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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Rights of Man by Thomas Paine is both a response to a criticism of the French Revolution and a discussion of governing principles that explain why a constitutional republic is the best possible form of government.

The first part of Rights of Man discusses the French Revolution. Paine states at the outset that he's writing to correct errors made in his once-friend Edmund Burke's argument against the revolution. Paine himself, unlike Burke, was in France during the events and feels that Burke deliberately misspoke. He says that Burke once believed France would never revolt and, having been proven wrong, wants to condemn the revolution for selfish reasons.

Paine discusses the events of the revolution, the rights of the living to decide how they will be governed, and the ideals from which resistance sprang. One important point he makes in the first part of his writing is that the French Revolution wasn't merely a violent exercise but rather the logic of men protecting their natural rights. He uses the principles of the French National Assembly to prove his point. They are:

  • People are equal and free at birth.
  • Politics should be designed and implemented to protect the rights of the people.
  • France itself holds sovereignty and political authority over French citizens.

He says these are reasonable and logical principles that prove that France's revolution was justified and right. Paine points out that the government is an elected one and therefore one that is ordained by the citizens of France. The contrast to this is the English monarchy. This is his argument against Burke.

The second part of Rights of Man discusses how the government should be set up. It was dedicated to Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who participated in the American Revolution. Paine explains that the American Revolution, like the French Revolution, was justified and right. It was the result of following human nature, which is part of being alive and not given by the government.

He goes on to explain that no man is an island; rather, each person in a country is part of a community and has to contribute to the betterment of all. He says that government isn't necessary unless people can't work together to get the things they want and need. Government for the sake of government is wrong and leads to unfair burdens on the people.

Paine explains that hereditary monarchy is not the proper way to govern. Rather, representative democracy should arise from the will of the people. That's where the power of government should come from. He goes on to discuss what he considers the features of an ideal government and uses these to hypothetically guide England through releasing their hereditary monarchy and instead installing a representative democracy.

Paine also argues that representative democracies reduce the possibility of war, that money saved by switching systems of government and reducing war can be used to help the needy, and that countries should work together to ensure human rights for everyone.

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