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Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man

Introduction by Howard Fast

Thomas PAINE, a man whose writings shook the world and whose preachments on democracy have endured almost two centuries, was born on January 29, 1737, in the town of Thetford in England. His father, Quaker by religion and corset-maker by trade, was poor and not blessed by any great good fortune – but beyond these bare facts, we know little of him or of Paine's mother, or indeed of what Paine's life was like when he lived with his parents.

If Paine's father had that regard for education common among Quakers of his time, poverty prevented him from indulging his son. At best, Paine had four or five years of primary education in a village school. He learned to read, to write, to do simple arithmetic – and not much more. At thirteen he was learning the trade of corset-making in his father's shop and his formal schooling was done, a fact that his enemies made much of in later times.

However, like so many self-educated men, Paine was compulsively driven to inform himself. His education continued through all the years of his life; and at the height of his powers, the years when he produced his political essays, he was a man of enormous knowledge, whose grasp of history, ethics, science, and religion was on a par with that of the finest minds of his time.

It is important to note and remember this, for any factual recitation of Thomas Paine's life during the years before he appeared on the American Colonial scene during 1774 is bound to be deceptive and puzzling. Paine himself never produced any coherent account of those first thirty-seven years. They were not years that he enjoyed remembering or recalling; and unquestionably, they were years of grim poverty, severe emotional conflict, and heartbreaking humiliation.

During this period, Paine married twice. His first marriage ended after a year with the death of his wife; his second marriage, also of short duration, resulted in a legal separation. In neither case were there children involved – nor do we find thereafter any consequential relationship with a woman as a determinant in Paine's life. Never did he make any real effort to establish a home or a family situation, or to sink his roots deeply in any one place; his internationalism, so important a factor in his philosophical development, was an outgrowth – and a splendid one – of his rootlessness, his loneliness, and his homelessness. Though born and raised in England, where he spent most of the first four decades of his life, he was as much a citizen, subjectively and objectively, of France, America, and indeed the world.

It is curious that knowing so much of Thomas Paine – at least during the post-English years – we also know so little of him. For every friend, he had an enemy; he was loved greatly and hated violently, praised and slandered, mocked and revered. The only emotion he failed to provoke was indifference. He was a volatile, angry, and outspoken man. When he believed something, he was incapable of hiding such belief or even tempering it. He worshipped reason and logic, and despised the absence of these qualities in others; and he himself loved and hated with the same intensity he provoked in others.

Somewhere in his own Quaker childhood a basis was laid for his lifelong and unremitting hatred of superstition, bigotry, and inherited class privilege – and in these areas he was capable of neither charity nor tolerance. Essentially, he was a Utopian, and as with so many Utopians, he was incapable of accommodating himself either to ignorance or to expediency.

His hunger for knowledge was never satisfied, and he wore his own lack of education like a cross and a burden. During his years in England he read constantly, borrowing every book he could find, spending his own poor pittance on books and scientific instruments. He set up a sort of laboratory in his corset shop, neglecting his tottering business and spending hours on his experiments – one of the many reasons why he had to sell all he owned to avoid debtors' prison. He attended every lecture he could get to, particularly those in the school of Newton, given by James Ferguson and Benjamin Martin. Taunted and mocked through all the years of his life for his ignorance, he drove himself to become one of the most learned and erudite figures in a time that sparkled with men of learning, erudition, and wisdom.

He was highly conscious of his battle to know. "I seldom," he said, "passed five minutes of my life however circumstanced, in which I did not acquire some knowledge."

Yet for the scholars he has never emerged from that peculiar shadow they cast upon self-education. There is almost no important biographer of Paine who has not felt the necessity to disparage his style, his scholarship, his arguments of fact and reason. Even his latest biographer, Alfred Owen Aldridge, on comparing Paine's style in The Age of Reason to the style of Edmund Burke, against whom Paine polemicized, tells us that, "From the point of view of style, however, the superiority probably rests with Burke. His measured eloquence and classical thundering, on one side, his subdued irony and epigrammatic scorn, on the other, enrich and enliven his thoughts. Burke can be reread with great pleasure – Paine with somewhat less."

