Thomas Paine Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which the French Revolution and revolutionary causes were heavily criticized. Paine gave a theoretical defense of democracy and republican principles as the ideals of the French Revolution and advocated a remarkably modern welfare state program whose fundamental function was to abolish poverty.

Summary of Event

The advent of the French Revolution French Revolution (1789-1796);Thomas Paine[Paine] in 1789 and the subsequent turmoil and erosion of established authority in France precipitated the publication of Edmund Burke’s highly critical Reflections on the Revolution in France Reflections on the Revolution in France (Burke) (1790). Burke’s hostility stemmed from his conservatism, which was rooted in the idea that the past History;and tradition[tradition] must be valued for providing a workable and stable framework for all future progress—a principle that was being flagrantly flouted by the French revolutionaries. Thomas Paine, already a champion of the American Revolution and independence, was moved to defend the ideals of French Revolution in his iconoclastic Rights of Man, published in two parts on February 22, 1791, and February 16, 1792. [kw]Thomas Paine Publishes Rights of Man (Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792) [kw]Rights of Man, Thomas Paine Publishes (Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792) [kw]Publishes Rights of Man, Thomas Paine (Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792) [kw]Paine Publishes Rights of Man, Thomas (Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792) Rights of Man (Paine) Conservatism;criticism of Democracy;Thomas Paine[Paine] Poverty and government [g]England;Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792: Thomas Paine Publishes Rights of Man[2960] [g]United States;Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792: Thomas Paine Publishes Rights of Man[2960] [c]Philosophy;Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792: Thomas Paine Publishes Rights of Man[2960] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 22, 1791-Feb. 16, 1792: Thomas Paine Publishes Rights of Man[2960] Paine, Thomas Burke, Edmund Locke, John Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

To appreciate the intent and impact of the Rights of Man, it has to be examined within the context of Paine’s life and intellectual itinerary. After an inconspicuous start in life as a corset maker and customs officer, in 1774 Paine emigrated from England to America, carrying a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin;Thomas Paine Immediately, he was caught up in the upheavals of the developing revolution, which launched his radical journalism, and he became a prominent political activist on behalf of American independence [p]American independence and served in the Continental army. Thereafter, he spent some time constantly on the move between America and France, followed by a trip to England. He then shuttled back and forth between England and France several times, before he settled for ten years in France. In 1802, Paine finally returned to America, where he died seven years later.

Paine himself once said that he was a wanderer, and wandering was indeed emblematic of his lifestyle, but Paine was also an intellectual wanderer: His political and social ideas developed in ways that mirrored his roving lifestyle. From his arrival in Philadelphia in 1774 until his death in New York in 1809, Paine’s intellectual itinerary took him through four stages of political and social development. Initially he fell under the sway of the liberal ideas of John Locke and classical republican thought. In France, he encountered and embraced Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notions of community, virtue, and social democracy. Paine’s third phase came at the end of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, when he found a new spirituality in seeking God’s wholeness and oneness in the universe. However, the Deistic spirituality faded away during his final years in America, which marked the fourth and the most despondent phase of Paine’s personal life and intellectual standing.

It was in the first phase, under the influence of Lockean liberalism Liberalism and classical republicanism, Republicanism that Paine elaborated his ideas about American separation from Britain. They were considered radical at the time, but he had the courage to advocate American independence openly, when others only thought or discussed it privately. Paine was well acquainted with Lockean concepts of human rights and liberties, particularly the obligation to resist tyranny. These ideas permeated Paine’s thinking, especially in his influential Common Sense Common Sense (Paine) (1776), which was his great call for America to separate from Britain and established him as an inveterate vanguard of independence. Paine argued that it was the Americans’ duty to demand and win independence from the empire, as well as arguing for his pioneering diplomatic doctrine of avoiding European entanglements.

Paine also used the language of virtue and corruption, which was distinctive of classical republicanism. His contemporary, Burke, who is considered the founder of modern conservative thought, used the same language, but his usage was drastically different from Paine to such an extent that they lost their friendship and became adversaries in the debates over the French Revolution. The classical republicans searched for a virtuous citizenry Citizenship and public interest to overcome corrupt governors. Often, it was the virtuous who sought to achieve public goals that were in everyone’s interest, as opposed to corrupt politicians who sought only to attain their own ends and interests.

