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The Rights of Man | Summary

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Part 1

Thomas Paine opens his essays with an address to President George Washington, telling him he hopes the ideas he sets forth will become universal. He explains these essays were written to rebut the writer Edmund Burke, who criticized the French Revolution and praised monarchical government. Paine strongly believes the monarchy should be abolished and representative styles of government should become the norm. Monarchical governments rely heavily on war for income and industry and disregard the toll it takes on the citizens who fight it. Paine expresses deep disappointment in Burke's arguments, which he finds more appalling than the monarchs themselves who orchestrate wars. Paine believes each generation deserves a government that reflects its ideals. He also denounces Burke's claims as flawed because of the clauses in his argument.

If a nation is going to embrace newfound freedom and liberty, it must know what doing so entails. Firstly, it is important to distinguish a king from a government—the French Revolution was in response to the latter, not the former. Therefore, the revolution was about the inherent rights of man. Paine also defends the violent nature of the French Revolution since the citizens retaliated through punishments they had learned from the monarchy itself. The only way to avoid this kind of violence is for the government to learn the art of humanity.

A similar line of thinking finds Paine tracing the rights of man back to their origin because each generation has always considered itself "modern" and those in the past "ancient." Every religious history states men are born equal, and, therefore, the equality of man is the oldest doctrine on record. The civil rights of man should, therefore, follow the natural rights of man, and a government should operate based on these principles. Creating a constitution for the government based on the rights of man should also be imperative. The English government is one example government that rose through force, which contributed to the inequality of its citizens. Using this method also means the English government has no way to keep its power in check. France's constitution, for its part, takes away a king's right to declare war and gives this power to the people instead by way of a national assembly. It also takes away aristocratic titles that allow hereditary power, and it separates church and state.

The French Revolution was, in part, inspired by the American Revolution witnessed by French soldiers fighting in America. French citizens decided to create their own national assembly of representative government as well as a constitution and a Declaration of the Rights of Man. The declaration states all men are born free and equal in their rights. This is why hereditary government such as monarchies are inherently wrong since wisdom to govern is not a hereditary trait. The only people who benefit from monarchies are aristocrats. In a well-constituted nation, there is nothing to corrupt because there is no imbalance in power. Men aren't inherently enemies. Rather, governments create enemies and escalate tensions.

Part 2

America's revolution created new ideas about the role of the government and united its citizens in a common cause. Paine believes it is highly likely more revolutions against older governing systems will follow suit—which will, in turn, lead to universal peace. This outcome will happen because monarchical governments are militaristic and often instigate wars while it is in the best interest of representative governments to get along. Paine claims men don't inherently need governments because they naturally know how to govern themselves because of their mutual dependence on one another. Common interests, not governments, are what form just laws. Common interests also ensure security. A peaceful society based on the rights of man is able to regulate itself. America is one society that was able to exist peacefully once its old government was abolished and before a new one was formed.

Monarchical forms of government rely on force, with power concentrated in the hands of a few, but new systems of government put power in the people's hands. Monarchies are hereditary while representative governments are not. Paine claims hereditary governments are inherently tyrannical while representative governments are built to serve society. Society is constantly changing, and representative governments reflect these changes. Hereditary governments, on the other hand, rely on things remaining the same and work to keep citizens ignorant. Paine claims representative governments ensure various interests are united, and they operate openly for all to see. This transparency also ensures every man is involved in knowing about his government.

Constitutions are another important component of a representative government because they are written for the people. When America created its constitution, it allowed all of its citizens to comment on it before it could be signed into law. Constitutions ensure a government has duties, not rights. It also demands a government and its citizens explain why the government is necessary. Paine also sets out to introduce a system of taxation that would benefit all citizens.

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