Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man

ALTHOUGH long considered a violent revolutionary, Tom Paine may more accurately be described as an idealistic radical. When he was a member of the French convention his support was given to the Girondins, and his two treatises on the Rights of Man (1790 and 1792) contain vigorous assertions of democratic principles rather than blatantly proletarian doctrines. They were written to answer the Whig rhetoric of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. These works of Paine express and attempt to justify, earnestly, sincerely and vigorously the ideals that inspired the French Revolution. The clearness and strength of the language made Paine's treatises the gospel of the English radicals, whose indifferent education did not allow them to appreciate the flowery sophistries of Burke's more intellectual work.


AMONG the incivilities by which nations or individuals provoke or irritate each other, Mr. Burke's pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance. There is scarcely an epithet of abuse to be found in the English language with which he has not loaded the French nation and the National Assembly. Considered as an attempt at political argument, his work is a pathless wilderness of rhapsodies, in which he asserts whatever he pleases, without offering evidence or reasons for so doing.

With his usual outrage, he abuses the Declaration of the Rights of Man published by the National Assembly as the basis of the French Constitution. But does he mean to deny that man has any rights ? If he does, then he must mean that there are no such things as rights anywhere; for who is there in the world but man ? But if Mr. Burke means to admit that man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how came man by them originally ?

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity respecting the rights of man is that they do not go far enough into antiquity; they stop in some of the intermediate stages and produce what was then done as a rule for the present day.

Mr. Burke, for example, would have the English nation submit themselves to their monarchs for ever, because an English parliament did make such a submission to William and Mary, not only on behalf of the people then living, but on behalf of their heirs and posterities--as if any parliament had the right of binding and controlling posterity, or of commanding for ever how the world should be governed.

If antiquity is to be authority, a thousand such authorities may be produced successively contradicting each other; but if we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then ? Man ! Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him.

All histories of creation agree in establishing one point, the unity of man, by which I mean that men are all of one degree, and that all men are born equal, and with equal natural rights. Those natural rights are the foundation of all their civil rights.

A few words will explain this. Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are the rights of the mind, and also those rights of acting as an individual for his own happiness which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society. Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not, in all cases, competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection.

It follows, then, that the power produced from the aggregate of natural rights, imperfect in power in the individual, cannot be applied to invade the natural rights which are retained in the individual, and in which the power to execute is as perfect as the right itself.

Let us now apply these principles to governments. These may all be comprehended under three heads. First, superstition; secondly, power; thirdly, the common interests of society and the common rights of man.

When a set of artful men pretended to hold intercourse with the Deity, as familiarly as they now march up the back stairs in European courts, the world was completely under the government of superstition. This sort of government lasted as long as this sort of superstition lasted.

After these, a race of conquerors arose whose government, like that of William the Conqueror, was founded in power. Governments thus established last as long as the power to support them lasts; but, that they might avail themselves of every engine in their favour, they united fraud to force, and set up an idol which they called 'Divine Right,' and which twisted itself afterwards into an idol of another shape called 'Church and State.' The key of St. Peter and the key of the treasury became quartered on one another, and the wondering cheated multitude worshipped the invention.

WE have now to review the governments which arise out of society. If we trace government to its origin, we discover that governments must have arisen either out of the people or over the people. In those which have arisen out of the people, the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, have entered into a compact with each other to produce a government; and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise.

This compact is the constitution, and a constitution is not a thing in name only, but in fact. Wherever it cannot be produced in a visible form, there is none. A constitution is a thing antecedent to government, and a government is only its creature. The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, but of the people constituting its government.

Can, then, Mr. Burke produce the English constitution ? He cannot, for no such thing exists, nor ever did exist. The English government is one of those which arose out of a conquest, and not out of society, and consequently it arose over the people; and though it has been much modified since the time of William the Conqueror, the country has never yet regenerated itself, and is therefore without a constitution.

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