Full Title: Rights Of Man Author: Thomas Paine Year: 1792 Publisher: Forgotten Books
ISBN 978-1605060309 (U.S.) View It On Amazon Wikipedia
Rights Of Man was originally published in two parts. It is partly a defense of the French
Revolution — in response to a book by Englishman Edmund Burke (Reflections On The Revolution
In France, 1790) — and partly a polemic against the English form of government. It
earned Paine a conviction (in abstentia) in England for “seditious libel” against
the Crown. He was sentenced to be hanged, but he never returned to England. (He also barely
escaped execution in France, and later returned to America, dying in New York in 1809.)
What I Liked Least About It
I didn’t like that it begans as a response to Burke’s book, with quite a bit of
assumption on Paine’s part. Of course, he was writing to people who would have been
familiar with the other work and (probably?) did not expect me to be reading it more than 200
years later, when very few alive have even heard of Burke or his writing. Still, I imagine
some of Paine’s contemporary readers would also not have been familiar.
Additionally, the book seems to have been composed in a hurry, and is poorly organized. Paine
switches seemingly at random — and often without warning — from one subject to the next.
And, as noted in my review of Common Sense, my copy of this
omnibus of Paine’s works was oddly formatted, which could sometimes be tiresome, but
that of course cannot reflect on Paine.
What I Liked Most About It
Perhaps the best part of Rights Of Man, for me, is that many of the principles elucidated
therein are still applicable today, regarding the foundations of government, respect for
religious differences, and — of course — the rights of even the lowest human
beings. For example, on the topic of claiming your religion is more correct than another’s,
“Mind thine own concerns. If he believes not as thou believest, it is a proof that thou
believest not as he believes, and there is no earthly power can determine between you.
With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of its
own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of
each other’s religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore
all the world is right, or all the world is wrong.”
And, on the purpose of governments:
“Whatever the form or constitution of government may be, it ought to have no other
object than the general happiness. When, instead of this, it operates to create and increase
wretchedness in any of the parts of society, it is on a wrong system, and reformation is
The Most Surprising Thing
I expected the attacks on monarchy, and explanations of the rights of people. What surprised
me was when, early in the second half of the book, Paine suddenly breaks into an argument in
support of what is now known as “democratic socialism” — using taxpayer
money to support or help those most in need.
Paine first shows how England’s government could come up with extra spending money and
then proposes “a remission of taxes to every poor family, out of the surplus taxes”,
and “enjoining the parents of such children to send them to school, to learn reading,
writing, and common arithmetic...”
“By adopting this method, not only the poverty of the parents will be relieved, but
ignorance will be banished from the rising generation, and the number of poor will hereafter
become less, because their abilities, by the aid of education, will be greater. Many a youth...
is prevented getting forward the whole of his life from the want of a little common education
when a boy.”
Further, Paine proposes giving surplus tax money to men older than 50, who are “on the
decline”, and an even greater amount to men over 60, when “his labour ought to be
over, at least from direct necessity.”
“It is painful to see old age working itself to death, in what are called civilised
countries, for daily bread.”
He doesn’t stop there. Paine goes on to urge the government to pay for the schooling of all
children (“A nation under a well-regulated government should permit none to remain
uninstructed”), paying out to every woman who gives birth to a child, giving money to
any newlywed couple, making money available to pay for funerals for those who die while
traveling, and providing tax-funded places of employment for the poor in large cities, where
they will be fed, housed (“at least as good as a barrack”), and allowed to stay as long
as they need to “look out for better employment”.
If that isn’t enough, he proposes using tax money to pay a weekly salary to soldiers and
sailors who leave the military in peace time, because they have “unfitted themselves for
other lines of life” due to long service in war time.
For good measure, Paine then suggests taxing the estates of the wealthy:
“An overgrown estate... is a luxury at all times, and, as such, is the proper object of
taxation... Admitting that any annual sum, say, for instance, one thousand pounds, is necessary
or sufficient for the support of a family, consequently the second thousand is of the nature of a
luxury, the third still more so, and by proceeding on, we shall at last arrive at a sum that may
not improperly be called a prohibitable luxury... There ought to be a limit to property or the
accumulation of it by bequest.”
After laying out specific amounts to tax estates of varying value, the rate progressively rising
to more heavily tax the rich, Paine explains that the whole point of this tax is to
“extirpate the overgrown influence arising from the unnatural law of
primogeniture, and which is one of the
principal sources of corruption at elections.”
Where I Must Disagree
Almost everything Paine says makes sense, and is well-explained, except the actual subject
of the book, the rights of man (which I choose to intrepret as the rights of humans). It’s
also very rarely mentioned, considering the title.
When Paine does address this topic, referring to the origin of these rights, he makes some
claims that are interesting, to put it mildly.
For example, he says that the rights of
man were granted by “the Maker of man”, at the time of Creation — something
also claimed by many other thinkers and writers of the time, but something that none of them,
as far as I can tell, ever attempted to prove, or even substantiate with their scriptures. This
isn’t even a question of whether one believes in a Creator God, but of whether that god
gifted its creation with any rights at creation. It certainly isn’t mentioned in any
English version of the Bible.
He also claims: “If any generation of men ever possessed the right of dictating the mode
by which the world should be governed for ever, it was the first generation that existed.”
For this assertion, he presents no evidence nor even an argument. (And then he disagrees with
this later in the same paragraph, saying “Every generation is equal in rights to
generations which preceded it”. Which is it — one generation had more rights, or
they all have the same rights?)
To prove these previous dubious assertions, he makes another, more startling claim:
“Every history of the creation, and every traditionary account, whether from the lettered
or unlettered world, however they may vary in their opinion or belief of certain particulars, all
agree in establishing one point, the unity of man; by which I mean that men are all of one degree,
and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right, in the same manner
as if posterity had been continued by creation instead of generation.”
The claim is startling, since there are many factions of religion that do not assert that
“all men are of one degree” or that “all men are born equal”, and these
religions existed — and were known in the western world — in Paine’s time.
In case it wasn’t clear he was including women in the term “men”, he mentions
them when referring to the biblical account
of creation: “the distinction of the sexes is
pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied.” He concludes therefore that
“the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record.”
This ignores the huge implications of gender inequality presented in Genesis: (1) Man was created
first, from dirt; woman was created last (after the animals), from a part of the male. (2) The
only reason female was created at all was because “it is not good for the man to be
alone”, and only after God tried to soothe man’s loneliness by creating
animals. (3) For disobedience, man was punished with hard work; woman was punished with
“very severe” pains in childbearing and being forced into submission to her husband.
Of course, Paine could not have known that 60 years later the world would be gifted with the
Theory of Evolution By Natural Selection, nor that the science of genetics would one day
show that the human population
likely never shrunk to less than a thousand people. But even the scriptures he cites and the
creation stories he believed to be “history” do not substantiate his claims that
humans were created with rights, nor that those rights were equal.
Don’t misunderstand my argument to be that humans shouldn’t have rights, or that
they shouldn’t be equal rights — I’m a humanist, and those are among the core
values of humanism. My argument is rather that these rights don’t come from where Paine
claimed they did.
In all, I enjoyed the book. The writing was not at all convoluted despite some sentences reaching
hundred-word counts and a few paragraphs carrying over onto several pages. The writer’s
points were clear and (with a few aforementioned exceptions) well-argued. I was not as impressed
with this work as I was with Common Sense, but it is still
The strongest impression I came away with is that I need to learn more about the French Revolution
and the Age Of Enlightenment.