I would think otherwise. I derive little pleasure and less profit from the rereading of Burke, who is more often ponderous than witty and whose "measured eloquence" falls again and again into unadmirable snobbery and fancy wordage – nor do I find anything new or even diverting in his ideas. Paine, on the other hand, still evokes my excitement, my imagination, and my interest. I find his style excellent because he writes to the point, plainly, directly – with heart, humanity, and honest anger. He writes with passion, but his arguments, unlike Burke's, rest upon a foundation of reason and logic.

Of course, the disparagement of Paine was not limited to comparisons with Edmund Burke; but it arises most often because the first part of Paine's Rights of Man was written in answer to Burke's attack upon the French Revolution, Reflections on the French Revolution, published in England on November 1, 1790. The business of attacking and disparaging Thomas Paine, even during Paine's lifetime, attained an almost professional status. The very fact that Paine could never temporize or equivocate encouraged a permanent open season for his detractors and their slander.

But Paine and his work survive – and both the man and his writing grow in importance through the years. It is not likely that Paine even sensed this during his lifetime; and though he made many good and important friends, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and James Madison, he made more enemies.

Thomas Paine was thirty-seven years old when he made his decision to leave England forever and to settle somewhere in the thirteen colonies that were beginning to be called America. He had been a stay-maker, an exciseman, and an amateur scientist, and aside from a pamphlet written in defense of the excisemen's plea for more wages, he had done no writing of any importance. He had lived, worked, and educated himself; he had observed with pain and sorrow the lot of the British common man of the time; he had experienced poverty, misery, and human suffering; but if he had died then, the world would not have known him or remembered him. His appointment with destiny lay in America, not in England.

George Romney's portrait of Paine, done years later, is the best likeness of him that we have. We see a man with a rough-hewn, large-featured face, a fleshy, slightly hooked nose, a wide and sensitive mouth, and heavy black brows. His blue eyes are curious and skeptical, more examining than inviting, and lines of bitterness are etched about his mouth and chin. Not a good-looking man, but one whose face is alive and alert, whose brow is high and broad, and whose eyes are almost damning in their cold intentness. We are told that he was of middle height, that he stood well, was possessed of strength and endurance, and had that calm acceptance of physical conditions that is one of the few rewards of poverty.

He arrived in America, in Philadelphia, on November 30, 1774, sick with fever, and with no more in his pockets than a few shillings and a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin to his son-in-law, Richard Bache. Franklin had thought well enough of Paine to give him the letter, but the measure he took of Paine then was that of "a worthy young man" fit perhaps for a "clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor."

But in spite of the need for teachers in the Colonies, Paine found work with a printer named Robert Aitken, did his work well, and became editor of a faltering periodical, The Pennsylvania Magazine. Paine's influence on the magazine was felt immediately; he brought important writers to it, increased its circulation, and turned it into an organ of considerable influence. The times, it should be noted, were ripe for this kind of achievement. The Continental Congress was in session. The Colonies were in a ferment, and the heart of this ferment was Philadelphia. In Paine's mind, there was no question of taking sides or of which side he should be on; so far as he was concerned, the issue had been decided years before he ever thought of coming to America. He was on the side of the people, on the side of the revolution, and against monarchy, inherited privilege, and tyranny of every kind.

He was partisan, decisive, and, above all, articulate; he was a voice that might have gone unheeded in another time, but that was welcomed and listened to in Philadelphia of 1775 and 1776. Poems, articles, exhortations poured from his pen. The idea of independence was in the air. Others debated it, considered it judiciously and carefully; Paine embraced it – and embraced a whole vision of a new nation, a new world, a new society made clean, and free from all the degradation and superstition and inequity of post-feudal Europe.

