Rights of Man

Rights of Man (1791) is a political pamphlet by Thomas Paine (1737-1809). A political philosopher and public intellectual, his written works inspired both the American and French revolutions. Rights of Man elaborates on his political philosophies on the inherent freedoms of man as a response to Edmund Burke.

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Table of contents

    Rights of Man: Thomas Paine

    Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1736, in Thetford, Norfolk, England. He attended grammar school until age thirteen. Much of his free time was spent reading, writing, and self-education.

    Paine wrote his first political pamphlet arguing for better pay, The Case of the Officers of Excise (1772), while working as an excise officer. While distributing pamphlets in London, he met Benjamin Franklin, who recommended he emigrate to America, where Paine's ideas would be more accepted. With Franklin's letter of recommendation, he arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774. With Franklin's help, Paine embedded himself in the print industry, writing columns and essays for newspapers.

    Rights of man, Portrait of Thomas Paine, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Thomas Paine held a variety of occupations before becoming a revered public intellectual.

    In 1776, he released Common Sense, which was immensely popular and solidified his position as a public intellectual and political philosopher. Fifteen years later, he wrote Rights of Man in response to the French Revolution, inspired by the American war for independence.

    Rights of Man builds upon his ideas in Common Sense and details how successful the American Revolution was in spreading its principles of a republican government. The French Revolution had taken root in Europe, challenging older social orders of hereditary rule. America fought for independence and had been a colony under British rule. However, the same principles of individual rights fueled the French Revolution. The unprecedented change, followed by violence towards the monarchy and aristocracy, frightened the established social order. Edmund Burke had written a scathing critique of the French Revolution, insisting that the old order was vastly superior. Paine was inspired to write Rights of Man in response to Burke's claims.

    The Purpose of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man

    Thomas Paine's Rights of Man detailed and expounded upon the principles of individual liberty, the foundation of American democracy, and related them to the French Revolution. The ideas had spread like wildfire throughout the western world. France was an ally of the American colonies during the war for independence. Its soldiers returned home, sharing the ideals they helped fight for. The popularity gained enough momentum for the revolt of the French people, who demanded a government that considered their individual rights and addressed their common interests.

    Rights of Man: Summary

    Below is a summary by section of Rights of Man.

    Part 1, Preface

    Paine opens by addressing George Washington as his intended audience for the book. He responds to Edmund Burke's recent speech about the French Revolution. Paine and Burke are friends, and he expresses that he knows him well. However, his speech misrepresents the French Revolution. Paine was present in France for the revolution and felt the principles they fought for were the same as the American Revolution. Paine intends to respond to Burke's claims with this book.

    Part 1, Rights of Man

    Paine feels Burke's condemnation of the French Revolution is uncalled for and unjustified. Burke's position is that people do not have a right to choose their government and should follow the "wisdom" of the traditional ruling classes, such as royalty and the aristocracy.

    Paine counters that there never has nor never will be a government that will last forever. Every generation must create their own government based on their needs. To Paine, Burke favors the rights of the dead—those lineages that support hereditary tradition, the "immortality" of the law. The circumstances of the world are constantly changing, and it's only sensible that those who are alive consent to their governance. The moment a government no longer serves them, they are entitled to dismantle and replace it.

    Rights of man, Statue of Thomas Paine in Paris, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Thomas Paine was considered a hero of the French Revolution.

    However, citizens will only understand freedom and liberty once they have them. The violence of the French Revolution was a reaction to monarchy and hereditary rule, not just the king. Subjects of the king learned their violence from the oppressive government. Paine argues that the English government is one that arose out of power rather than something society created. The new French Constitution erases hereditary rights, and no one has rights over another. French officers who fought in the American Revolution brought over the same ideas. They formed their own national assembly and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

    Part 1, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens

    The citizens of France established a national assembly declaring their rights. They believe the government is corrupt and has neglected their rights. All men are born equal, and no one has authority over the others. Laws exist to protect society without infringing on the rights of others. Those rights include freedom of expression, religion, and persecution without due process of the law. Laws should always reflect the desires of the community.

    Part 1, Observation on the Declaration of Rights

    France is trying to self-correct its form of governance. Paine believes it can be an example to all societies, particularly Europe, to rid themselves of oppression.

    Part 1, Miscellaneous

    Burke asserts that government comes from wisdom and should be hereditary. Paine counters that wisdom isn't hereditary. There is no guarantee that future rulers will be wise. Paine, counter to Burke, believes citizens are wise enough to rule themselves. Liberties are threatened when future generations cannot give consent to how they will be ruled.

    Pain feels a monarchy is unnecessary. He uses decade-old America as an example. The only people who feel monarchy is necessary are those who stand to benefit from it financially, like the aristocracy. He warns that England will inevitably need to experience a constitutional change and that its wealth should belong to the people, not the government.

    Part 1, Conclusion

    History has shown that the vast majority of men under hereditary rule are oppressed and desire better conditions. Paine defines government as the managing of the interests of a nation. It is not the property of an individual or group but the society as a whole. Thus, any society is entitled to dismantle any form of government that does not support them. Paine theorizes that if all countries operated as such, there would be dramatically less war. The American and French Revolutions prove that imagination is the only limit when it comes to creating a more equitable society.

    Rights of man, political cartoon of Thomas Paine, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Thomas Paine's ideas about inherent civil liberties were considered radical in his time and heavily criticized.

