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The Rights of Man | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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The Rights of Man | Part 1, Miscellaneous Chapter | Summary

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Summary

Paine takes Burke to task for his claim government stems from human wisdom while also claiming succession should be hereditary—since wisdom is not hereditary. He also opposes Burke's view the government is wiser than the people it governs. Burke seems incapable of tracing the rights of government and man back to their origins. The opinions of men on their government are changing swiftly in all countries as seen in the revolutions in America and France. Once people become enlightened to their situation, they cannot remain ignorant. It is precisely for this reason Paine believes there will be no counterrevolution in France. When government, such as that of the monarchy in England, is hereditary, "the liberties of the people [are] endangered." The reason for this, according to Paine, is the succeeding generation to be governed has not consented to this hereditary government—they are just doing it because this is the way it has always been. While the original king may have been appointed by the people, there is no guarantee they would also have appointed his successors.

Therefore, Paine poses the question as to whether or not a monarchy is necessary to a nation. If it is, he demands to know the nature of its services, businesses, and merits. America seems to be doing just fine without a king. Paine claims those with a vested interest in the monarchy—the aristocracy—can find reasons for it because they depend on it financially, but anyone not part of the aristocracy has no use for the monarchy because they do not benefit from it. He also cautions the people of England will at some point need to undergo a constitutional reformation similar to what took place in France. Nations and governments should not be conflated, he warns. This also means a country's money belongs to its nation, and not its government.

Analysis

Paine reiterates the notion once citizens are no longer ignorant of the ways they are being oppressed by hereditary government, they can no longer return to being ignorant. He writes, "Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: once dispelled, it is impossible to reestablish it." Revolutions prevent the continuation of old governments or the possibility a new government will operate in a similar way. Paine also addresses the question of why monarchy is still a style of government given its uselessness. He points out civil government is necessary, but nowhere within civil government will one find the monarchy. Even though revolutions are ultimately a blessing to nations, monarchic governments tremble at the thought of them because it means they will be overthrown—once citizens realize they are being used for financial gain through taxation.

Paine aims to trace Burke's argument back to its earliest philosophical origins, namely the contradictory notion hereditary government is superior and government is a product of human wisdom. Paine investigates the notion wisdom is hereditary and pointedly debunks it throughout the book. In fact, it is outright dangerous to assume the government is wiser than the people it governs. Such notions swiftly lead to the abuse of power, corruption, and attempt to keep citizens ignorant of their natural rights. Paine's critique of hereditary governments also goes back to his argument current generations did not consent to be governed by preceding generations. This is precisely what hereditary government hands down as the status quo, uncontested.

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