Thomas Paine, “The Rights of Man” 1791-1792

Edmund Burke, a supporter of the American Revolution, criticized the French Revolution for its extremism and radicalism.  He thought revolution was a dangerous way to secure rights.  Moderation and gradual progress was best.  (Note that the time between the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution was 650 years.  Burke was really very patient.)  Furthermore, he preferred rights based in tradition and property.  The “abstract rights” advocated in the French Revolution would eventually lead a tyranny or democratic dictatorship.  He was an old stick in the mud but let us not entirely reject his argument without reason.  There is historical evidence to show that the pursuit of “equality” can create revolutionary dictatorships and eventually stronger, more odious states.

Part one of The Rights of Man addressed most of Burke’s questions about and attacks on the French Revolution.  To provide a brief outline, Paine begins with a defense of the attack on the Bastille as a requirement in the struggle in the battle between “freedom and slavery.”  “Mr. Burke has spoken a great deal about plots, but he has never once spoken of this plot against the National Assembly and the liberties of the nation.” (453)  He then challenges Burke on his concept of rights.  If, Paine asks, Burke accepts any rights, where did these come from, are they natural, and what acts should be taken in defense of those rights.  In the context of this rights discussion, Paine makes a critique of classic social contract theory. “The fact therefore must be, that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.” (467)  This perhaps is the only definition of government that can be palatable to anarchists – that is the collection of individual solidarities and personal contracts between free individuals, instead of an abstract deal made between the “people” and the “state” in some legendary past that binds us in perpetuity, as is commonly imagined in classical social contract theory.  In the second half of part one, Paine describes the French Constitution, provides a narrative of the revolution, and repeats the critique of hereditary monarchy. primogeniture and aristocracy that he originally presented in Common Sense.  Part one ends with a vision of global revolution.  Paine saw the French Revolution as a blow to absolute monarchy that could not shaken off.  He was correct even if it took another century and a world war.

Part two of The Rights of Man is in my mind more politically interesting and bold.  It is here that he goes beyond defending the actions of the French Revolutionaries to building a systematic argument for the origins of government, society, and rights.  In a sense, this is where Paine presents his vision of the social contract (which as we have already seen is unique).  He then spends around 75 pages suggesting an workable constitution, taxation system, and system of socially-provided poor relief and public education.  We come away with a strong case for economic equality (although he is clearly not a proto-communist – but there is much in his vision I find in Proudhon’s form of anarchism based on individual, independent producers).  The heart of his tax scheme, presented in The Rights of Man, which is very similar to a progressive taxation system, is a maximum income – which protects society from a new aristocracy, with a significant portion of government revenues being used to ensure the personal independence of all.

Let me highlight three things in the second parts of The Rights of Man that struck me on this reading of it.  First, Paine attacked the bicameral model of government reflected in the English “constitution” and the American Constitution.  This is an arbitrary division of the people’s will.  The upper house is not necessarily more sober, wise, or mature, as is commonly suggested by supporters of an “upper house.”  It also opens up the possibility that the minority can trump the majority or even in some cases, rule the majority.  Paine here is suggesting a system more democratic than what would emerge in the U.S. (although with direct election of senators we certainly have a more democratic Senate in the U.S. than the upper house Paine was worried about).  His only concession to a splitting of the legislature is that it might be wise to subdivide the single house so that legislation would be slowed down through 2 or 3 debates, before becoming law.  As an anti-statist, I guess I do not have a strong feeling either way, and for every time that an “upper house” slowed down laws I would support, it likely stopped the government from pursuing tyrannical rule of the majority.

Second, The Rights of Man makes a strong case for the necessity of equality.  We see this not only in Paine’s criticism of inherited wealth and his plan for a maximum income, but also in his plan to keep the leaders of government close to the people with salary limitations.  Now, likely Paine was more worried about the elite seizing government or people using government posts to enrich themselves.  This is not our concern now, where any decent MBA can earn salaries that make the President of the U.S. look like a pauper.  Paine’s plan for a progressive income tax, dedicated to defense, the functions of government and an elaborate scheme for social equality – an 18th century war on poverty.  He envisioned annuities for all poor families and the elderly, employment for the poor, funding for poor people’s funeral expenses, annuities for disbanded soldiers and sailors, and tax relief for widows.

Third, Paine envisioned the injustice of the criminalization of poverty.  I was struck when re-reading The Rights of Man how modern his concerns sound.  “When, in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the workhouse and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government.  It would seem, by the exterior of appearances of such countries, that all was happiness; but there lies hidden from the eye of common observation, a mass of wretchedness that has scarcely any other chance, than to expire in poverty or infamy. . . . Civil government does not consist in executions; but in making that provision for the instruction of youth, and the support of age, as to exclude, as much as possible, profligacy from the one, and despair from the other.” (604)  His solution, of course, was the creation of a social safety net based on some basic human solidarity.  “By the operation of this plan, the poor laws, those instruments of civil torture, will be superseded, and the wasteful expense of litigation prevented.  The hearts of the humane will not be shocked by ragged and hungry children, and persons of seventy and eighty years of age begging for bread.”  (633)  It is little surprise that working class agitators since the 1790s have found an ally in Thomas Paine.  While most anarchists may find him a little too married to government or limited in seeing government as the major way we as a society can come together as brothers and sisters, his commitment to equality, justice, and solidarity is remarkable and not at all stale.

Next, The Age of Reason and the memory of Thomas Paine.

Oh, and here is Christopher Hitchens on Paine.  Part 1 of 4.



One response to “Thomas Paine, “The Rights of Man” 1791-1792

  1. Pingback: William Bartram, “Travels” (Part One) A Revolutionary Naturalist | Neither Kings nor Americans

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