance rather than on superior moral or mental characteristics, as though they were merely animals replacing one another. When Paine claims this is "government through the medium of passion and accidents," he means entire nations are at the mercy and whim of a leader who has no other qualifications to govern and lead other than inheriting a title. The king can also declare war for any reason, a reason that may be harmful to society at large. Representative government, on the other hand, puts the power back in the hands of people to govern themselves according to a constitution. Paine believes, since to become even a mechanic requires some wisdom and training, the same should be required for a king to rule a nation. He also can find no instance in which the sons of authors have inherited the wisdom of their fathers, and thus concludes that "a hereditary governor is as inconsistent as a hereditary author."

Paine also attempts to answer the philosophical question of precisely what a government should do for its citizens. It is his belief that "the construction of government ought ... to bring forward ... all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions." In other words it is in the best interest of both the government and its citizens to inspire the kind of thinking and enlightenment that leads to revolutions because it signifies a lack of ignorance and a desire to improve the status quo. If a government can be built in such a way it can adapt to the shifting, evolving tides of the generations of its citizens, then it is a healthy government that cannot be destroyed. This thought also brings Paine to his investigation and assertion the republican form of government is what shapes a strong and fair government since it is "established and conducted for the interest of the public, as well individually and collectively." Naturally, it does not allow for any one person to gain power or dominion over another. He articulates this idea further by stating government "is no more than some common center, in which all the parts of society unite." If government and citizens begin seeing government in this light, it guarantees government will never become a singular power because everyone must be able to see how they are united by and through it. This kind of representative governing system works to "explode" ignorance since it requires an understanding of how government works and the role it plays in citizens' lives. According to Paine, this interlocking, mutually dependent relationship between citizens and government ensures peace, stability, and transparency.

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