Armed with this vision, Paine fixed upon the purpose that was to result in a little book of fifty pages, entitled Common Sense. He became the apostle of INDEPENDENCE – as the focus of all the revolutionary tendencies then current in the Colonies, as a political movement, and as a utopian step toward that society, based upon reason, justice, and plenty, which was maturing in his own mind. Eventually, all of Paine's political experience and thinking would mature in Rights of Man, in my opinion the finest statement of a philosophy of political democracy to be produced in the eighteenth century. Now, in Common Sense, he had taken his first important stride in that direction.

One of Thomas Paine's great gifts was a sensitivity to currents of thought and action already present among the people. He could take the inchoate longings and aspirations of an inarticulate mass and make these beginnings whole and marvelously articulate. The superstructure of scholarship and experience upon his own poverty defined beginnings enabled him to talk to plain and often barely literate people, to expound the most complex of political ideas in straightforward, understandable, and dramatic language. He did this without writing down; he simplified by going directly to the heart of the matter, to the crux of the issue, not by writing in pidgin English.

Common Sense, which was signed, Written by an Englishman, became an immediate success. In relation to the population of the Colonies at that time, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book in American history. No one knows just how many copies were actually printed. The most conservative sources place the figure at something over 300,000 copies. Others place it just under half a million. Taking a figure of 400,000 in a population of 3,000,000, a book published today would have to sell 24,000,000 copies to do as well – and this sale was not over a period of years but within a matter of three months. And since the Colonies at that time contained a divided population, and since we may assume that the enemies of the Revolution did not extend themselves to buy the book, it is safe to infer that everyone who adhered to the cause of Independence either read Common Sense or had it read to him. For in addition to actual copies sold, sections of the book were printed in every patriot newspaper.

I know of no other case in recent history where the convergence of a statement and a sentiment was so dynamic as with the publication of Common Sense. Not only did the book become the most talked-of, the most pertinent publication of the moment, but its author was lifted out of his comparative obscurity, first into national and then into international prominence. More than any other in America, he became the spokesman, the pamphleteer of the Revolution. He was admitted into the circles of the best minds in America, the most important and influential people, the leaders of the newborn state and army.

Certainly, Paine was as surprised as any at the turn things took; certainly, he enjoyed his fame and importance. He refused to profit financially through the sale of this or any of his subsequent writings, but he accepted his role gladly, gave his time, his strength, and his unswerving loyalty to the patriot cause – and continued, through the course of the war, to produce a series of exhortations, narrations, and exposures, directed toward the Colonials and against the British, which are known as the Crisis Papers.

At the end of the Revolutionary War in America, Paine had made his name and reputation as a part of the beginnings of a nation. More than any other single individual, he had turned the sentiment of the people toward Independence, had armed them with the trenchant tools of fact and reason and purpose. He had made out of their own aspirations a clear and concise ideology, a philosophy for action and government, and a firm justification of their cause in the eyes of the world. He was a national figure and a world figure – and if he had died at this point, he would have stood in our gallery of recognized immortals along with Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and others of the time.

But even as he had lived through and beyond his first thirty-seven years of misery and obscurity, so did he live through and beyond his time of national honor and adulation. He lived for his own purpose and his own dreams – and having made his contribution to the cause of democracy in America, he returned to England. When revolution broke out in France, Paine went to France. It was a matter of course, a matter of the inevitable, so far as he was concerned; but whereas he had come to America as a penniless stranger, he came to Revolutionary France as a man of world renown – a pillar and an apostle of the democratic cause.

When Thomas Paine returned to England after the American Revolution, one of the men he sought out was Edmund Burke, statesman and author. Ever since 1775, when Paine first read Burke's address "On Conciliation with America," he had admired Burke and had thought of him as a friend of the vast world-wide democratic and anti-colonial movement that had been set in motion during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Certainly his early relations with Burke must have been cordial; even after Paine had read an utterly vicious and biased attack upon the French Revolution that Burke had delivered to the English Parliament on the 9th of February, 1790, he wrote to Burke, reasoned with him, and attempted to point out errors in fact and conclusion.

