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Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine (original 1969; edition 2003)

by Thomas Paine

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Title:Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine
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Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine by Thomas Paine (1969)

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Thomas Paine

Common Sense, Rights of Man,
and Other Essential Writings

Signet Classics, Paperback, [2003].

12mo. xxxiii+381 pp. Foreword by Jack Fruchtman Jr., 2003 [vii-xviii]. Introduction by Sidney Hook, 1969 [xix-xxxiii].

Common Sense first published, 1776.
The American Crisis first published, 1776-83.
Rights of Man first published, 1791-2.
The Age of Reason first published, 1794-5.
Agrarian Justice first published, 1797.
This edition first published as The Essential Thomas Paine, 1969.
First Signet Classics Printing, July 2003 [new Foreword].

Contents

Foreword
Introduction

Common Sense
Introduction
Of the origin and design of government in general
Of monarchy and hereditary succession
Thoughts on the present state of American affairs
Of the present ability of America
Appendix

The Crisis
Number I
Number III (selections)
Number IV (selections)
Number V
Number VII (selections)
Number VIII (selections)
Number XIII

Rights of Man*
Part the First
Prefaces
- To the French Edition
- To the British Edition
Rights of Man
- Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens
- Observations of the Declaration of Rights
- Miscellaneous Chapter
- Conclusion
Part the Second: Combining Principles and Practice
Preface
Introduction
- Chapter I: Of Society and Civilization
- Chapter II: Of the Origin of the Present Old Governments
- Chapter IIII: Of the Old and New Systems of Government
- Chapter IV: Of Constitutions
- Chapter V: Ways and Means of Improving the Condition of Europe, Interspersed with Miscellaneous Observations

The Age of Reason
Part One (selections)

Agrarian Justice (selections)

Suggested Readings

*This work is not, strictly speaking, complete. Tom Paine’s copious footnotes, 41 overall, and the Appendix are omitted. So is a long passage, illustrated with several tables and plenty of figures, on taxation in England from the last chapter of Part II (between “It was called the executive, because the person…” and “The fraud, hypocrisy and imposition of governments…”). I don’t mind so much the omissions as Signet’s silence on the matter.

===============================================

It’s a crime against humanity that Tom Paine, one of the most-wanted and best-hated men of the late eighteenth century, is seldom read nowadays. Everybody has heard of him, everybody knows he played important roles in both the American and the French revolutions, but very few have read complete even Common Sense, let alone some of his lesser known, but actually more important, writings. If you are in the majority, this Signet Classics paperback is for you. It may prove to be some of the most valuable $6.95 you have ever spent in your life.

The Foreword and the Introduction in this edition provide a nice overview of Tom Paine’s life and outlook for perfect beginners, but what most impressed me was the rather condescending attitude of these gentlemen. “Yet this bestselling author had no formal training as a writer. Nor did he have sufficient schooling to be a philosopher.” So Mr Fruchtman Jr tells us. As if it mattered! According to Mr Hook, himself a philosopher, Paine “was not a profound thinker but a remarkable popularizer” and Rights of Man is the only one of his works which “remains topical”, although “it is not a profound work”, of course. This is nonsense.

From a literary point of view, Tom Paine’s style is impeccable. My only complaint is about the punctuation. It is excessive and promiscuous. It takes some time to get used to his strange rhythm. But that’s a minor quibble. The rest is perfection itself. Clear, direct, vigorous, personal and witty, ranging from grand rhetoric to absolute simplicity, Tom Paine’s prose is an instrument to marvel at. In spite of the tangled punctuation, he seems incapable of writing a single sentence the meaning of which is not plain to all who can read. It is a modern, powerful, thought-provoking prose, far less dated than, say, Edmund Burke’s stately majesty. Tom Paine did have a special gift for picturesque phrases (e.g. “Royal Brute of Britain”), but to reduce him merely to “the great phrasemaker of his age” (Mr Hook) is vastly unjust.

It is essential to realise that Tom Paine is never entirely concerned with topical matters. Common Sense may have been written to accelerate the American independence and Rights of Man may have been written as a response to Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, but there is so much more in them than that. Amazingly little is dated. We are still short of common sense and reason. The rights of man are still trampled upon all around the world. Tom Paine is, above all, a keen student of human nature. Few people in history have had more faith in humanity than this citizen of the world. To call him merely “a crusading journalist who gave birth to several familiar slogans that we associate with his turbulent era” (Mr Fruchtman Jr) is ridiculous.

I have profited by the erudition of Messrs Fruchtman Jr and Hook, and I have found some of their remarks relevant and convincing. But it’s only fair to say that I have been disappointed by their patronizing attitude. May I suggest that you read their essays with caution? The same, of course, applies to the following paragraphs, too.

Common Sense

Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America.

It is extremely difficult today to imagine the stupendous impact this little pamphlet had when it was first published on 10 January, 1776, predating the Declaration of Independence by less than six months. The incandescent yet accessible language, the audacious appeal for immediate break-up with Britain, the bold refutation of political, ethnic and economic arguments for reconciliation, the harsh demolition of monarchy and hereditary succession: all this was, to say the very least, subversive, seditious and incendiary. No wonder the pamphlet was published anonymously, though it didn’t take more than a few months to identify the author.

