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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

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.

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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:

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  • 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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1334

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 Citizen” (1789), noting that its first three principles are those of the revolution. These three principles are as follows: people are born free and equal, the end of political associations is to preserve rights, and the nation is the source of sovereignty and political authority. In this way, Paine argues the French system is in greater harmony with the principles of reason rather than with conquest. This argument is followed by a brief chapter on miscellaneous points of disagreement with Burke.

Paine’s concluding chapter in part 1 summarizes his position in stark terms. He argues that the government of France had been founded on election and representation and is, therefore, through reason, accepted by its citizens. He also argues that the government of England, founded on hereditary succession, is a government that could only be accepted through ignorance. With remarkable foresight, Paine ends by predicting that if all nations controlled by hereditary monarchs would change their governments, those governments would no longer be driven by an excessive need for money. This change would abolish war and establish a European congress, not unlike modern international organizations such as the United Nations.

Part 2 of Rights of Man was dedicated to Lafayette, who also had served in the National Assembly of France. After a brief preface, Paine begins with an introduction that describes the American Revolution as having been based on the principles of society and on human nature, both of which existed before any form of government. Paine writes that The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilized community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.

Government becomes necessary only when individuals cannot satisfy all of their own wants: “No one man is capable, without the aid of society, of supplying his own wants, and those wants, acting upon every individual, impel the whole of them into society.” Indeed, he continues, “Government is no farther necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilization are not conveniently competent.” Furthermore, if a government seeks to exist only for itself and its own benefit, Paine argues, then that government becomes an imposition, often through excessive and unequal taxation.

Paine then draws a contrast been the old and new systems of government. The old system is characterized by hereditary monarchy, which bases its power on self-aggrandizement and relies on war to survive. The new system is characterized by representation and bases its power on the universal benefit of all. Given these systems, it is no wonder the new system rejects the old as an imposition upon humanity with no legitimate source of power. Furthermore, the old system is inadequate to meet the purposes for which government is created by increasing, not eliminating, conflict and instability. From this Paine argues representative governments are the most compatible with republics.

This leads Paine back to his argument on constitutionalism in part 1: People use their sovereignty to write constitutions to create and restrain governments. As he discusses some of the elements of a good constitution, however, Paine’s weaknesses as a constitution-writer begin to show. For example, he advocates for a single, rather than bicameral, legislature, but ends up having to divide his legislature to preserve differences.

With these elements in place, Paine proceeds to the most ambitious part of his work: a description of how England can escape both war and the consequences of poverty through the new system of politics. By ending hereditary monarchies, the new system of government, with laws that end the surplus of money gathered by the government through unnecessarily large taxes, would reduce the level of conflict with other nations. Further, any surplus could be used to provide for the support of the poor and encourage the education of children. At the same time, this tax surplus would be used to care for the elderly and provide new employment.

Many of the arguments made by Paine in Rights of Man continue to resonate in politics. For example, Paine’s argument that representative, democratic republics are less likely to engage in war is a widely debated concept in foreign policy circles and served as a key concept in the foreign policy of U.S. president George W. Bush. The desirability of what is today called a welfare state in Paine’s concluding chapter continues to divide the spectrum of American politics. Finally, Paine’s anticipation of international organizations dedicated to human rights and to ending conflict gives Rights of Man a contemporary importance.

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