Not only Thomas Paine had been shocked by the violence and intemperance of Burke's attack on the French Revolution; thousands of Englishmen had reacted to it with disgust and disappointment, and such writers as Joel Barlow, James Mackintosh, and William Godwin had replied to Burke. When it was announced that Burke planned to expand his remarks into a book, which would be entitled Reflections on the French Revolution and which would be a polemic against that revolution, a number of prominent English liberals begged Paine to answer Mr. Burke. Paine agreed that when Burke's book appeared and when he had read it, he would write his reply to it.

Thereby, Rights of Man came into existence. Burke's Reflections appeared November 1, 1790. Paine read the book the day after it was published, and a few days later he began work on his refutation – destined to become the most important essay on political democracy of that era. He worked upon it almost continuously until some time in February of 1791, when he completed the manuscript of what was to be Part One of Rights of Man. At the time, he conceived of it as the entire book, and he dedicated it with affection and respect to George Washington.

A printer-publisher (the two occupations were generally combined at that period) who had done a great deal of radical publishing, and who was part of the liberal-radical circle in which Paine moved, had contracted in advance to issue the book. This man, J. Johnson by name, had already set the book in type and had pulled enough sheets for about a hundred copies, when government pressure was brought to bear upon him. Exactly what the nature of that pressure was, we do not know; but Johnson withdrew and refused to go on with the book. Paine, meanwhile, had made arrangements to return to France, where he was an accepted part of revolutionary circles and co-editor, with Condorcet, of Le Républican.

Since Paine had written Rights of Man as what he esteemed to be a public service and had no desire to profit through it – nor did he, ever – he turned over the publication and future of the work to a committee consisting of Thomas Holcroft, William Godwin, and Thomas Hollis. On the 13th of March, in 1791, the book was published in a large edition and priced at three shillings, the same price at which Burke's Reflections sold. At that time it was a very high price for a small book, the equivalent of three or four dollars today; and concluding that this would limit its circulation and keep it out of the hands of the poor, the Government made no attempt at interference. In spite of the price, the book sold over fifty thousand copies in a matter of weeks, and immediately became a factor in changing and tempering a nurtured sentiment against the French Revolution.

Paine had made provision for the profits from the sale of the book to go to The Society for Constitutional Information and certain other liberal organizations in England. These groups disseminated Rights of Man through the British Isles and held hundreds of meetings at which parts of the book were read aloud. Paine's vivid and exciting prose and imagery took hold of the farmers and working people, who memorized sections of the book as they would a bit of verse.

How much of an effect the book had can be surmised from the fact that Edmund Burke felt called upon to answer it, publishing his reply under the title, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.

On July 13, 1791, Paine returned from France, was greeted with excitement and curiosity as an actual participant in the French Revolution. Anxious to place himself on record, he went back to the style of his earlier Crisis Papers and wrote a throwaway entitled, Address and Declaration to the Friends of Universal Peace and Liberty, in which he declared, "We fear not proud oppression, for we have truth on our side. We say, and we repeat it, that the French Revolution opens to the world an opportunity in which all good citizens must rejoice – that of promoting the general happiness of man."

The task remained of replying to Burke's increasingly hollow pleas and justifications for the cause of monarchy and privilege; but Paine saw no point in endless rounds of name-calling and petty debate. So far as he was concerned, Burke's party was bankrupt. The need was not to knock over straw men, but to frame and put forward a positive program for democracy and the equitable society. Into this full and positive statement of the democratic cause and aspiration, would go all that Paine had gathered out of study, discussion, and his personal participation in two great revolutionary movements. He felt that he was now prepared to deal in a realistic and constructive fashion with the pressing problems that beset the world at that time, the question of the incessant warfare between the European nations, the rise of poverty on an unprecedented scale, the savage and inhuman treatment of criminals (even the so-called criminals who stole only a crust of bread), the degradation of the working people, the poverty and humiliation of the aged. He had conceived of measures unheard of at the time, an income tax to support social welfare, laws for the protection of workers, limitation of armaments by treaty – to mention only a few.

All of this and much more went into the writing of Part Two of Rights of Man – the most stirring, the noblest, and the most advanced statement of democracy in action that the world had at that time conceived. This book was the sum of Paine's life and work and experience, the maturity of his social philosophy, and the signature to the expression of his life.

