Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, An Academic Wiki

Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)

201pages on
this wiki
Add New Page
Comments0 Share

Rights of Man was published in two parts, the first in 1791, the second a year later, in 1792. Paine spends his time writing about the definition of a constitution, supporting one over hereditary succession as a method of government. Furthermore, he states that constitutions should empower citizens with natural rights. Edmond Burke, and his publication Reflections on the Revolution in France, are the focus of Paine’s letter. Using simple style, Paine calls out Burke’s views on aristocracy directly. The text was surrounded by some controversy, and was known and read by literary and political elites in Paine’s day.


Overview Edit

Thomas Paine, born February 1837, was known for his controversial writings on many subjects during his 72-year lifespan. Common Sense, published in 1776, The Rights of Man, published in 1791, and The Age of Reason, published in 1794. The Rights of Man was written following Paine’s return from America to England during the French Revolution. Having just been a direct supporter of the American Revolution, Paine gawked at Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, both revolutions sharing the same fundamental ideals of government. Paine’s The Rights of Man, in fact, was written in direct response to Burke’s attack. 

The Rights of Man starts off as an attack on Burke’s “fury” and “frenzy of passion,” his “paradoxical genius,” among other pejoratives used by Paine to contrast with his own self-acclaimed “reason” (8-10). From here, Paine builds up the value of a constitution over hereditary succession (again, Burke’s argument), and talks about the “natural rights” of people (45). He finishes with the applications of his principles.  

Major Themes/Scenes Edit

Reason vs. Ignorance Edit

Thomas Paine first uses “reason” in the preface (to the French edition) of Rights of Man: “To reason with governments, as they have existed for ages, is to argue with brutes” (7). By old governments, Paine refers to those before representational republics (those of “priestcraft” and “conquerors”), and he place’s Burke’s hereditary system with them (48). Later, he says that Burke’s reason “cannot keep pace with” the “mightiness of reason” that the French Revolution is a part of (20). Paine defines reason by contrasting it with what it is not: anything Burke wrote about in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine calls out Burke again, saying “a monarchical reasoner never traces government to its source, or from its source” (108). Paine saw an unfairness in that. He points out that when one traces a hereditary government to or from its source, one finds that it did not begin inherited—so that source had a right to choose its own government, yet through hereditary government denies that same right to all future generations. Paine even believed: “Reason, like time, will make its own way, and prejudice will fall in a combat with interest” (156). He calls Burke’s hereditary succession a “superstition” that “cannot long resist the awakened reason and interest of man” (172). The National Assembly, a governing body in France pushing for revolution, gained support from Paine. “It is not their interest to cherish ignorance, but to dispel it,” Paine writes in contrast to Burke (76). Paine includes the National Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, which lists ignorance as one of the three “sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of Governments” (99). Arguably the most enlightening passage Paine writes on ignorance is when he uses it to imply the permanence of the French and American Revolutions’ move toward reason: “Ignorance,” he writes, “is of a peculiar nature: once dispelled, it is impossible to re-establish it,” stifling Burke’s idea of a counter-revolution in France (109). Paine even directly calls out Burke’s own ignorance in the following passage: “When Mr. Burke attempts to maintain that the English nation did at the Revolution of 1688, most solemnly renounce and abdicate their rights for themselves, and for all their posterity for ever, he speaks a language that merits not reply, and which can only excite contempt for his prostitute principles, or pity for his ignorance” (116). Paine plays reason and ignorance off one another well by tying reason to revolution and representation, ignorance to Burke and his hereditary system. 

