The riposte of Thomas Paine to Edmund Burke:  “Rights of a Man” Thomas Paine

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his prominent masterpiece written by Thomas Paine played a pivotal role in the history of human being that embraced all aspects of rights of a man, following natural rights, intellectual rights, natural interests, and mainly the importance of human dignity.

Thomas Paine was an Anglo-American philosopher, political theorist, and activist who made a great contribution to the history of mankind with his eminent works; the Common Sense, the American Crisis, the Rights of a Man, the Age of Reason, and Agrarian Justice. The Rights of a Man as an influential pamphlet echoes its huge impacts on the present day. In fact, Thomas Paine noted all meaningful rights of a man in his pamphlet. At the start of the French revolution, the British politician Edmund Burke who was a supporter of the American Revolution condemned the French Revolution and advocated in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” that the French Revolution had engendered the extremist movements and radicalism which caused an unprecedented destruction of a nation’s social groups (particularly, elites, aristocracy) and devolved the civic society of France into democratic dictatorship and barbarism. After the Edmund Burke’s argument, Thomas Paine highly criticized his pamphlet and gave his pro-revolutionary riposte to him and argued in his Rights of a Man, that the French Revolution was a successful beginning of a new era of human history with which a man would be able to apply new-fangled “Enlightenment” values to his society, and by starting with new era, men could secure peace through the adoption of the system of newly secure government based on their mutual rights. “The Rights of a Man” was composed of two main parts. The first part dedicated to U.S President G. Washington chiefly addresses to the most of E. Burke’s questions regarding the French Revolution. The second part subjects to the debate of the principles of government that advocates the Constitutional Republic that the French Revolution reached it. In this essay, Thomas Paine gives his exact arguments point by point on Burke’s questions and mainly criticizes the error points of Edmund Burke on French Revolution and countered that his pamphlet concerning the French Revolution was “odd case”. Unless, some criticism on the essay, it had given huge contribution to the universal human rights in today’s world.

The Rights of a Man is an important work for both past and present days. Today, it remains the one of the pivotal works regarding human rights. In fact, the essay embraces all aspects of natural interests, rights, and the significance of human self-esteem. Therefore, focusing on this topic gives large-scale insight to understand the meaning of human rights. This essay is one of the best-known masterpieces of Thomas Paine, which he declares that the French Revolution is the beginning of a new era for the “Enlightenment” principles and values in human society. It is the beginning of the establishment of newly rational governments based on the mutual understanding and rights of human society.

As I mentioned before that this prominent pro-revolutionary pamphlet dedicated to U.S President George Washington was written as a response to the Burke’s questions regarding his attack on the French Revolution. First and foremost, there were huge differences between the opinions of Burke and Paine. According to Burke, the French Revolution had caused much destruction within the French society and engendered the despotism and political havoc. He mainly focused on the traditional values and property rights. He also argued that there were not special rights belonged to people. All rights were defined by law and people had to act according to the Rules of Law. Furthermore, he mentioned that humans were shaped by institutions and communities and rejected the principles of radical individualism advocated by Thomas Paine. Upon the opinions of Burke regarding the French Revolution, Thomas Paine sparked its radical arguments as a response to Burke’s questions and answered his questions one by one with exact points in his essay. In the first part, His dedicated his work to U.S President George Washington with these words:

“Sir, I present you with a small treatise in defence of those principles of freedom which your exemplary virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish. That the rights of a man may become as universal as your benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the happiness of seeing the new world regenerate the old”

With this appeal, he argues that people now alive should not have to repeat their ancestors’ acts what they did, they have to try to regenerate the old one and replace it with a new one because traditional rights and heredity do will nothing on behalf of the people, and devolve them into repression. Secondly, Burke was in favour of traditional rights and property and argued that the revolution in France was misconceived because Louis XVI was a good King, but missed the chance. As a consequence, the revolution caused the extremist and barbaric movements within French society.

