Literature Study GuidesRights Of ManPart 2 Chapter 5 Summary

Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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The Rights of Man | Part 2, Chapter 5 : Ways and Means of Improving the Condition of Europe | Summary



America's revolution and subsequent new form of governing sparked a flame that will spread to other nations. Paine shows how to put these ideals into practice. The only acceptable form of government is one that makes the general happiness of its citizens a priority. Even the most civilized countries have poverty and wretchedness because of their inefficient governments. Paine believes if commerce took precedent, it would end wars and produce necessary revolutions of government. Commerce requires buyers and sellers, and so nations cannot rely on merely buying and selling the products they make—they need outsider buyers to profit. When countries wage war, they endanger their own commerce. Commerce doesn't require the military protection of navies—it just needs the "reciprocal interest" of other nations that support its commerce.

Paine feels one defect of the English government is its use of charters. Charters are "instruments of injustice" because they take away rights from some groups, leaving other groups to gain an advantage. It also means while a man is free in his town and parish, he is considered a foreigner in respect to his rights in other parts of the country—he can be expelled if he doesn't "purchase" his own naturalization. England's system of governance also keeps the aristocracy separate from the poor; therefore, they feel exempt from witnessing or relieving it. Likewise, the taxes the government levies disproportionately affect the poor. Paine likens the aristocracy to beehive drones, which neither collect honey nor form the hive, but exist just to enjoy and use it. He also claims the money tallied to support the aristocracy—provided at the public's expense—would nearly equal the money required to support the poor. One duke alone takes as much of the public's money in taxes as it would to keep 2,000 poor people alive. Paine again takes Burke to task for his view on primogeniture, which Paine deems "a law of brutal injustice." The only reason England's citizens still accept it is it's the only rule they have known.

Finally, Paine takes on the office of the king, which receives a million sterling a year, and receiving this money is its only business. It doesn't matter if the king is wise or insane, native or a foreigner. Once a king had executive power to act as judge and execute laws, but this is no longer his duty. Paine also examines the English people's taxation over time. At one point citizens were able to restrict taxation to such an extent it shrank consistently over a 400-year period. After that period, however, it ballooned to an astonishing rate despite the fact the cost of its army, navy, and officers remained the same. Paine can only deduce the increase has gone to extravagance and corruption.

Paine also sets out to show how a reduction in taxes for the poor can save a nation money overall. Part of his solution entails giving parents of poor families some of the money saved to help them rise out of poverty. Paine's long-term goal with this solution is also to "banish" ignorance from the rising generation, which in turn will guarantee forthcoming generations will not live in the same poverty. He proposes a similar "return" of money to the elderly as well, and deems this action a right rather than a charity—it is merely the legal interest of the net money each person has paid in taxes over his or her life. For the remainder of the money in his tax proposal, Paine suggests giving money to children unable to pay for school. Lastly, he proposes using whatever money is left to provide resources and money to new mothers, the newly married, and for family's funeral expenses. In addition Paine proposes using some money to build places of employment and temporary asylum in London. He believes all these measures will lead to a reduction in crime and poverty and will also make the poor as interested in supporting the government as the rich are. Another tax proposal serves to end the "unnatural and unjust" laws of primogeniture because its use naturally creates a class of poor out of those who weren't firstborn in their families.

Only when a country can say its poor or elderly are not distressed, its jails hold no prisoners, and the taxes are not oppressive can it boast about its constitution and government. It is also in the best interest of nations to ally themselves with other nations. Paine sees the revolutions in America and France as a great opportunity for England to follow suit. Furthermore, it is better to recognize the good that can be attained by a rational and nonviolent revolution than wait "for a calamity that should force a violent one." Paine also rebuts anyone calling his ideas "new" by reminding them it matters not whether "principles are new or old, but whether they are right or wrong."


Paine's final chapter advises how a representative government can be funded and run through taxation. After America's revolution, there will be no going back to the way things were before, he cautions, for "from a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen not to be extinguished." Paine sees the American and French Revolutions as torches that light the paths forward for countries such as England to rid themselves of hereditary government. He also reminds the reader that "whatever the form or constitution of government may be, it ought to have no other object than the general happiness." Paine is suggesting a government can take any shape or form as long as it remembers the rights of man and shapes itself around them accordingly. It is only when a government's objectives are money or power it becomes corrupt, weak, and unbalanced. Paine once again points to the philosophical implications and origins of a government's role, reminding the reader that "revolutions, then, have for their object, a change in the moral condition of governments." This idea ties into citizens' general happiness as a government's priority: when a government does not prioritize the welfare of its citizens, a revolution will sweep it back into place by testing its moral condition.

For the remainder of the chapter, Paine lays out the specifics of how a government such as England's can reform itself for the benefit of its nation and its people. He makes the case no nation can "flourish alone in commerce," and once England admits this, its wars with other nations will cease. A leveling must occur within society in which the aristocracy must recognize the laborers and men who actually produce the food and goods they consume. Paine's analogy likening the aristocracy to "the drones" of a beehive "who neither collect the honey nor form the hive" serves to point out how useless the titles of aristocracy are, and how little they contribute to society as a whole. Again, Paine believes once a nation is made aware of facts such as these, they can no longer return to ignorance, and then a revolution may be imminent. Citizens have ceased to see hereditary government for the injustice it is simply because they have never lived under any other form of government. Paine indicates if citizens heard about these practices in a distant part of the world, they "should conclude that the legislators of such countries had not arrived at a state of civilization." Here he drives home the point hereditary government provides an inherent danger in maintaining the status quo, for its citizens grow used to their suffering and inequality. Monarchies rely on this ignorance to keep their power, whereas "a nation under a well-regulated government should permit none to remain uninstructed."

Paine gets into the specifics of taxation, and one law he would like to see abolished outright is that of primogeniture, or the firstborn's right to inherit all the family's land and wealth, while the remaining children inherit nothing. Not only is it "unnatural and unjust," he claims, but "the country suffers by its operations" because it must then provide support to the children who were left with nothing—they become a public expense supported in part by taxes. Paine also points out how this is a strange consequence of aristocracy itself since "the peer and the beggar are often of the same family." For one of them to become rich, they must make the others poor, which reinforces the flawed system. Paine takes great care in pointing out "defects" in the system, such as when political officers in a monarchy are merely replaced by others while the same "measures, vices, and extravagances are pursued." The officers aren't the problem; it's the system itself that is fundamentally flawed. Paine also wants to create a taxation system that provides for the poor and elderly so they will experience equality of wealth and happiness. He claims only a nation that provides for the poor and keeps men out of prisons is a truly happy one and can "boast its constitution and its government." Providing for the poor is also one way to prevent unrest and riots as they will know contentment.

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