Let’s have a closer look at this remarkable piece of democratic propaganda. It consists of an Introduction with a postscript dated “Philadelphia, February 14, 1776” (the date of the third edition), four main parts, at least one of which was slightly expanded for the third edition, and a longish Appendix, apparently also expanded for the third edition with the so-called “Epistle to Quakers”. The best I can do by way of review is to give a generous selection of quotes with brief running commentary.

The Introduction is short and starts with what the reader will soon recognise as Tom Paine’s characteristic directness. No pretentious obscurity for him. No ambiguity whatsoever. The danger of this kind of writing is that it can easily become dogmatic. Not the least remarkable thing about Tom Paine is that he manages to avoid this more or less completely.

Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

The postscript demonstrates the author’s selfless desire to remain anonymous as long as possible. This was no pose. Paine’s authorship became known soon enough, but he refused to make any profit from royalties. He donated them to Washington’s Continental Army.

P. S. The Publication of this new Edition hath been delayed, with a View of taking notice (had it been necessary) of any Attempt to refute the Doctrine of Independence: As no Answer hath yet appeared, it is now presumed that none will, the Time needful for getting such a Performance ready for the Public being considerably past.

Who the Author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the Object for Attention is the
Doctrine itself, not the Man. Yet it may not be unnecessary to say, That he is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.

The first part has one of the greatest opening paragraphs ever. It’s been quoted countless times. It deserves to be quoted yet again:

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Some readers evidently read no further and declared the author to be fiercely anti-government. Not even close. The situation is much more complex. Tom Paine is no anarchist. He couldn’t have been even if he wanted to: his profound knowledge of the human animal would have prevented him. He does say that government “even in its best state is but a necessary evil”, but he knows perfectly well that it also is “a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world”. In other words, the human race is too deprived to govern itself. Government is the inevitable evil. It must be endured. If it can’t be abolished, and of course it can’t, may it be made “with the least expence and greatest benefit”.

Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expence and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

Here follows a hypothetical historical sketch, probably better than most short stories that have ever been written, that explains how the necessity of representational government cannot but arise, sooner or later. It shows yet again how carefully Tom Paine scrutinised the workings of the human mind. In a small and primitive community, he argues, laws would be under the form of “regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem.” As the colony increases, this situation would be found increasingly impractical. Soon it would be most convenient to leave the legislative power in the hands of a small body with (theoretically) the same interests as the whole, then to divide the colony and elect representatives to defend the interests of each part. Elections must be held often for “the elected might by that means return and mix again with the general body of the electors in a few months, their fidelity to the public will be secured by the prudent reflexion of not making a rod for themselves.” Tom Paine finishes thus:

Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. freedom and security. And however our eyes may be dazzled with snow, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and of reason will say, it is right.

The obvious alternative to this democratic form of government is the monarchy. Before demolishing this in the second part, Tom Paine concludes the first with a deadly attack on the “much boasted constitution of England.” It looks nice on paper, he argues, that the king and “the commons” should control each other by mutual feedback, but in practice the Parliament is “an house divided against itself”. The situation is tautological. If the King has the power to check the people, then he is supposed to be wiser and abler than them. If the people have the right to check the king, then the opposite is true. Tom Paine’s comment on that is unequivocal: “A mere absurdity!” Nor is he impressed by the supposedly decreased role of the King in post-Cromwell times, “for the fate of Charles the first [executed in 1649], hath only made kings more subtle – not more just.” He admits a certain advantage of the English system over absolute monarchies, but he is convinced that this, if not indeed illusory, certainly doesn’t amount to much. It’s a beautifully presented piece of argumentation:

How came the king by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, which needs checking, be from God; yet the provision, which the constitution makes, supposes such a power to exist.

But the provision is unequal to the task; the means either cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a felo de se; for as the greater weight will always carry up the less, and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern; and though the others, or a part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavors will be ineffectual; the first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied by time.

That the crown is this overbearing part in the English constitution needs not be mentioned, and that it derives its whole consequence merely from being the giver of places and pensions is self-evident; wherefore, though we have been wise enough to shut and lock a door against absolute monarchy, we at the same time have been foolish enough to put the crown in possession of the key.

The prejudice of Englishmen, in favour of their own government by king, lords and commons, arises as much or more from national pride than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly safer in England than in some other countries, but the
will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France, with this difference, that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the more formidable shape of an act of parliament. For the fate of Charles the first, hath only made kings more subtle – not more just.

Wherefore, laying aside all national pride and prejudice in favour of modes and forms, the plain truth is, that
it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.

The second part is dedicated to a blistering attack on monarchy (which “in every instance is the Popery of government”) and hereditary succession (“an insult and an imposition on posterity”). It begins in a characteristically uncompromising manner:

Manking being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance; the distinctions of rich, and poor, may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh ill sounding names of oppression and avarice. Oppression is often the consequence, but seldom or never the means of riches; and though avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy.

But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is, the distinction of men into Kings and Subjects. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.


“Some new species” indeed! A fine piece of Painesque sarcasm! Speaking of species, it may be worth nothing that one famous quote comes from here:

One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an Ass for a Lion.

