Thomas Paine, best known for his works Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776-1783), turns his attention to the French Revolution in Rights of Man. The book was written during a two-year period, during which Paine participated in the revolution as a member of the French National Assembly. Rights of Man comprises several books that transcend the revolution by examining the nature of human rights and the potential for nations to secure peace through the adoption of governments based on these rights. These discussions make the book an object of continuing interest.
Rights of Man is divided into two parts. Part 1 is chiefly a reply to an attack on the French Revolution made by British politician Edmund Burke in his work Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Part 2 presents a discussion of the principles of government, advocating the constitutional republic that the French Revolution had sought to establish.
Part 1, dedicated to U.S. president George Washington, presents a main essay after a brief preface. In the essay, Paine points out a number of errors made by Burke about the French Revolution. Paine’s argument is somewhat disjointed, as he moves from point to point, replying to different parts of Burke’s essay. Paine primarily describes the consequences of his fundamental disagreement with Burke on the origin of the English monarchy. Burke claims that England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 bound future generations to obeying the hereditary monarchs that follow. Paine replies by arguing that the English monarchy began with the imposition of the monarchy by William the Conqueror in 1066, and that the decisions of previous generations cannot bind those that follow any more than the dead can control the actions of the living.
Although Burke focuses on the revolt against King Louis XVI, Paine argues that the French Revolution is against the despotism of the hereditary monarchy of the French government, not any particular monarch. Burke’s error, Paine explains, leads Burke to ignore events like the fall of the Bastille, the infamous prison in Paris, and to exaggerate the violence accompanying the expedition to Versailles to force the king to Paris, events Paine details to claim that the revolution has, in fact, shown restraint in its use of force (later events of the revolution, such as the Terror, suggest Burke may have had a better sense of where the revolution was going).
Paine replies with what he argues are Burke’s random observations on government, referring to concepts more systematically described in part 2. For example, Paine’s concept of natural rights led to the formation of civil rights, which are limited to those natural rights one must exchange to achieve some goal by living with others. Paine concludes that civil governments are formed by making contracts between individuals, not governments, placing him outside the traditional thought of John Locke.
Paine’s central point is that the French Revolution emerged from reason rather than force, and that reason has guided the principles of the new government. Paine includes as reasonable the French National Assembly’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the...
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