Literature Study GuidesRights Of ManPart 2 Chapter 4 Summary

Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Rights of Man | Part 2, Chapter 4 : Of Constitutions | Summary



A constitution does not come from the government but from the people who constitute the government. A government without a constitution "is power without a right." All power has a beginning. Power that is delegated is aligned with trust while assumed power is a usurpation. When America elected to create a constitution, it was to be considered by all the people of the nation. Only then was it signed. The constitution first outlined a declaration of rights, then the forms of government and its powers, and finally the manner of elections. The constitution could be revised every seven years only by an elected convention. In this way it could be considered a "political bible."

Another distinction is there was never a contract between the people and the government, but between "the people with each other" to produce a government. Government itself has no rights, only duties. In this light the constitution itself "is the property of a nation," and not the government. This means the nation controls the government and not the other way around. Paine also takes Burke to task again for claiming there is no such thing as "the rights of man." Paine posits if there are no rights of man, then there must be the rights of something other than man—in this case, beasts. Therefore, the government can be considered a beast. Any argument to govern according to precedent is "one of the vilest systems," according to Paine. Precedents are better used as warnings than as examples. All over Europe, nations look forward while their governments look backward.

In forming a constitution, it is important to consider to what end government is necessary. Next a nation must decide what the best and least expensive means are for accomplishing this end. Paine reminds the reader yet again no matter how a constitution is arranged, all hereditary government is "a species of slavery" while "representative government is freedom." Government should consist of checks and balances and be able to continue functioning should a member die. Government should not be wealthy if its citizens are poor. If individuals in government are allotted extraordinary power or pay, they then become its center, which is how corruption forms. When one person, such as a king, holds all the power, systems are created to protects its abuses. America, for its part, has prevented this problem by allowing a president to serve for only four years (each term at a maximum of two terms).


Because constitutions are so closely linked to a true representative government in Paine's view, he devotes an entire chapter to their importance. Paine reminds the reader, "A constitution is not the act of a government, but of ... people constituting a government; and government without a constitution is a power without ... right." He wishes to clarify the government does not create its own constitution; rather the people do. It is the people themselves who constitute a government, and a constitution is a list of rules that ensure the government does not have too much power. Paine indicates how America's constitution is "the political bible of the state." He means it is a text that can be perennially referred to in order to settle matters of government and law since a well-written constitution is also allowed to be amended upon review by current governments. It will always contain the formative tenets of a nation, however. A constitution also reaffirms a government "has of itself no rights; they are altogether duties." What Paine means is representative government must serve the citizens that constitute the government. Therefore, "a constitution is the property of a nation, and not of those who exercise the government." Paine wants nations to understand it is the people who hold the power to change their government, and not the other way around.

To take this issue further, Paine claims hereditary government's power is akin to slavery while "representative government is freedom." Because hereditary government makes decisions without a constitution created by its nation, the balance of power is unequal, and, thus, a nation suffers something akin to slavery. Since representative government bases itself on a constitution created by its nation, it guarantees its freedom. Hereditary governments, on the other hand, all but guarantee an imbalance of power since any one person or institution with that much power naturally becomes the center of a government. It is from this center that "corruption generates and forms" because there is no other power to keep it in check. Those that benefit from it—the aristocracy—serve to protect this kind of power, and Paine claims this is why it has endured so long. After pointing out this abuse of power, Paine returns to the notion governments created on the inherent rights of man will naturally be able to support and correct themselves: "the Rights of Man are the rights of all generations of men, and cannot be monopolized by any." There is no money or power to be gained by the rights of man, and a true representative government works to ensure them. Therefore, it cannot be usurped or monopolized by a greater power or by any individual.

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