This is perfectly charming, but there are far more substantial arguments here. One of them, surprisingly or not, comes from the Bible. I will discuss Tom Paine’s religious beliefs later on; suffice it to say for now that he uses scripture, not as a source of absolute truth, but as the source of ultimate authority for good many people at the time. He declares that monarchy is “one of the sins of the Jews” and that some portions of the Bible, in which the Almighty has declared his firm objections to this form of government, are deliberately suppressed by the Church in “Popish countries”. He gives in detail, richly illustrated with quotations, the stories of Gideon (Judges 8: 22-23) and Samuel (1 Samuel 8: 5-20; 1 Samuel 12: 17-19), both of whom were implored by the people to give them a king but denied because that was the Lord’s will, and concludes:

These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false. And a man hath good reason to believe that there is as much of king-craft, as priest-craft, in withholding the scripture from the public in Popish countries. For monarchy in every instance is the Popery of government.

The rest of the second part deals with the ludicrous notion of hereditary succession. Again, there is pure beauty in the clarity of exposition and the force of expression that accompany Tom Paine’s writing. Some readers, I suspect, are apt to dismiss his reasoning because his words are strong. This is, of course, foolish. If such people bother to read Paine carefully, they might be surprised how strong and logical his arguments are; if they wished to refute them, they would have quite a job to do. For instance, he asks himself how kings “came at first”? There are only three ways for that: by lot, election or usurpation. The first two establish precedents that exclude hereditary right; and who would defend the third? Looking at the problem from this angle, the first king may well have been “principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers”. Even if a king is elected by the people, the latter cannot grant him hereditary succession “without manifest injustice to their children”. Paine generously acknowledges “few good monarchs” that England had ever since “a French bastard […] with armed banditi” established himself as “a very paltry rascally original”, but that doesn’t change the historical fact that the kingdom “groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones”. The spirits of neither William the Conqueror nor his successors are very happy to hear that, but there it is.

Tom Paine may not be a “profound thinker”, if you wish to believe Sidney Hook (who no doubt was), but he certainly is a formidable polemicist. No selection of quotes can really do him justice. You have to read the whole thing yourself. I give here only his final two paragraphs:

The nearer any government approaches to a republic the less business there is for a king. It is somewhat difficult to find a proper name for the government of England. Sir William Meredith calls it a republic; but in its present state it is unworthy of the name, because the corrupt influence of the crown, by having all the places in its disposal, hath so effectually swallowed up the power, and eaten out the virtue of the house of commons (the republican part in the constitution) that the government of England is nearly as monarchical as that of France or Spain. Men fall out with names without understanding them. For it is the republican and not the monarchical part of the constitution of England which Englishmen glory in, viz. the liberty of choosing an house of commons from out of their own body – and it is easy to see that when republican virtue fails, slavery ensues. Why is the constitution of England sickly, but because monarchy hath poisoned the republic, the crown hath engrossed the commons?

In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.


The last two parts are more specific but less compelling. Tom Paine is at his best when he deals with his subject in general; details somewhat detract from his excellence. For instance, the relative long discourse on the navies, including the tables added for the third edition calculating the cost of the British navy, is really unnecessary. The same goes for his political suggestions how the new country should be organised. I guess passages like these prompted Mr Hook to speak of Tom Paine’s “political naiveté”. That may or may not be, I don’t know. It should be pointed out, however, that the author is well aware of that possibility. “I only presume to offer hints, not plans”, he finely says as regards his practical propositions.

Much the greater part of the last two parts is dedicated to the case for American independence, the major reason for the pamphlet to exist. Rhetoric and logic, though by no means mutually exclusive, are difficult things to reconcile; the former appeals to the heart, the latter to the brain. Tom Paine is a master of both; and here he mixes them with enviable fluency. To make things even more complicated, he has a great sense of humour, too. To be sure, some of his arguments are decidedly bizarre:

Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.

Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America, is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven. The time likewise at which the continent was discovered, adds weight to the argument, and the manner in which it was peopled increases the force of it. The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.

If Tom Paine did take these arguments seriously, it was silly of him. Then again, it’s not at all certain that he did. A man of impish wit, he may well have been joking, making fun of the preposterous arguments for reconciliation with Britain. I consider this the likeliest hypothesis. On the other hand, his deism may have got the better of him on this occasion.

For the most part, though, Tom Paine is very serious indeed. He argues, to my mind admirably, that America has become too big and too complex for Britain to handle; the very distance between them is apt to make government inefficient, indeed counterproductive. To those who count on Britain for protection, Tom Paine replies that this is the kind of protection that is born “from interest not attachment”; its aim is control, not development. On the contrary, indeed, Britain’s “protection” only means more enemies in Europe, for instance Spain and France which are perpetually at war with the Albion. To those who fear the commercial shock, Tom Paine replies that American commerce will not perish so long as “eating is the custom of Europe.” And to those who appeal to sentimental reasons for reconciliation like Britain as “the parent country” or most of the American population being of British descent, he replies that the international character of America has long since outgrown these dated notions. In any case, Britain does not care about them. As to the question “When?”, there is no doubt in Tom Paine’s mind, either:

I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who hath not confessed his opinion, that a separation between the countries, would take place one time or other: And there is no instance, in which we have shewn less judgment, than in endeavouring to describe, what we call, the ripeness or fitness of the Continent for independance.