Paine spoke the language of classical republicanism to argue for the creation of an appropriate structure of good government—the republic. The republic guaranteed that government sought the common good for all rather than the individual interests of a corrupt few. This could presumably be done by ensuring that a virtuous citizenry participated in governmental decision making, which in turn entailed that elections were of utmost significance. When the people elected Elective government (United States) their representatives, then the governing institutions were based on the balance of the one (executive), the few (the upper house of government), and the many (the lower house). This model was an effective system of checks and balances, Checks and balances system and in 1789 the new American government took on this structure with its president, Senate, and House of Representatives.

Intellectually, however, Paine went on to draw upon not only the traditions of both liberalism and republicanism but also the framework of social democracy. With the gathering pace of revolutionary events on the Continent, Paine moved to France, where social and political debates were very much informed by the concept of social democracy articulated through the works of Rousseau. Paine incorporated Rousseau’s political philosophy into his thinking, as a result of which he managed to lay the foundations for the most radical and economic proposals in eighteenth century England and America. Although Paine had devoted part 1 of the Rights of Man to a direct rebuttal of Burke’s assault on French Revolution ideals, the second part ignored him and focused instead on formulating a welfare state project within a Rousseauist social democratic worldview. The astonishing fact is that Paine argued for these policies 150 years before the rise of the social welfare state.

In December, 1792, Paine was tried and condemned in absentia for seditious libel Libel;Thomas Paine[Paine] in England, for having written and published part 2 of Rights of Man. He was declared an outlaw, and had he returned to England again, he would have been imprisoned for life or even executed. Many publishers and booksellers of his work were taken to court and suffered prison terms from one to seven years, as well as being subjected to heavy financial penalties.


Paine has long been a controversial figure, attracting both scholarly and popular interest as a result of his spirited participation in the major social and political issues of his time. His original contributions have managed to transcend time and space and are still relevant to contemporary concerns. In the Rights of Man, Paine presented two central arguments that have influenced discussions of governance and social justice.

In part 1, he argued that government should be founded on reason rather than on tradition or precedent and that a democratic society, in which all individuals have equal rights and in which leadership depends on talent and wisdom, is far superior to aristocracy, monarchy, or any type of hereditary governance. In part 2, he argued that political leaders acquired social virtue only when all people were properly cared for, when the needs of the poor became the responsibility of government to alleviate, and when everyone Social responsibility participated in maintaining the health of the community.

Paine’s advocacy of social and liberal democracy, with its universalistic orientation, had a great intellectual impact not only on his contemporaries but also on subsequent generations of thinkers worldwide. His ideas were incorporated into the nineteenth and twentieth century internationalist movements, antislavery and anticolonial struggles, and social welfare theories and campaigns. Undoubtedly, Paine irritated many but equally inspired many others.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayer, Alfred Julius. Thomas Paine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Analytical account of Paine’s life, travels, and travails, with a critical examination of his philosophical, political, and religious thoughts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blakemore, Steven. Intertextual War: Edmund Burke and the French Revolution in the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and James Mackintosh. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997. A comparative study of Paine’s response to Burke in relation to other contemporary reactions by Mary Wollstonecraft and James Mackintosh.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Claeys, Gregory. The Political Thought of Thomas Paine. Winchester, England: Unwin Hyman, 1989. A comprehensive commentary on Paine’s political thought, especially in the Rights of Man.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fennessey, R. R. Burke, Paine, and the Rights of Man: A Difference of Political Opinion. The Hague, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963. A meticulous account of the relationship between Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine’s response in his Rights of Man.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foner, Eric, ed. Thomas Paine: Collected Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995. A convenient collection of Paine’s important publications and several essays and letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fruchtman, Jack, Jr. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994. A reader-friendly but rigorous chronological review and reappraisal of Paine’s life and thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005. A thorough tracing of Paine’s influence, from the formation of America to the early twenty-first century, on the collective American political psyche.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keane, John. Tom Paine: A Political Life. New York: Grove Press, 2003. An encyclopedic biography of Paine’s public and private life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodcock, Bruce, and John Coates. Combative Styles: Romantic Prose and Ideology. Hull, England: University of Hull Press, 1995. A literary study of the writing styles of Burke, Paine, and other leading participants in the revolution controversy.

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Categories: History