The First French Republic was born in 1789 of the revolution against the corrupt, crumbling, feudal monarchy of Louis XVI. That revolution was bitterly and eloquently denounced in 1790 by Edmund Burke in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, which, John Morley has said, “electrified” England. And it was in reply to Burke that Thomas Paine wrote his ‘Rights of Man’.
In England The Rights of Man encountered a response like no other in English publishing history. The poor pooled their pennies, supplementing it with meager savings to buy the book. The Rights of Man became an underground manifesto, passed from hand to hand, even when it became a crime to be found with it in one’s possession.
The book became a bible to thousands of citizens who dreamed of a free England. Time after time, when men were tried for treason, invariably the Crown offered as evidence to the jury the fact that these men possessed a copy of The Rights of Man.
Outlawed for treason, Paine fled to France in 1792, never to return to England again.
Thomas Paine was the premiere political “blogger” of his day, a man Thomas Edison called “one of the greatest of all Americans,” and one today’s liberals and progressives still claim as their intellectual forefather. An idealist, a radical, and a master rhetorician, Thomas Paine wrote and lived with a keen sense of urgency and excitement. In this 1791 defense of revolution, he championed the right of an oppressed people—and in particular the right of the French people—to rise up to claim their own natural rights from those who would take them away.
A spirited denunciation of the aristocracy and of hereditary government, The Rights of Man caused outrage in Great Britain with its call for democratic reforms of the English system, and Paine was convicted in absentia for seditious libel against the Crown. (He was, alas, not available to be hanged.)
In the Rights of Man, Thomas Paine presents an impassioned defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality that he believed would soon sweep the “arbitrary authority” of monarchy and aristocracy from Europe and the world. Writing as the French Revolution had just struck its most celebrated blow for freedom in the act of storming the Bastille, Paine boldly claimed: “From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished. Without consuming … it winds its progress from nation to nation, and conquers by a silent operation. Man finds himself changed, he scarcely perceives how. He acquires knowledge of his rights by attending justly to his interests and discovers in the event that the strength and powers of despotism consist wholly in the fear of resisting it, and that, in order to be free, it is sufficient that he wills it.”
Burke was a member of the British House of Commons and in this role had consistently been a supporter of the cause of American independence. Paine was friendly with Burke, and the two had spent time together while Paine was in England following the American Revolution. But when Burke let loose a withering attack on the French Revolution in a speech to Parliament on February 9, 1790, and then elaborated upon it for hundreds of pages in his famous ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, Paine could not resist taking up the gauntlet.
Excited to no end by the prospect that the French Revolution was the first European fruit growing from the seed of rational republican government planted in America, Paine was at a loss to understand how a man who had eloquently supported the American Revolution could turn upon the very principles which had motivated it at precisely the moment when they appeared to be taking hold in Europe. It was Paine’s outrage at Burke’s reactionary conservatism in defense of England’s corrupt monarchy and bloated aristocracy that gave birth to the ‘Rights of Man’.
Paine said it is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders. The central argument of the Rights of Man is one that earned Paine some fleeting friendships in revolutionary France but ultimately cost him many allies in America and led to his being outlawed for sedition in England. It is also one that would win him few adherents among the prosperous and powerful in any nation today. The truth of the contemporary human condition, according to Paine, which needs only to be recognized in order to be changed, is as follows: Men are born by nature equal and good, content to live with a relatively equitable distribution of material goods, provided these are adequate to the maintenance of a comfortable life. But the majority of people are everywhere corrupted by a few rapacious members of the species who use force and deception to establish governments, the sole purpose of which is to satisfy their unlimited avarice. Such governments enslave their people, driving the bulk of them into desperate circumstances in order to pay for their rulers’ debauchery, and conduct wars simply to legitimate excessive taxation and perpetuate a decadent status quo.
When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.
(David Taffel, Managing Editor of The Conversationalist, a global news and culture website at barnesandnoble.com)
Paine said Mr. Burke has two or three times, in his parliamentary speeches, and in his publications, made use of a jingle of words that convey no ideas. Speaking of government, he says, “It is better to have monarchy for its basis, and republicanism for its corrective, than republicanism for its basis, and monarchy for its corrective.”- If he means that it is better to correct folly with wisdom, than wisdom with folly, I will no otherwise contend with him, than that it would be much better to reject the folly entirely.
Whether I have too little sense to see, or too much to be imposed upon; whether I have too much or too little pride, or of anything else, I leave out of the question. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss, and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity; but when, by any accident, the curtain happens to be open- and the company see what it is, they burst into laughter.
I presume that no man in his sober senses will compare the character of any of the kings of Europe with that of General Washington. Yet, in France, and also in England, the expense of the civil list only, for the support of one man, is eight times greater than the whole expense of the federal government in America. To assign a reason for this appears almost impossible. The generality of people in America, especially the poor, are more able to pay taxes, than the generality of people either in France or England.
Paine further wrote, Mr. Burke, for example, would have the English nation submit themselves to their monarchs for ever, because an English parliament did make such a submission to William and Mary, not only on behalf of the people then living, but on behalf of their heirs and posterities–as if any parliament had the right of binding and controlling posterity, or of commanding for ever how the world should be governed.
If antiquity is to be authority, a thousand such authorities may be produced successively contradicting each other; but if we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man! Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him.
(Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man at publicbookshelf.com)
Thomas Paine goes on to say, The English Parliament of 1688 did a certain thing, which, for themselves and their constituents, they had a right to do, and which it appeared right should be done. But, in addition to this right, which they possessed by delegation, they set up another right by assumption, that of binding and controlling posterity to the end of time. The case, therefore, divides itself into two parts; the right which they possessed by delegation, and the right which they set up by assumption. The first is admitted; but with respect to the second, I reply, There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the “end of time,” or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void.
Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The Parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence.
The laws of every country must be analogous to some common principle. In England no parent or master, nor all the authority of Parliament, omnipotent as it has called itself, can bind or control the personal freedom even of an individual beyond the age of twenty-one years. On what ground of right, then, could the Parliament of 1688, or any other Parliament, bind all posterity for ever?
A greater absurdity cannot present itself to the understanding of man than what Mr. Burke offers to his readers. He tells them, and he tells the world to come, that a certain body of men who existed a hundred years ago made a law, and that there does not exist in the nation, nor ever will, nor ever can, a power to alter it. Under how many subtleties or absurdities has the divine right to govern been imposed on the credulity of mankind? Mr. Burke has discovered a new one, and he has shortened his journey to Rome by appealing to the power of this infallible Parliament of former days, and he produces what it has done as of divine authority, for that power must certainly be more than human which no human power to the end of time can alter.
The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living or the dead?
The Parliament, imperfectly and capriciously elected as it is, is nevertheless supposed to hold the national purse in trust for the nation; but in the manner in which a Parliament is constructed it is like a man being both mortgagor and mortgagee, and in the case of misapplication of trust it is the criminal sitting in judgment upon himself. If those who vote the supplies are the same persons who receive the supplies when voted, and are to account for the expenditure of those supplies to those who voted them, it is themselves accountable to themselves, and the Comedy of Errors concludes with the pantomime of Hush. Neither the Ministerial party nor the Opposition will touch upon this case. The national purse is the common hack which each mounts upon. It is like what the country people call “Ride and tie, you ride a little way, and then I”.
The French Constitution says, there shall be no titles; and, of consequence, all that class of equivocal generation which in some countries is called “aristocracy” and in others “nobility,” is done away, and the peer is exalted into the Man.
Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character, which degrades it. It reduces man into the diminutive of man in things which are great, and the counterfeit of women in things which are little. It talks about its fine blue ribbon like a girl, and shows its new garter like a child. A certain writer, of some antiquity, says: “When I was a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
It is, properly, from the elevated mind of France that the folly of titles has fallen. It has outgrown the baby clothes of Count and Duke, and breeched itself in manhood. France has not leveled, it has exalted. It has put down the dwarf, to set up the man. The punyism of a senseless word like Duke, Count or Earl has ceased to please. Even those who possessed them have disowned the gibberish, and as they outgrew the rickets, have despised the rattle. The genuine mind of man, thirsting for its native home, society, contemns the gewgaws that separate him from it. Titles are like circles drawn by the magician’s wand, to contract the sphere of man’s felicity. He lives immured within the Bastille of a word, and surveys at a distance the envied life of man.
Is it, then, any wonder that titles should fall in France? Is it not a greater wonder that they should be kept up anywhere? What are they? What is their worth, and “what is their amount?” When we think or speak of a Judge or a General, we associate with it the ideas of office and character; we think of gravity in one and bravery in the other; but when we use the word merely as a title, no ideas associate with it. Through all the vocabulary of Adam there is not such an animal as a Duke or a Count; neither can we connect any certain ideas with the words. Whether they mean strength or weakness, wisdom or folly, a child or a man, or the rider or the horse, is all equivocal. What respect then can be paid to that which describes nothing, and which means nothing? Imagination has given figure and character to centaurs, satyrs, and down to all the fairy tribe; but titles baffle even the powers of fancy, and are a chimerical nondescript.
The French Constitution hath abolished or renounced Toleration and Intolerance also, and hath established ‘Universal Right Of Conscience’. Toleration is not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding Liberty of Conscience, and the other of granting it. The one is the Pope armed with fire and faggot, and the other is the Pope selling or granting indulgences. The former is church and state, and the latter is church and traffic.
(The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine at ebooks.adelaide.edu.au)
Paine urged political rights for all men because of their natural equality. All forms of hereditary government, including the British constitution, were condemned because they were based on farce or force. Only a democratic republic could be trusted to protect the equal political rights of all men. Paine attacks the notion of monarchy and privilege. Unlike Burke, who supported hereditary privilege, Paine argues that each generation has the right to establish its own system of government. No nation can legally be ruled by a hereditary monarchy. Hereditary power is by definition illegitimate. No generation has the right to establish a government binding on future generations.
Part II was even more radical for Paine argued for a whole program of social legislation to deal with the shocking condition of the poor. Paine uses the example of the American Revolution and the new American constitutional government to demonstrate the superiority of a republican over a monarchical system. Monarchies foster wastefulness and courtly excesses while republics encourage frugality and fiscal responsibility. Monarchies lead to war, republics to peace. Framed by elected representatives and approved by the people of a nation, constitutions form the basis of all legitimate governments. Like Rousseau and Locke before him, Paine believed that environmental influences create the individual and that a benevolent form of government can bring about human happiness. This basic assumption continues to inform our political debates today.
This tract is an example of 18th century positivism. Paine argues throughout that humankind can reach its full potential under republican governments which allow individuals to live free of privilege and caste.
Three generations would pass before even a small part of the things Paine pleaded for in his book would see fruition. The book had effect. It shook the government; it set thousands of people to thinking. Everywhere men longed for freedom, Rights of Man became an inspiration and did see to the people that still there was hope.
Paine immediately immersed himself in French affairs although he still hoped to see a revolution in Britain.
(In OrIoN NebuLa at mamdoca.blogs.uv.es)

One thought on “RIGHTS OF MAN

  1. Pingback: Thomas Paine’s Quote about Titles | The Muslim Times

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