Representational Republic vs. Hereditary Aristocracy Edit

Representational republic gets its source from res publica, Latin for “public affairs” (178). Paine connects reason with representational republic. “The representative system,” he writes, “takes society and civilisation [sic] for its basis; nature, reason, and experience, for its guide” (173). Further, he connects them: “We must shut our eyes against reason, we must basely degrade our understanding, not to see the folly of what is called monarchy” (183). And again, “the greatest forces that can be brought into the field of revolutions, are reason and common interest [res publica]” (284). Tying reason to representation, ignorance to hereditary succession: “As the exercise of Government requires talents and abilities, and as talents and abilities cannot have hereditary descent, it is evident that hereditary succession requires a belief from man to which his reason cannot subscribe, and which can only be established upon his ignorance; and the more ignorant any country is, the better it is fitted for this species of Government. On the contrary, Government, in a well-constituted republic, requires no belief from man beyond what his reason can give” (185). He further writes than in a “well constituted Republic,” representation is “equal” and “complete” (137). One admittedly wonders how idealistic Paine is sometimes when he writes with absolutes. Burke, in favor of hereditary aristocracy, looks at representation as a democratic system. Not only does Paine point out the difference between the two, but he explains that the ancient democracies were replaced by aristocracies instead of republics, “as the system of representation was not known”; therefore, “the consequence was, they either degenerated convulsively into monarchies, or became absorbed into such as then existed” (176). Of course, Paine says this was the wrong course to take, and holds the Republic as the ideal form of government. Paine admitted that America was, in his time, the only true Republic. From today’s viewpoint, however, some fallibilities of the republic, such as the wanton misallocation of wealth, have shown themselves. Is it that we have strayed from our Painean origins, or was the republic altogether not the best system of government?

Nation vs. Government Edit

Paine does not keep his ideas of representation separate from those of the nation and government; in fact, they are closely related to his idea that the government should function as part of the nation, not vice versa. The French Revolution is moving away from the idea of an oversized government and toward one based on the representation of its nation: “France, operates to embrace the whole of a Nation; and the knowledge necessary to the interest of all the parts, is to be found in the center, which the parts by representation form . . .” (140). Paine distinguishes “nation” from “government” early on, that “to reason with governments, as they have existed for ages, is to argue with brutes. It is only from the nations themselves that reforms can be expected” (7). Another important distinction Paine makes is between the English and French Revolutions’ objectives. Paine says that the English Revolution was against the men in power, but the French Revolution is against a system of government; both were acted upon by the nation. These three interrelated distinctions are prevalent in Paine’s work, the former showing Burke why his Queen and King were assaulted, the latter, the stronger point: a nation has control over its government. Many times throughout this work, Paine also makes a subtle linguistic derogatory out of Burke’s “imagination” (as though Burke knows only an image of a nation, but not its reality; 22, 24). “Monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, are but creatures of imagination; and a thousand such may be contrived as well as three” (138). Paine goes further, writing that while “[i]magination has given figure and character to centaurs, satyrs, and down to all the fairy tribe; but [aristocratic] titles baffle even the powers of fancy, and are a chimerical nondescript” (63). Paine’s use of language here is derisive, to say the least. Some might appreciate his linguistic subtlety, but in other parts his language can seem condescending. 

Relevance to Romanticism and Revolution Edit

Paine reminds one of Helen Maria Williams’ Letters Written in France, in the Summer of 1790, to a Friend in England, Containing, Various Anecdotes Relative to the French Revolution, and Memoirs of Mons. and Madame Duf—, when he writes, of the representative system of government, “it possesses a perpetual stamina, as well of body as of mind, and presents itself on the open theatre of the world in a fair and manly manner” (183). Williams wrote of the scene of France during the revolution as “the most sublime spectacle which, perhaps, was ever represented on the theatre of this earth” (2). The theatricality of the events surrounding the French Revolution were not lost on either writer. Paine’s work is about Revolution, starting from the title to its Part the First: “Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution” (1). Paine’s work is not only directly in conversation with Burke’s Reflection on the Revolution in France, but Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects and A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France. The former speaks of equality based on gender, and Paine speaks if it more generally in terms of national representation; both speak on the rights of all people, however, and were written nearly the same time—in fact, to the same person.

Sources/Relevant Links Edit

PaineRightsOfMan. Digital image. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 17 May 2015. <>.

Paine, Thomas. Paine.rights-of-man. N.p.: n.p., n.d. PDF.

Williams, Helen M. "Letters Written in France, in the Summer 1790, to a Friend in England: In the Summer 1790, to a ..." Letters Written in France, in the Summer 1790, to a Friend in England: In the Summer 1790, to a ... Google, n.d. Web. 17 May 2015.

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.