As all men allow the measure, and vary only in their opinion of the time, let us, in order to remove mistakes, take a general survey of things, and endeavour, if possible, to find out the
very time. But we need not go far, the inquiry ceases at once, for, the time hath found us. The general concurrence, the glorious union of all things prove the fact.

Just like he scornfully rejects the very idea of reconciliation, indeed he challenges its supporters to give at least one good reason why America should remain bound to Britain, Tom Paine insists in the same highly charged language that the time to act is now. He gives various reasons for that. Most of them are necessarily speculative, but history has proven him right. He speculates that, if separation from Britain is not effected now, a civil war between pro- and anti-British factions may break up. (Ironically enough, a civil war did break up nearly a century later, but for very different reasons that hardly anybody could have predicted in 1776.) He is convinced that the size and population of the colonies are just right for the purpose: fifty years from now they may be too large and too diverse to be united under a single purpose, or to form a single government. All this seems shrewd and sensible to me. Last but not least, Tom Paine is well aware of the unique historical time he is living through:

The present time, likewise, is that peculiar time, which never happens to a nation but once, viz. the time of forming itself into a government. Most nations have let slip the opportunity, and by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead of making laws for themselves. First, they had a king, and then a form of government; whereas, the articles or charter of government, should be formed first, and men delegated to execute them afterwards: but from the errors of other nations, let us learn wisdom, and lay hold of the present opportunity – To begin government at the right end.

This is one of Tom Paine’s most perceptive observations. History has proven him right. Again.

The Appendix consists of two parts. The first is largely repetitious, but the second, sometimes (though not in this edition) subtitled “Epistle to Quakers”, is Tom Paine at his polemical best. He exposes logical contradictions with devastating precision.

The two first pages, (and the whole doth not make four) we give you credit for, and expect the same civility from you, because the love and desire for peace is not confined to Quakerism, it is the natural, as well as the religious wish of all denominations of men. And on this ground, as men laboring to establish an Independant Constitution of our own, do we exceed all others in our hope, end, and aim. Our plan is peace for ever. We are tired of contention with Britain, and can see no real end to it but in a final separation.

[…]

The quotation which ye have made from Proverbs, in the third page of your testimony, that, "when a man's ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him"; is very unwisely chosen on your part; because, it amounts to a proof, that the king's ways (whom ye are so desirous of supporting) do not please the Lord, otherwise, his reign would be in peace.

I now proceed to the latter part of your testimony, and that, for which all the foregoing seems only an introduction, viz.

"It hath ever been our judgment and principle, since we were called to profess the light of Christ Jesus, manifested in our consciences unto this day, that the setting up and putting down kings and governments, is God's peculiar prerogative; for causes best known to himself: And that it is not our business to have any hand or contrivance therein; nor to be busy bodies above our station, much less to plot and contrive the ruin, or overturn of any of them, but to pray for the king, and safety of our nation, and good of all men: That we may live a peaceable and quiet life, in all goodliness and honesty; under the government which God is pleased to set over us." —If these are really your principles why do ye not abide by them? Why do ye not leave that, which ye call God's Work, to be managed by himself? These very principles instruct you to wait with patience and humility, for the event of all public measures, and to receive that event as the divine will towards you. Wherefore, what occasion is there for your political testimony if you fully believe what it contains: And the very publishing it proves, that either, ye do not believe what ye profess, or have not virtue enough to practise what ye believe.


[…]

Here ends the examination of your testimony; (which I call upon no man to abhor, as ye have done, but only to read and judge of fairly;) to which I subjoin the following remark; "That the setting up and putting down of kings," most certainly mean, the making him a king, who is yet not so, and the making him no king who is already one. And pray what hath this to do in the present case? We neither mean to set up nor to put down, neither to make nor to unmake, but to have nothing to do with them. Wherefore, your testimony in whatever light it is viewed serves only to dishonor your judgement, and for many other reasons had better been let alone than published.

If somebody is surprised that Tom Paine, coming from a Quaker family himself, should be so harsh towards these gentle and pious souls, perhaps it should be remembered that he knew very well what he was talking about. It’s not altogether untrue that familiarity, in most cases at any rate, does breed contempt. As Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovic) mercilessly observed in a conversation with Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) in Dangerous Liaisons (1988):

Valmont: Belleroche is completely undeserving.
Merteuil: I thought he was one of your closest friends?
Valmont: Exactly, so I know what I’m talking about.

Rights of Man

This is an altogether different work. It is far longer, for one thing, some 220 pages in this edition (more than thrice longer than Common Sense). Though ostensibly written as a reply to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and sometimes including detailed descriptions of contemporary events, the scope is much larger compared to the earlier pamphlet. Burke’s arguments, such as they are, serve only as starting points for withering attacks on “governing beyond the grave”, Nobility (“or rather No-ability”), the English constitution (as opposed to the French) and England (“the most enslaved country under heaven”), monarchy and hereditary succession (old friends, both of them), any form of despotic government and, last but not least, Burke himself (whose periods end “with music in the ear, and nothing in the heart”):

There is scarcely an epithet of abuse to be found in the English language, with which Mr. Burke has not loaded the French Nation and the National Assembly. Everything which rancour, prejudice, ignorance or knowledge could suggest, is poured forth in the copious fury of near four hundred pages. In the strain and on the plan Mr. Burke was writing, he might have written on to as many thousands. When the tongue or the pen is let loose in a phrenzy of passion, it is the man, and not the subject, that becomes exhausted.