On the contrary, Paine argued that the traditional approach had caused the hostility and inequality between the French people, and he emphasized that if Burke accepted that men had rights based on traditional principles and referred to the antiquarian approach, why did not he go back to the far enough antique history?! - With this argument, Paine countered that even in the antique history the rights of a man had carried out the seeds of liberty, liberal projects, and democratic principles. He showed the Athens as an example to support his argument against Burke. Paine’s argument clears that democratic principles have to base on mutual understanding of rights and interests of social groups. Then Paine again turns to the Burke’s opinion and mention: If we are going to appeal to history, let’s go back to the much far beginning; the creation of a man by God. He argued that God created all human being equal and gave them equally natural values, principles, rights, and mainly natural dignity. God created male and female in the example of Adam and Eve. The natural rights of a man are the foundation of all his civil rights. Let me highlight the main parts of the essay, in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Burke referred to the history of the British Constitution and argued that this constitution grounded on the “Rules of Law” over people in Britain and people tried to obey hereditary monarchs according to these Rules of Law. On the contrary, Paine replied to him by arguing that the English Monarchy began with the imposition of the hereditary monarchy by the military conquest of William in 1066. Therefore, the creation of British Monarchy was not established by the British Constitution, it was founded in military power and the sword was declared as a name of a sceptre. According to him, the monarchy had militaristic and tyrannical power. The hereditary government subjected to ignorance and the selfish use of a power of society only on behalf of monarchs, not of human society. Hence, he came to the conclusion that the English government was one of those which was created out of military conquest not out of human society and had nefarious impacts and pressures over people and forced the English to obey its Rules of Law. He argued that constitution of a country was not an act of its government, but the act of its people creating a constitution based on their common rights and interests.

Moreover, Paine mentions that man is naturally social because of the fact that he is in need to co-operate with other people in order to facilitate his needs. Society had long survived in spite of the absence of a proper government. The government could be legitimate only where people made a social contract to establish it. The social contract is based on liberal project and democratic principles. Hence, people having mutual rights and interests in order to provide their needs create a proper government that is based on a common sense of social groups and finally, democratic principles. These democratic principles should have to be provided within the human society through mutual understanding and equal rights. Representative government appertained to the rational use of power in common interests. On the other hand, he rejected believing in the national churches and mentioned that the close link between the church and the state led to the immense corruption of true religion in society that executed injury and persecution to social groups.

Thomas Paine did not like the heredity government or monarchy and called it ridiculous and despicable thing. Burke preferred to elites and aristocracy claimed that society could only be shaped by the institutions and communities, and grounded on the roles of elites and aristocracy, but Paine disagreed that the emergence of elites or aristocracy was a clear evidence of despotism and injustice that was kept up by family tyranny and hereditary government. It had a tendency in order to destruct the human species in society. At the same time, although he condemned the taxes, but preferred to the commerce and mentioned that people were in need of trade and commerce because of their interests and demands. Taxes were the means of keeping up the power of elites or aristocracy, in particular monarchy that plundered people within society. All hereditary government had its own nature oppression, but the representative government rested on the interests and rights of society and civilisation for its basis because it was a representative system of the whole people, and whole society.

In conclusion, I would like to state that the main centrality of Thomas Paine was natural rights that led to the formation of civil rights. Indeed, this masterpiece is the proved document of not only the natural dignity of a man, but also the whole human rights. In this essay, I observed that what differentiates Burke from Paine is Burke’s placing on social institutions and communities in order to preserve ordered liberty, but Paine mainly focuses on radical individualism based on equal principles. Therefore, the French Revolution far more disturbed Edmund Burke due to the elimination of institutions in French society. To be sure, Thomas Paine as a revolutionary internationalist who believed in the Age of Revolution was a prominent man of his period. He related reason and nature closely that could lead to the newly discovered Enlightenment process in Europe. He prophesied that Europe had to be transformed from a realm of inequity and despotism to a scene of representative democracy and liberal values.

His central point is that the Revolution in France had stemmed from not force, only from reason and creation of liberal democracy referred to the principles discovered in the Enlightenment. Thereby, the French Revolution was the beginning of a new era and the “Enlightenment process” in Europe, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens founded the main basis of human rights and bestowed its admonition to present day: “Men are born free and equal with respect to their rights”.

Nargiz Hajiyeva

Nargiz Uzeir Hajiyeva is a policy analyst and independent researcher from Azerbaijan. She holds master degree from Vytautas Magnus University and Institute de Politique de Paris (Science Po). She got bachelor degree with distinction diploma at Baku State University from International Relations and Diplomacy. Her main research fields concern on international security and foreign policy issues, energy security, cultural and political history, global political economy and international public law. She worked as an independent researcher at Corvinus University of Budapest, Cold War History Research Center. She was also a successful participator of International Student Essay Contest, Stimson Institute, on how to prevent the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons, by Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School. She is also an independent researcher and a policy analyst at Observer.ge and Politicon.net platform, and Wikistrat.Between 2014 and 2015, she worked as a Chief Adviser and First Responsible Chairman In International and Legal Affairs at the Executive Power of Ganja. At that time she was defined to the position of Chief Economist at the Heydar Aliyev Center. 

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