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Paine's Rights of Man: Audio transcript

Curator Matthew Shaw talks about how this radical 1791 book helped change the world

Curator Matthew Shaw, with Thomas Paine's Rights of Man in background

Curator Matthew Shaw and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man

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My name's Matthew Shaw. I'm one of the curators of the exhibition Taking Liberties at the British Library, and I'm going to be talking about Thomas Paine's great radical work The Rights of Man, which was published in 1791 and then at the beginning of 1792.

We're showing two copies, actually, in the exhibition: quite small ones, about the size of a modern paperback I'd say. The paper's still quite bright and creamy, largely because it's made from rag and has been kept in good conditions, and the text is clear, quite bright, and obviously dates from the 18th century. This was a time of course when everything was printed by hand.

The copy we're showing has obviously been read very closely: there are lines and comments in the margins in ink that's turned brown over time. It's obviously been gone over in some detail by its owner.

It's perhaps the most famous and important radical text from the 18th century and arguably shaped the way generations have thought about politics, about democracy, and about our rights.

1791: Revolution in France

The French Revolution was received quite favourably in England initially. They thought that it was going to be a revolution much like the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. But an English Whig, and in fact quite a radical thinker for his time, Edmund Burke, wrote his book Reflections on the Revolution in France which, rather presciently, saw the terror, saw that the forces unleashed by the revolution would in fact go out of control, and he also articulated a political philosophy which was very cautious of abstract rights and reasons, very cautious about throwing out the past, very respectful for revolutions in the past such as 1688's, saying it's not our place to revisit them.

Paine was outraged by this, and there were a number of attacks on Burke - Mary Wollstonecraft, Sir James Mackintosh - but Paine's was perhaps the most influential. It's possible that Paine was also thinking about arguments that were going on during the French Revolution and he was arguing for a more radical revolution than some of the monarchists within the French Assembly.

A rebuttal for Burke

So he found a printer, eventually, for the Rights of Man, and the first part came out. It was a pamphlet, so it very much engaged with what Burke was saying. To the modern reader it might be a little bit confusing in that it's not at first glance a great clarion call for liberty and freedom in the abstract sense or in the general sense. It's very much a response to Burke's points, and he answers them point by point.

He starts off for example talking about how every age and generation must be free to act for itself in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. Paine was actually responding very precisely to Burke's argument that the glorious revolution of 1688 had to some extent preserved in aspic the English constitution and from then on it couldn't be changed. Paine thought this was ridiculous; every generation has a duty and a right to think about the best way to organise its own affairs.

It was also a bit of a mixture: it was narrative, it was history, argument - quite closely argued - but also quite rhetorically appealing. He wrote it very quickly: he dashed it off, he was responding to events in France and also in England, so it's a bit of a ragbag.

But it was quickly reprinted, and it was distributed widely. Perhaps by May 1791 50,000 copies were said to be in circulation. Of course, these were available for people to read in coffee houses, and they were passed among members of corresponding societies, so it did have quite a widespread impact. And it was the first text to damage Burke's response to the Revolution, and gave the French Revolution and the French radicals a certain amount of respectability amongst some English circles.

Paine's circle

At this time Paine was also mixing with particularly radical circles, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and also we think William Blake. In the exhibition there is William Blake's notebook, and we think, or it's argued, that there is a small drawing of Thomas Paine done about this time.

So the first part was very much a defence of the French Revolution and an attack on Burke. The second part, however, was far more radical and caused much more trouble, particularly for Paine himself.

In fact, he had trouble finding a printer, and he had to write a disclaimer in which he said Paine was the sole author, and he was indemnifying the publisher from any legal challenges that would come against him.

A century ahead of its time

It was published in February 1792. It took its cue from the first part, and it reprinted the French declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. But it also began to think about rights in terms of social rights. Paine thought it would be a wonderful idea if the Court were abolished, and if military spending could be cut. This, he said, along with a new system of taxation, would be able to replace the local Poor Rates. There could be child benefit; there could be a form of pensions for those over 60; there could also be support for those who have fallen ill; there could be education for all who needed it. These were far-reaching calls at this time.

Unlike the first part, this really caught the attentions of the authorities. They were also becoming alert to the events in France and were beginning to worry about the radical agitation in Britain. There was to some extent a fear perhaps that revolution would spread. There was a campaign for higher wages amongst the navy; the beginnings of seditious campaigns spreading the same sort of dissent as happened in France.

So this far more radical and revolutionary second part was a dangerous and seditious and libellous text.

He was beginning to feel the pressure from the government. He was being spied on by the government, quite obviously, and we have one of the letters written by one of the spies who was following Paine very closely.

Escape to France

And so Paine this time decides to go to France. He's also invited to take his seat in the French National Convention. That's the real reason he leaves, although it also was perhaps good timing, in the sense that he was likely to be brought to court.

In his absence, he's tried for seditious libel. He responded to this thus: 'If to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy, to promote universal peace, civilisation and commerce, and to break the chains of political superstition, and to raise degraded man to his proper rank - if these things be libellous, let the name of libeller be engraved on my tomb.'

However, things don't go very well for him in France. He gets mixed up in some complicated international relations and financial dealings with the Americans, and eventually he is arrested and put in prison by the Jacobins.

A dubious tale

There's a story that he was sent out to be executed, but the watchman put the mark on the wrong door, so he escaped. There's no real evidence for this, but it's a very nice story! It's more likely that he was so ill he was unable to be taken out to the scaffold or to trial.

Eventually he's released, and sees in 1799 that it would be a good idea to head back to America. He also writes some further quite important works, particularly Agrarian Justice, which develops these ideas of how social rights should be supported, how people should be able to earn a living fairly. He also writes about religion, in the Age of Reason.

In America however he doesn't find great success, and he died in penury in 1809. It's a rather sad ending.

Influence and legacy

But his stature really comes from his influence as a man who came from very humble beginnings, who was writing in what's essentially an aristocratic age, and he managed to write in a way that was accessible and engaging and really distil these great ideas of democracy, republicanism, social justice, fairness, in a way that was accessible to all. He wrote against slavery, he was for education, a minimum income - ideas which were incredibly radical at the time, and which still serve as an important and inspiring standard to all those seeking a fairer world.

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