Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Rights of Man | 10 Things You Didn't Know


By the time the French Revolution began in 1789, Thomas Paine was already a well-known—and controversial—political thinker. He'd written Common Sense in 1775 in support of the American Revolution and published Rights of Man in 1791 to support the French uprising.

Rights of Man argues that a nation's people have an inherent right to choose their own government and that the abuses of leaders need to be accounted for. Considered quite radical at the time, Rights of Man earned Paine a great deal of fame and infamy. Leaders from across Europe—as well as the Founding Fathers of the United States—read and responded to his critique of the French monarchy and his call for revolution. Paine claimed, above all, that it was the purpose and responsibility of any government to preserve the rights of its people and that leaders should work for their people, not simply rule over them. Today Rights of Man is read as an important step in establishing a framework of human rights in relation to governance as well as a critical historical document in the trajectory of the French Revolution.

1. Paine dedicated Rights of Man to George Washington.

By the time Rights of Man was published in 1791, the American Revolution was won and George Washington was serving as the new nation's first president. Paine had been a staunch supporter of American independence from Britain and was understandably pleased that Washington had formed a democratic government after leading his troops to victory. As a result, Paine dedicated Rights of Man to Washington with an inscription:

Sir, I present you with a small treatise in defense of those principles of freedom which your exemplary virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish. That the rights of man may become as universal as your benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the happiness of seeing the new world regenerate the old.

2. Paine's first publisher canceled plans to distribute Rights of Man out of fear.

Rights of Man was an extremely controversial work and thus had a very difficult path to publication. Paine's friend and publisher Joseph Johnson initially agreed to distribute the work, printing copies in February 1791. However, Johnson got cold feet immediately before releasing the book; recognizing how dangerous the backlash from a work supporting the French Revolution could be, he canceled his plans for distribution at the last minute. Although a few copies of Johnson's edition made it into the hands of Paine's close friends, Rights of Man wasn't actually made available until another publisher, J.S. Jordan, picked up the project a month later. Paine was embarrassed by Johnson's failure to publish the book, as a newspaper article announced, "Mr. Paine's reply to Mr. Burke's pamphlet was advertised for this day: and there is now not a copy to be had."

3. Paine's political thought was influenced by the public executions that took place near his childhood home.

A key element of Paine's thought—made clear in Rights of Man and his other writings—was his disdain for authoritarian rule and oppression of the lower classes. As a child, Paine was quickly made familiar with corruption and government overreach. Growing up in the town of Thetford, England, Paine lived near an infamous execution site known as "Gallows Hill," where petty criminals and enemies of the state would be taken for execution on a daily basis. Paine also lived near the courthouse where, he learned, prisoners were often sat before a jury without even being informed of their charges. The young Paine grew to understand that England didn't grant fair trials to the poor as it did to the rich and that there were different definitions of justice for each class. These childhood memories would inspire the writer to denounce such forms of injustice later in his life.

4. Rights of Man was written to defend revolutionaries, in response to another famous political treatise.

Paine's Rights of Man was actually written as a response to another political manifesto in circulation at the time. The Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke had written his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, denouncing the French Revolution as unnecessarily violent and in violation of tradition and order. Although Burke had defended the American Revolution against critics, he had come to see the French plight as radical and dangerous. Burke adamantly denied that choosing one's own government constituted a "right," and Paine responded immediately with Rights of Man. Paine criticized nearly every aspect of Burke's treatise, claiming that it was in fact the right of the people to frame their own government and that tradition should not stand in the way of justice and progress.

5. Rights of Man caused Paine to be put on trial in England—even though he wasn't there.

As a political work promoting democratic government, it's easy to imagine why Rights of Man wasn't received well by the authorities in monarchical Britain. Fearing that Paine's political thought could inspire a rebellion similar to the French Revolution in England, the British Crown denounced Paine and ordered that he be put on trial—ostensibly for seditious libel—in 1792. However, Paine was not in England at the time, so the trial was held "in absentia," meaning the court proceeded without the defendant. Without any defense, Paine was quickly found to be guilty and sentenced to death. However, as Paine never returned to England, the execution never occurred. Safely in France, Paine responded to his accusers:

If to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy and every species of hereditary government ... to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce ... to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank;—if these things be libelous, let me live the life of a libeler, and let the name of libeler be engraved on my tomb!

6. A smear campaign against Paine accused him of fraud, murder, and bestiality.

After Paine's trial in England, the British Crown went to great lengths to destroy his reputation and ensure that his revolutionary ideology did not have an impact on the monarchy. Prime Minister William Pitt initiated a smear campaign against Paine, accusing him of committing fraud, murdering his first wife, and abusing his second wife—Pitt even had newspapers refer to Paine as "Mad Tom." In addition, a vicious rumor spread that claimed Paine preferred to have sex with cats, causing his failure to consummate one of his marriages.

7. Paine slowly alienated himself from all of America's Founding Fathers.

Despite Paine's commitment to the American Revolution and promotion of the revolutionary cause with his famous pamphlet Common Sense, he quickly fell out of favor with America's Founding Fathers. Many early American statesmen believed Paine's ideas were too radical, and others almost seemed jealous of the impact Common Sense and Rights of Man had on revolutionary uprisings. John Adams, who would become the second president of the United States, complained to Thomas Jefferson that "history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine" due to the popularity of his writings. Jefferson, who'd been a friend to Paine for years, denounced him after his death and refused to let any correspondence between the two be published.

8. Thomas Jefferson endorsed Rights of Man—but immediately regretted doing so.

Thomas Jefferson initially supported the French Revolution, but his views changed after learning of the uprising's violent nature and realizing that the French government had been instrumental in winning American independence. Upon the publication of Rights of Man, Jefferson endorsed Paine's treatise and found an American publisher for it. However, he quickly had to retract this endorsement, as it was mistaken for a criticism of John Adam's Discourse on Davila, in which Adams critiqued the French Revolution. As a form of damage control, Jefferson apologized and claimed he hadn't anticipated the "dust Paine's pamphlet has kicked up here." The Founding Father learned a lesson from this embarrassment and was much more careful about endorsing political works in the future.

9. Rights of Man led to Paine's effigy being burned across Britain.

In addition to his 1792 trial "in absentia" in England, Paine was labeled a true enemy of the Crown. The British government sponsored events to publicly shame Paine, including the burning of his effigy across the kingdom. Commoners were, in several cases, paid in beer to participate in parades and festivals specifically held to condemn Paine. One account of a parade in Leeds describes:

... an image of Thomas Paine upon a pole, with a rope around his neck which was held by a man behind, who continually lashed the effigy with a carter's whip. The effigy was at last burned in the marketplace, the market-bell tolling slowly.

10. Paine's support of welfare in Rights of Man was far ahead of its time.

One idea in Rights of Man would become a standard of developed nations centuries later—but was far ahead of its time in the 18th century. Paine proposes the modern notion of welfare, or an amount of money set aside by the government to support the poorest and least fortunate members of society. In his final chapter, Paine claims that great sums of money that were levied from taxes in Britain should be redistributed to help the lower classes instead of being kept in the king's coffers. The idea of tax money being provided to maintain a minimum standard of living for the vulnerable or destitute was a novel concept at the time, but it would later be adopted by governments across North America and Europe.

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