I can consider Mr. Burke's book in scarcely any other light than a dramatic performance; and he must, I think, have considered it in the same light himself, by the poetical liberties he has taken of omitting some facts, distorting others, and making the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect.

These are merely two out of at least a dozen examples. I admit I do not know how just these remarks are. I tried to read Burke’s Reflections, but I failed. I have no patience with his grandiloquence. He is fulsome, flowery and downright exhausting. He is barely readable. Instead of clarifying arguments, his prose obscures them. I might paraphrase and say that Burke’s periods end “with music in the ear, and nothing in the mind.” What a contrast with Tom Paine’s prose! When he argues, he does so in perfectly accessible way. When he relates events, he is more engrossing than many writers of fiction who fall in categories like “thriller” or “adventure”. He has a marvellous way of explaining and summing up complex matters. To take a single example, consider his incisive definition of religious intolerance:

With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of its own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other's religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong.

In other words, religious persecution comes from calling others misbelievers and trying to inflict your religion on them. If I might go a little further, I must say this is inevitable. No religion, not even Tom Paine’s so-called “deism”, is the result of reason. All religions spring from essentially unreasonable passions. Many people manage to convince themselves that their religion is the only true one, but don’t bother to convert their misbelieving neighbours. Not a few, however, have a nagging suspicion, consciously or subconsciously, that their creed may not be the truest one out there, so they try to convince themselves by inflicting their faith on others. The more they succeed, the more confident they become.

I have likewise to admit that my ignorance of the French Revolution is just as profound as that of Burke’s Reflections. Never mind. Tom Paine gives enough background to make the whole picture quite clear. I daresay specialists in the field can find some inaccuracies, but they should remember the book wasn’t written for them. Nor should they judge too much from a modern point of view. With the benefit of hindsight, for instance, Tom Paine’s condemnation of gruesome public executions in England is highly ironic. But the Reign of Terror commenced only in 1793, while the second part of Rights of Man was first published in February 1792. I suppose few could have predicted such monstrosities at the time. Christopher Hitchens, in a fascinating essay published in the Atlantic Monthly (April 2004), has argued that the one advantage Burke had over Paine is that he predicted with remarkable accuracy the coming of Napoleon and the carnage of the Napoleonic Wars. If so, this is a minor point in Burke’s favour, though it doesn’t in the least diminish the value of Paine’s work.

The exceptional lucidity of Tom Paine’s prose is also his curse. When his arguments are not unconvincing, he is much more badly exposed than the writer who can hide behind his own purple verbosity. I have found only one such moment here, and this is the passage how the rights of man originated. He finely says he doesn’t want to “touch upon any sectarian principle of religion”, and though he successfully avoids that, I still don’t understand his concept of “the unity of man; by which I mean that men are all of equal degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right”. It’s one of Tom Paine’s hallmarks to go back to the very origin of things, in this case man, and the results are usually stimulating. Not so here.

This is a minor issue, though. The more important point is Tom Paine’s definition and defence of the “Rights of Man”. The book’s title comes from the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens” by the National Assembly of France, quoted in full towards the end of Part I. It consists of a short preface and 17 points; the second of these defines the rights as “liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression”, the eleventh adds that “every citizen may speak, write and publish freely, provided he is responsible for the abuse of this liberty, in cases determined by the law.” Tom Paine separates the rights of man to natural and civil and argues that the latter should be extensions of the former, not set in their opposition which can only produce unhappiness.

Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured. His natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights. But in order to pursue this distinction with more precision, it will be necessary to mark the different qualities of natural and civil rights.

A few words will explain this. Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society. Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not, in all cases, sufficiently competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection.

From this short review it will be easy to distinguish between that class of natural rights which man retains after entering into society and those which he throws into the common stock as a member of society.

The natural rights which he retains are all those in which the power to execute is as perfect in the individual as the right itself. Among this class, as is before mentioned, are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind; consequently religion is one of those rights. The natural rights which are not retained, are all those in which, though the right is perfect in the individual, the power to execute them is defective. They answer not his purpose. A man, by natural right, has a right to judge in his own cause; and so far as the right of the mind is concerned, he never surrenders it. But what availeth it him to judge, if he has not power to redress? He therefore deposits this right in the common stock of society, and takes the arm of society, of which he is a part, in preference and in addition to his own. Society
grants him nothing. Every man is a proprietor in society, and draws on the capital as a matter of right.