As might have been expected, this second part of Rights of Man had a bombshell effect upon the social fabric of Great Britain. As with Common Sense, a statement of political aims coincided with a ripening social condition; and again, as with Common Sense, Paine became the clear and logical spokesman for the inarticulate dreams and hopes of thousands of Englishmen. Determined that this book should not have class limitation imposed by price, Paine specified a thousand pounds of royalties for cheap editions. Although himself constantly in need of funds and living in poverty, he invested every penny earned by the book in cheap editions, which were spread by the thousands among the poor.

It is estimated that over a hundred thousand copies of Part Two were sold in the British Isles – among a population so largely illiterate. The book was also reprinted in America, and widely used by the Jeffersonians in their struggle against the Federalists. But unlike America in 1776, there was no revolutionary situation in Great Britain, no masses of people in motion, no Continental Congress in session. At first the British government moved quietly and behind the scenes, believing that, as with the first part of Rights of Man, its effect would be limited if little attention were called to it. They attempted to bribe and intimidate the printer; when this failed, they opened an attack upon Paine, slandering him and causing to be published a false and libelous biography. They attempted to turn the name of Thomas Paine into a national epithet like that of Guy Fawkes; they spurred mobs to burn him in effigy, and built up a national case for a Jacobin plot in which Paine and his friends were supposed to be deeply involved.

On September 12, 1792, Paine spoke at a meeting of "The Friends of Liberty." The following day, William Blake, the poet, warned Paine of his impending arrest. Paine fled to Dover and caught a boat for France. Minutes after the boat departed, the police arrived to arrest him. Paine never returned to England.

Such, briefly, is the story of Rights of Man and of its author. Welcomed at first in France as a national hero and as a victim of British tyranny, Paine was subsequently caught up in the fate of the Girondists and thrown into prison – where he wrote his tragically misunderstood plea for a rational faith, The Age of Reason. Released from prison, he found himself in a France that had moved beyond him and forgotten him, an old man in poor health. In 1802, in response to an invitation by Thomas Jefferson, he returned to the United States; but here too were a new world, a new generation, a new way of life. Paine, the old man, was slandered as a drunkard and attacked as an atheist, an enemy of God and of the family. His last years were bitter ones, full of loneliness, poverty, and illness.

Writing to the mayor of Philadelphia, three years before his death, Paine said:

My motive and object in all my political works, beginning with Common Sense, the first work I ever published, have been to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principles of government, and enable him to be free, and establish government for himself; and I have borne my share of danger in Europe and in America in every attempt I have made for this purpose. And my motive and object in all my publications on religious subjects, beginning with the first part of The Age of Reason, have been to bring man to a right reason that God has given him; to impress upon him the great principles of divine morality, justice, mercy, and a benevolent disposition to all men and to all creatures; and to excite in him a spirit of trust, confidence, and consolation in his creator, unshackled by the fable and fiction of books, by whatever invented name they may be called. I am happy in the continual contemplation of what I have done, and I thank God that he gave me talents for the purpose and fortitude to do it. It will make the continual consolation of my departing hours, when ever they finally arrive.

In this he wrote his own best epitaph. He died in a lodging house on Fulton Street in New York City, forgotten by so many he had once inspired, badgered by two clergymen who wanted to know his opinions on God and religion, misunderstood by millions who greeted the news of his death with indifference or satisfaction. The date was dune 8, 1809.

But not forgotten entirely. In America and in Europe, thousands mourned the passing of a great mind and a great heart. He had been the spokesman for an age in which man took a mighty step into the future, and his dreams of what man might make of himself and his governments are still unrealized. He spoke in the name of reason – and his voice is still important, fresh, and startling. And with each generation of youth, hundreds of thousands rediscover Tom Paine, a man whose mind was unfettered and unafraid, who dreamed brave and bold dreams and who shattered icons of ignorance and superstition.

For them, Rights of Man will be as fresh and alive as if it were written yesterday. That is the virtue of Tom Paine.