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The Rights of Man

 

The Rights of Man

Rights of Man
Title page from the first edition
Author Thomas Paine
Country Britain
Language English
Subject The French Revolution
Publication date 1791

Rights of Man (1791), a book by Thomas Paine, including 31 articles, posits that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard its people, their natural rights. Using these points as a base it defends the French Revolution against Edmund Burke's attack in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).[1]

It was published in two parts in March 1791 and February 1792.[2]

Background

Paine's Rights of Man was a response to his friend Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France that had first appeared in November 1790.[3] Rights of Man was printed by Joseph Johnson for publication on 21 February 1791, then withdrawn for fear of prosecution.[3] J. S. Jordan stepped in and published it on 16 March.[3]

Arguments

Paine argues that the interests of the monarch and his people are united, and insists that the French Revolution should be understood as one which attacks the despotic principles of the French monarchy, not the king himself, and he takes the Bastille to symbolise the despotism that had been overthrown.[3]

Human rights originate in Nature, thus, rights cannot be granted via political charter, because that implies that rights are legally revocable, hence, would be privileges:

It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few... They... consequently are instruments of injustice ... The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract 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.

Government's sole purpose is safeguarding the family and their inherent, inalienable rights; each societal institution that does not benefit the nation is illegitimate — especially monarchy and aristocracy. The book's acumen derives from the Age of Enlightenment, especially from the Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke.

The fuller development of this position seems to have been worked out one night in France after an evening spent with Thomas Jefferson, and possibly Lafayette, discussing a pamphlet by the Philadelphia conservative James Wilson on the proposed federal constitution.[3]

Aristocracy

Principally, Rights of Man opposes the idea of hereditary government – the belief that dictatorial government is necessary, because of man's corrupt, essential nature. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) Edmund Burke says that true social stability arises if the nation's poor majority are governed by a minority of wealthy aristocrats, and that lawful inheritance of power (wealth, religious, governing) ensured the propriety of political power being the exclusive domain of the nation's élite social class – the nobility.

Rights of Man denounces Burke's assertion of the nobility's inherent hereditary wisdom; countering the implication that a nation has not a right to form a Government for governing itself. Paine refutes Burke's definition of Government as "a contrivance of human wisdom". Instead, Paine argues that Government is a contrivance of man, and it follows that hereditary succession and hereditary rights to govern cannot compose a Government – because the wisdom to govern cannot be inherited.

Analysis and public impact

According to Mark Philp, "In many respects Rights of Man is a disordered mix of narrative, principled argument, and rhetorical appeal—betraying the composite materials Paine used and the speed with which it was composed."[3]

It was quickly reprinted and widely circulated, with copies being read aloud in inns and coffee houses, so that by May some 50,000 copies were said to be in circulation."[3] Of the 300 or more pamphlets which the revolution controversy spawned, Rights of Man was the first seriously to damage Burke's case and to restore credit to the French both in Britain and America."[3]

The publication of Rights of Man caused a furore in England; Thomas Paine was tried in absentia, and convicted for seditious libel against the Crown, but was unavailable for hanging, being in France and never returning to England.

Thomas Paine was not the only advocate of the rights of man or the only author of a work titled Rights of Man. The working-class radical, Thomas Spence, is amongst the first, in England, to use the phrase as a title. His 1775 lecture, usually titled The Rights of Man, and his later The Rights of Infants, offer a proto-Geoist take on political philosophy mirroring Paine's work Agrarian Justice.[4]

Paine's visionary two-part call for republicanism and social welfare was generations ahead of its time when published in 1791.[2]

See also

References

  • The 1789 French Déclaration des droits de l'Homme http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/histoire/dudh/1789.asp

External Links

  • Full (and abridged) texts at Squashed Philosophers Archive


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