Tom Paine then naturally asks what kind of government could exchange man’s natural rights for civil ones, not only without losing any of them, but with the benefit of perfecting and amplifying them (“in preference and in addition to his own”). He defines three major types of government, of priestcraft, of conquerors and of reason, but shrewdly observes that the first two are only temporary, lasting as the divine secret or the power in question is lasting, and sometimes they combined into one, “united fraud to force” (lovely phrase!), by inventing the so-called “Divine Right”. It is a long and perfectly fascinating discussion, full of interesting points worthy of reflection, for example that the constitution is “a thing antecedent to a government” (his emphasis) and not the other round. From the same discussion also comes this often quoted passage:

When I contemplate the natural dignity of man, when I feel (for Nature has not been kind enough to me to blunt my feelings) for the honour and happiness of its character, I become irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud, as if they were all knaves and fools, and can scarcely avoid disgust at those who are thus imposed upon.

All this and a lot more is contained in the first part of Rights of Man alone. The second part is largely an elaboration of old ideas, with Mr. Burke (“a bold presumer”) mentioned seldom “by way of relaxation” and French affairs giving way to American and British politics. There is some repetition, but only of things worth repeating; and I wouldn’t mind reading them twice more so long as they are written with such eloquence:

Nothing can appear more contradictory than the principles on which the old governments began, and the condition to which society, civilisation and commerce are capable of carrying mankind. Government, on the old system, is an assumption of power, for the aggrandisement of itself; on the new, a delegation of power for the common benefit of society. The former supports itself by keeping up a system of war; the latter promotes a system of peace, as the true means of enriching a nation. The one encourages national prejudices; the other promotes universal society, as the means of universal commerce. The one measures its prosperity, by the quantity of revenue it extorts; the other proves its excellence, by the small quantity of taxes it requires.

The structure of this passage strongly resembles the opening paragraph of Common Sense about the differences between society and government (see above). In this second part, Tom Paine again denounces, at leisure and greater length but still violently, monarchy as “a silly, contemptible thing”, hereditary successors of whom one is “a tyrant, another an idiot, a third insane, and some all three together”, England where “everything has a constitution, except the nation”, and old governments in general as products of organized crime supported by perpetual war and artificially inflated taxes. He again insists that Constitution is not a set of rules made by the Government to rule the Nation (his capitals), but exactly the opposite: a code of conduct made by the Nation which the Government must obey. This should be really quite obviously the case. But is it really? He touches on anarchism (“the more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government”), but he sees representational government as the best option, not democracy in the ancient Greek sense which has long become impracticable, certainly not the arbitrary power of “hereditaryship”. Though he lived a century before anybody dreamed anything about genetics, Tom Paine knew something about it:

Experience, in all ages, and in all countries, has demonstrated that it is impossible to controul Nature in her distribution of mental powers. She gives them as she pleases. Whatever is the rule by which she, apparently to us, scatters them among mankind, that rule remains a secret to man. It would be as ridiculous to attempt to fix the hereditaryship of human beauty, as of wisdom. Whatever wisdom constituently is, it is like a seedless plant; it may be reared when it appears, but it cannot be voluntarily produced. There is always a sufficiency somewhere in the general mass of society for all purposes; but with respect to the parts of society, it is continually changing its place. It rises in one to-day, in another to-morrow, and has most probably visited in rotation every family of the earth, and again withdrawn.

Rights of Man is arguably Tom Paine’s greatest work, perhaps rivalled by The Age of Reason, perhaps of even greater consequence. It is surprisingly modern not only in style but also in content. It is beautifully written, extremely readable and quite engrossing for something usually tagged “political science”. Very few pages are dull, mostly some financial calculations in the “Miscellaneous Chapter” of Part I and the last chapter of Part II (omitted here). The only relatively major criticism I have is that Tom Paine may be underestimating the degree to which representational government acting under a constitution of the people can abuse the rights of man. Then again, Tom Paine was way ahead of his times. He may still be ahead of ours. He does say that:

The case is, that mankind (from the long tyranny of assumed power) have had so few opportunities of making the necessary trials on modes and principles of government, in order to discover the best, that government is but now beginning to be known, and experience is yet wanting to determine many particulars.

But had he been alive today, he may well have said, with a sad smile on his face, that nations around the world are still far away from the best possible government that human nature is capable of producing. What could we reply to that?

The Age of Reason

This work concludes Tom Paine’s trinity of masterpieces. It is a pity we don’t have it complete here, but if we had the volume may have become inconveniently thick for a paperback. We do, however, have its marvellous full title: “The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology”. The first part was completed in January 1794 (the dedication “To My Fellow Citizens of the United States of America” is dated “January 27th, O. S., 1794”) while Paine was imprisoned in France for living up to his principles. In Rights of Man he argued with Burke that the “natural moderation” of Louis XVI, far from being an indictment on the Revolution, was one of “its highest honours”. Because this was not a revolution “excited by personal hatred”, but one against the principle of “established despotism” that goes hand in hand with monarchy. Naturally enough, few years later he opposed the execution of the King – and found himself imprisoned, not to mention nearly executed. But prisons evidently are congenial to writing: people as different as Bertrand Russell and Adolf Hitler produced books there. So did Thomas Paine.

