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Paine's Rights of Man

Thomas Paine was linked with both the American and French Revolutions, and his visionary two-part call for republicanism and social welfare was generations ahead of its time when published in 1791

Thomas Paine's Rights of Man 1791

Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man, 2nd ed.
British Library 523.f.19, pp.168-169
Copyright © The British Library Board

 

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Who was Thomas Paine?

Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, in 1737. Raised a Quaker, he spent the first half of his life in a series of failed jobs. He had no more success in his personal life: his first wife died in childbirth, and after separating from his second, he emigrated to America in 1774. He was armed with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, who he'd met in London. Paine turned to journalism, becoming increasingly radical - one essay attacked the very basis of slavery.

How did he come to prominence?

In January 1776 he published Common Sense. It took America by storm. There were mixed reactions but a growing enthusiasm for Paine's rallying call to revolution and independence. Common Sense set out why the general populace are not best served by a despotic government or monarchy. He felt it was impractical for America to be governed from so distant a country as Britain, and no benefits came from it. Neither did he see America as especially British, since it had been the refuge of many nationalities. Paine's Quaker origins made him opposed to violence, but he believed that the only cause for which one might take up arms was liberty. Even those who disagreed with him were inspired by his passion.

How did Rights of Man come about?

Paine remained in America throughout the War of Independence. He returned to Europe in 1787 - now, in yet another restless career move, heavily involved in the new technology of iron bridges and spending time in both England and France. When the French Revolution began in June 1789, he was supportive from the start and took the first opportunity to visit Paris and acquaint himself with events. The Rights of Man had already been started, but when Edmund Burke published an attack on the Revolution, Paine reworked his book as a response to it. It was published in two parts in March 1791 and February 1792.

What does the book say?

Paine contrasted the governments of post-revolution America and France with England's. He explored how government should support not only mankind's natural rights (life, liberty, free speech, freedom of conscience) but its civil rights (relating to security and protection). He highlighted the imbalance between those who paid taxes and those who were allowed to vote. Using detailed calculations, Paine showed how a tax system, including a form of income tax, could provide social welfare in support of those civil rights. Decades ahead of his time, he outlined a plan covering widespread education, child benefit, pensions for the elderly, poor relief and much more.

What was the reaction?

It sold tens of thousands, becoming one of the most widely read books in the western world at that time despite its relatively high price. The first part cost three shillings - roughly a day's earnings for a skilled worker such as an engineer, or enough to buy 25 pints of strong beer. The reprint was cheaper, costing only sixpence (one-sixth the cost of the first printing). The second part was published at the same time, and also cost sixpence.

When the second part appeared, the Government sought to suppress it and indicted Paine for seditious libel. He fled to France and was tried in his absence by a handpicked jury who were guaranteed a dinner and two guineas each (two week's wages for an engineer) if they found him guilty. Paine was outlawed in Britain and never returned. In France he was not only offered French citizenship but a place on the National Convention. He even contributed to the drafting of what proved to be an abortive French constitution.

What happened to Paine?

At the trial of Louis XVI, Paine voted against the King's execution, and appeared to support with people considered anti-revolutionary. He was imprisoned under Robespierre's regime and narrowly escaped execution. After his health failed, he returned to the United States in 1802. He carried on writing but met with little success. He died there in 1809, virtually forgotten, but the influence of his writings on the subsequent political landscape in the western world has been enormous.

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