Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was one of the most influential political writers around the turn of the nineteenth century. Shown here are the first and second parts of his influential text, The Rights of Man; each part was published separately in 1791 and 1792, respectively.
He emigrated to America in 1774 and his pamphlet Common Sense (1776) advocating American independence proved a major intellectual stimulus to the colonies’ secession from Britain. Paine lived in France in the 1790s, and was heavily involved in the French Revolution, being elected to the French National Convention in 1792. The Rights of Man (1791), Paine’s most well-known book, was in part a defence of the revolution, and was thus perceived as an attack on the monarchy in Britain. He returned to America in 1802, where his rejection of Christianity led to increasing unpopularity.
The Rights of Man was one of the most widely read books of its time. Paine argues that human rights depend on nature, and that charters, with an implication that they are granted and can therefore be withdrawn, can have no basis in law. Hereditary government, dependent on Edmund Burke’s idea of the ‘hereditary wisdom’ of the ruling classes, is clearly divisive rather than benevolent, and therefore wrong; Paine’s assertion is that a nation should be able to choose its own government, and that the role of government is to protect the family and their inherent rights.