The twenty pages or so we have here cover the first seven and a half chapters complete (save for one short paragraph), the complete chapter IX, much of the last chapter XVII and the whole of the Recapitulation of Part One. Omissions are vaguely noted with ellipsis, but all footnotes are silently omitted. It may be useful to give here the original titles of the chapters that are represented. They give a pretty good idea of the contents:

Chapter I – The Author's Profession of Faith
Chapter II – Of Missions and Revelations
Chapter III – Concerning the Character of Jesus Christ, and His History
Chapter IV – Of the Bases of Christianity
Chapter V – Examination in Detail of the Preceding Bases
Chapter VI – Of the True Theology
Chapter VII – Examination of the Old Testament

[…]
Chapter IX – In What the True Revelation Consists
[…]
Chapter XVII – Of the Means Employed in All Time, and Almost Universally, to Deceive the Peoples

Sidney Hook aptly describes Tom Paine as “a man of naive but moving natural piety”. For once, I’m in complete agreement with Mr Hook. I don’t know if Tom Paine knew Spinoza’s Ethics, but his deism is remarkably similar to the ideas of the Dutch philosopher. He believes in one God only, whose attributes are infinite and whose munificence we may behold in the whole of Creation, from the multitude of life on the planet we inhabit to the starry heavens above. I cannot share this attitude myself (and I can’t help wondering if Tom Paine would have shared it had he lived a century later), but I can respect and admire it much more easily than the dogmatic fables of the monotheistic religions. It’s an open-minded and life-affirming creed, very much unlike the morbid obsessions of Christianity. Except for a few basic premises, very basic indeed, Tom Paine scrupulously applies his favourite weapon – Reason – to religious beliefs, his own as well as others, with predictable results. He disbelieves all churches, condemns organised religion as criminal, and appeals for unflinching intellectual honesty. Now, these sentiments I heartily agree with:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and, in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive anything more destructive to morality than this?


It is just as easy to see why The Age of Reason was banned in England until 1822 as it is to understand why Tom Paine was tried in absentia and sentenced to death for “high treason” after the publication of Rights of Man. Bold, racy and audacious as his prose generally is, it is twice bolder, racier and more audacious when he denounces Christianity. It would be an understatement to say that he tears to pieces the work of the “Christian mythologists”. He refuses to believe that a God who could create the universe would bother with dubious devices like miracles, prophesies and revelations when He wants to convey His message. He shows conclusively that there is no reason to consider the Bible as anything more than absurd fiction of dubious origin and highly questionable moral character, much less as the “word of God”; indeed, it must be a very careless and impotent God who uses human languages, with all their inherent ambiguity and diversity, to speak to his devotees. He respects Jesus for his teaching and philanthropy, but never does it pass his mind to regard him as a “son of God”. He bluntly accuses the Church for having deliberately opposed science and learning for centuries in order to conceal the inanity of its doctrines. And so on and so forth. It’s a brilliant onslaught, superbly written and utterly devastating, an imperishable monument to The Age of Reason as opposed to The Age of Superstition. Which age do we now live in?

The Age of Reason is a work of much greater length and substance than the relatively short excerpt reprinted here suggests. A second part was published in 1795, dealing extensively with the fabulous character of both the New and the Old Testament, and a third finished by the late 1790s but not published until 1807, just two years before Paine’s death at the age of 72, which elaborates still further on the same subject as a reply to one Watson, Bishop of Llandaff. Though it may be argued that the first part is the most important one and that the excerpt in this edition does it justice, there are some regrettable omissions that should have been retained. I conclude with two of them. The first is the 19th psalm as rendered in verse by Addison. This beautiful poem is quoted in chapter X as one of the very few places in the Bible “that convey to us any idea of God” and thus it gives a special insight into the nature of Tom Paine’s deism. The second are several paragraphs from chapter XI that offer yet another lovely piece of anti-Christian invective and an excellent explanation what Tom Paine means by “true theology”; oddly enough, he means science and art:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue etherial sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great original proclaim.
The unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator's power display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty hand.
Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the list'ning earth
Repeats the story of her birth;
Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets, in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
Move round this dark terrestrial ball
What though no real voice, nor sound,
Amidst their radiant orbs be found,
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
The Hand That Made Us Is Divine.


As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of atheism; a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up chiefly of man-ism with but little deism, and is as near to atheism as twilight is to darkness. It introduces between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a redeemer, as the moon introduces her opaque self between the earth and the sun, and it produces by this means a religious or an irreligious eclipse of light. It has put the whole orbit of reason into shade.

[…]

That which is now called natural philosophy, embracing the whole circle of science, of which astronomy occupies the chief place, is the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in his works, and is the true theology.

[…]

It is from the study of the true theology that all our knowledge of science is derived; and it is from that knowledge that all the arts have originated.

The Crisis

When John Adams, grudgingly, said that “Without the pen of [Tom Paine], the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain”, he meant Common Sense, but his words are better suited to the series of rousing pamphlets published under the title The American Crisis between 1776 and 1783. These are the natural successors of Common Sense, mixing strong arguments with pure rhetoric in the same adroit manner. It is not difficult to imagine the effect they must have had when read aloud to the Continental Army. The least important and the most dated of Tom Paine’s writings, they are still full of common sense (this is how they are signed) and make an enjoyable read. We have here generous selections from seven of the pamphlets, including the famous openings of the first (December 23, 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”) and the last of them (April 19, 1783):

“The times that tried men’s souls,” are over – and the greatest and completest revolution the world ever knew, gloriously and happily accomplished.