    Part 2, Preface

    Thomas Paine waited a year to publish the second part of Rights of Man. While he wanted to write more, he was interested in seeing how part one would be received, and he expected more writing from Edmund Burke. He believes it is the personal duty of citizens to criticize and correct their government.

    Part 2, Introduction

    The American Revolution and its accompanying principles are what brought international attention to America's fight for independence. People of different ethnicities and religions came together on common ground. Monarchies are prone to war, and the path forward to lasting peace is through revolution that will transform societies that enshrine personal liberties.

    Part 2, Chapter 1: Of Society and Civilization

    Man precedes government. Humans naturally depend on each other. Interests held in common form the basis of regulation and laws. Humans are completely capable of governing themselves. For example, American colonies continued to operate and thrive despite the war and lack of formal government. The variety of cultures in America would seem prone to division, but it is a testament to their founding principles that the American experiment continues.

    Part 2, Chapter 2: Of the Origin of the Present Old Governments

    Throughout history, governments have become obsolete because they were imposed against the will and consent of man. Only superficially have they changed. If they are not founded on protecting the rights of ordinary men, they are destined to perish.

    Part 2, Chapter 3: Of the Old and New Systems of Government

    Old forms of government were imposed by force. New systems are representative and consensual. They reject hereditary tradition as a wild card. If fitness to rule isn't measured, then each successive generation is at the mercy of whims. Only through war can these governments sustain themselves.

    New governments use individual liberty as their bases. As societies change, so should the government. As long as it's based on the consent of the people, it will change accordingly. A monarchy is secretive, while a democratic republic is transparent.

    Rights of man, positive political cartoon of Thomas Paine, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Thomas Paine was ready to defend any society that placed a high priority on civil liberties.

    Part 2, Chapter 4: Of Constitutions

    The people who constitute a government create the basis for a constitution. There is no assumed power. It is only given by the people. When America created its constitution, only after thorough review did they sign it into law. It's also not permanent and designed to be changed with amendments. In this way, the people own the government, not the reverse.

    The constitution states the goals of the government. In America, it's to protect the individual rights of citizens. Elected officials are limited in their capacity to assume power. There are checks and balances to avoid the concentration of power. When a king holds power, they create systems to maintain their power. America, instead, has limits on how long elected officials can serve.

    Part 2, Chapter 5: Ways and Means of Improving the Condition of Europe

    The only just and fair government is one that prioritizes the happiness of its citizens. England's use of charters separates society into disadvantaged and advantaged groups. The money required to support the aristocracy could be used more effectively to support the poor. The poor should be taxed less and given more of a support network. Paine then details the redistribution of state funds to support new mothers, children, and the elderly. It shouldn't matter if ideas are new or old, but if they are "right or wrong" .1

    Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: Analysis

    There are three main ideas from Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.

    The Obsolescence of Monarchy

    Paine systematically breaks down the errors of the feudal system, aristocracy, and hereditary rule as represented by the monarchy. He feels it is arbitrary, absurd, and obsolete. In this system, the right to rule is inherited. A king's son becomes the next king. Paine argues that there is no guarantee that the next ruler is even fit to rule. Furthermore, if there's no rubric apart from inheritance, there is no incentive to be a good ruler.

    Kings and aristocrats live life removed from the people they rule and cannot empathize with them. Therefore, hereditary rule creates governance where only the rich's needs are met and will inherently be unstable and prone to being overthrown. He uses biblical examples, understanding that much of his audience is Christian. According to the Bible, the world only experienced turmoil once kingdoms competed.

    Individual Rights

    Paine advocates for a government based on individual rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom from persecution, and freedom of religion. Society existed before kings. People lived together to depend on each other and support individual needs. This idea that man can govern himself has been proven successful with the American Revolution. Now he develops these concepts further with the French Revolution.

    Right to Revolution

    Republics are based on the consent of the individuals. They derive their authority from the participation of citizens. A proper government exists to protect and enshrine the rights of individuals. The moment that the government fails in its duty, the citizens have a right to rebel, dismantle, and replace the government with a better one that suits their common interests.

    Rights of Man - Key takeaways

    • Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man in support of the French Revolution and in response to Edmund Burke.
    • Thomas Paine wrote Edmund Burke felt that hereditary tradition should govern, while Thomas Paine argued that a republic was ideal.
    • Paine believed that men have inherent rights such as freedom of expression, religion, and freedom from persecution.
    • The French Revolution fought for the rights of men and inspired Paine's writing.
    • A government derives its power from the consent of the people. If it becomes oppressive, they are entitled to dismantle and replace it.

    1Thomas Paine. Rights of Man (1791).


    1. Fig. 2 - Thomas Paine Statue in Paris (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Thomas_Paine,_parc_Montsouris,_Paris_(4).jpg) by couscouschocolat (https://www.flickr.com/people/14541549@N06) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Rights of Man

    Who wrote the Rights of Man?

    Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man.

    What is the main idea of the Rights of Man?

    The main idea of the Rights of Man is that man has inherent rights that should be protected by government of their consent.

    What did Thomas Paine argue in Rights of Man?

    Thomas Paine argued in Rights of Man that hereditary rule is obsolete now that men realize they have inherent rights and deserve a government of their own design.

    What was the purpose of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man?

    The purpose of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was to respond to Edmund Burke's critique of the French revolution and expound upon the concepts of personal liberty.

    What is the meaning of the Rights of Man?

    The meaning of the Rights of Man is that men are capable of governing themselves and are entitled to overthrow any government that threatens their personal liberties.

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    Who wrote the Rights of Man?

    When was Rights of Man published?

    Rights of Man was written as a response to

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