Agrarian Justice

This is the last major work that Tom Paine published during his life. It rounds off a small oeuvre of exceptionally high quality. It’s a brief treatise, so the short excerpt we have here covers well the salient points. Typically in his style, Tom Paine goes back to the roots of civilisation and makes a number of provocative observations. I do disagree with him that “earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race”. For sure, it is nothing of the kind. Man is but a guest on this planet for a while and the human race has no right whatsoever to claim any part of the Earth as its “common property”, or at least it has as much (or as little) right to own the land as the water or the air. If, however, we accept this condition for the sake of the argument, some rather curious consequences follow.

First of all, Tom Paine argues, it follows that every landowner owes the community a ground-rent. He speculates perceptively that land owning had its origins in the inability to separate the land in its natural state (which no single person or group of persons can own) from the cultivation that improves its productivity (which is owned by those who work for it). He notes the hardly disputable fact that one of the nasty side effects of civilisation is the great number of people whose living conditions are “far worse than if they had been born before civilization begin, had been born among the Indians of North America at the present.” How can we help these wretched people? What can we do to rectify this injustice? In a nutshell, Tom Paine proposes to collect the ground-rents in a national fund from which those people who have been “dispossessed […] of their natural inheritance” should be compensated. From the same fund he also allocates certain amounts of money for every person who turns 21 (once) and 50 (for life).

I haven’t the least idea if these suggestions are, or ever were, economically sound. Even if they are not and never were, though, Tom Paine’s intentions remain, not just highly commendable and ethically impeccable, but an inspiring example of humanism all too rare today. It is worth noting, by way of conclusion, that the full title of the work is “Agrarian Justice, opposed to Agrarian Law, and to Agrarian Monopoly, being a plan for meliorating the condition of man, etc.” and that he finally decided to published it after he saw a sermon of the Bishop of Llandaff entitled “The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both Rich and Poor…” Tom Paine would have none of this:

The error contained in this sermon determined me to publish my Agrarian Justice. It is wrong to say God made Rich and Poor; he made only Male and Female, and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.

Instead of preaching to encourage one part of mankind in insolence it would be better that priests employed their time to render the general condition of man less miserable than it is. Practical religion consists in doing good; and the only way of serving God is that of endeavouring to make his creation happy. All preaching that has not this, for its object is nonsense and hypocrisy.
( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jul 19, 2015 |
Wow. Genius! ( )
  DanielAlgara | Sep 26, 2014 |
An excellent book. The foundations of the American political structure and two hundred years later a call to come back to basics. A call to expose how America is edging closer to ALL things that it set out NOT to be. More than a voice of the past but a herald, like a prophet in the desert, saying"You have strayed away from something that was so clearly laid out for you, Come back." Come back NOT to a system of the wealthiest man or woman dominates the poor but one where ALL MEN AND WOMEN are equal in the eyes of the law and are allowed to seek out what it is that makes them happy and prosperous.Come back not to a time where one set of religious moralities dominates outside of said religious institutions but one where one is FREE to practice their own religion WITHOUT fear that another religious code would be made lawCome back to a time where Kings, Queens, Generals, members of a Aristocracy or Corporation did not and could not Rule over the lives of the common man and give cause and make law for doing so.When you read through you might think as I did, "Things of 200 years ago are still going on today. Have we made any progress? Yes some here, some there, but when it comes to the basics: If we knew what we were trying to get away from, trying to avoid. Why then is it still here?" ( )
  a1abwriter | Sep 25, 2012 |
  rmgalliher | Dec 31, 2010 |
One of the great minds of the revolution. Paine argues for the basic freedoms we as a country, now enjoy. ( )
  Borg-mx5 | Apr 15, 2010 |
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Thomas Paineprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hook, SidneyIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fruchtman, JackForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This work refers to The Essential Thomas Paine, first published in 1969, with an introduction by Sidney Hook, and containing Common Sense and Rights of Man complete as well as selections from The Crisis, The Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice. In 2003 it was published as a Signet Classics paperback under the title Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine and with a new Foreword by Jack Fruchtman Jr. Please do not combine with different selections from Tom Paine's writings.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0451528891, Mass Market Paperback)

Paine's daring prose paved the way for the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. This volume also includes "The Crisis," "The Age of Reason," and "Agrarian Justice."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:05 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In January 1776, Thomas Paine published a pamphlet called Common Sense, which electrified the American colonies. Paine demanded freedom from Britain when even fervent patriots were revolting only against excessive taxation. His daring prose spurred passage of the Declaration of Independence. The Crisis, written when Paine was a soldier during the Continental Army's bleakest days, begins with the world-famous line "These are the times that try men's souls." His call for perseverance and fortitude prevented Washington's army from disintegrating. Later, Paine's impassioned defense of the French Revolution, Rights of Man, caused an immediate sensation, but got him into deep trouble with the French ruling classes. Together in one volume, Common Sense, Rights of Man, and major selections from The Crisis, The Age of Reason, and Agrarian Justice represent the key works of one of the world's most eloquent proponents of democracy -- the man who has been justly hailed as the "English Voltaire."… (more)

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