Thursday, 25 August 2011

Review of "The Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine

This well-known pamphlet represents the pro-revolution side's riposte to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Dedicated to George Washington, whom Paine admired, it earned its author a conviction for seditious libel in the English courts.


Burke had been on the same side as Paine over the American Revolution, but by this time the two men had split and Paine treated Burke with contempt.  According to Paine, Burke wrote "neither in the character of a Frenchman nor an Englishman, but in the fawning character of that creature known in all countries, and a friend to none - a courtier".  Paine poured scorn on Burke's well-known lament for the passing of the age of chivalry and romance:
When we see a man dramatically lamenting in a publication intended to be believed that "The age of chivalry is gone!" that "The glory of Europe is extinguished for ever!" that "The unbought grace of life (if anyone knows what it is), the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone!" and all this because the Quixot age of chivalry nonsense is gone, what opinion can we form of his judgment, or what regard can we pay to his facts? In the rhapsody of his imagination he has discovered a world of wind mills, and his sorrows are that there are no Quixots to attack them.
Burke did not advert to mankind's rational faculties.  For him, it seemed that men were merely "a herd of beings that must be governed by fraud, effigy, and show".

With regard to France, Burke's argument that the French Revolution was misconceived because Louis XVI was a nice man had missed the point.  There was nothing to say that his successor wouldn't be worse, and, anyway, the whole system was corrupt.  A revolution had been needed to cleanse the Augean stables.  Paine also thought less of Britain's own Glorious Revolution of 1688 than Burke.  Referring dismissively to the 1689 legislation, he declared that "the authority of a mouldy parchment" could not bind living generations of men.  He elsewhere wrote that "the bill of rights [of 1689] is more properly a bill of wrongs".

Paine took on Burke's wider political philosophy too.  It was no good trying to win arguments by appealing to tradition and history, because history furnished a variety of contradictory precedents.  Paine pointed to classical Athens as a fine example of a democratic society.  In fact, if applied consistently, the antiquarian approach would actually support the liberal project.  Paine turns Burke's reasoning against him: if we're going to appeal to history, let's go back to the very beginning.  All men were originally created equal by God, so "the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record".  Burke's veneration of history, moreover, lacked a proper sense of relativism:
Those who lived an hundred or a thousand years ago, were then moderns, as we are now. They had their ancients, and those ancients had others, and we also shall be ancients in our turn. If the mere name of antiquity is to govern in the affairs of life, the people who are to live an hundred or a thousand years hence, may as well take us for a precedent, as we make a precedent of those who lived an hundred or a thousand years ago.
Unlike Burke, Paine thought little of the British constitution - in fact, he thought that there was no British constitution.  The British government drew its origin from the military conquest of the country by William of Normandy, "the son of a prostitute, and the plunderer of the English nation".  At the present day, the nation continued to be governed by the absurd constitutional fiction of the "Crown".  In France, by contrast, the people were sovereign and the law was set over the king.  Paine also drew an unflattering contrast between the British monarch and the American president.  He said of the former:
In England the person who exercises prerogative is often a foreigner; always half a foreigner, and always married to a foreigner. He is never in full natural or political connection with the country, is not responsible for anything, and becomes of age at eighteen years; yet such a person is permitted to form foreign alliances, without even the knowledge of the nation, and to make war and peace without its consent.
As for the House of Lords, why did landowners need a separate House of Parliament of their own - except to serve their financial self-interest?  In any case, titles of nobility were empty, and giving peers seats in the legislature was as absurd as having hereditary judges or hereditary mathematicians.  Even the elected House of Commons was deserving of criticism, being elected as it was on an inequitable and corrupt basis.  Paine drew an unfavourable comparison between the British Parliament and the French National Assembly:
Their Parliamentary language, whether for or against a question, is free, bold and manly, and extends to all the parts and circumstances of the case. If any matter or subject respecting the executive department or the person who presides in it (the king) comes before them it is debated on with the spirit of men, and in the language of gentlemen; and their answer or their address is returned in the same style....

....In the addresses of the English Parliaments to their kings we see neither the intrepid spirit of the old Parliaments of France, nor the serene dignity of the present National Assembly; neither do we see in them anything of the style of English manners, which border somewhat on bluntness.... [T]heir origin must be sought for elsewhere, and that origin is the Norman Conquest. They are evidently of the vassalage class of manners, and emphatically mark the prostrate distance that exists in no other condition of men than between the conqueror and the conquered. That this vassalage idea and style of speaking was not got rid of even at the Revolution of 1688, is evident from the declaration of Parliament to William and Mary in these words: "We do most humbly and faithfully submit ourselves, our heirs and posterities, for ever." Submission is wholly a vassalage term, repugnant to the dignity of freedom, and an echo of the language used at the Conquest.


Paine believed that man is naturally social because he needs to co-operate with others in order to satisfy his needs.  In addition, he has a "love for society".  This was illustrated by the observations that society had survived during the absence of proper government during the American War of Independence, and that contemporary America was a stable society in spite of the diversity of her people.  Social order was therefore mostly not the creation of governments, and "a great part of what is called government is mere imposition". Governments were legitimate only where individuals entered into a social contract to create them.

Paine did not like monarchy, which he called "a silly, contemptible thing".  The first kings, he said, had been bandits who had seized control of infant societies.  Monarchy was militaristic, tyrannical, and too often yielded rulers who were unsuitable for the throne.  In general, hereditary government meant ignorance and the selfish appropriation of power.  By contrast, representative democracy meant reason and the delegation of power in the common interest.  He went so far as to say that "all hereditary government over a people is to them a species of slavery, and representative government is freedom".  Of course, he was aware that these were not the only two choices.  British constitutional writers prided themselves on having a mixed and balanced constitution which was not wholly monarchic, aristocratic or democratic, but Paine dismissed a mixed government of this kind as a "continual enigma" and said that such systems were unsatisfactory and corrupt.

As for the link between the church and the state, this led to a corruption of true religion.  The result was persecution and injury to the public good.  Paine didn't believe in national churches at all, and he affirmed that "every religion is good that teaches man to be good".

Paine writes at times like a small government conservative.  He liked commerce, and he didn't like taxes.  He sounds almost like Daniel Hannan or Ron Paul when he affirms that "[t]he more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government", or laments about how often "the natural propensity to society [is] disturbed or destroyed by the operations of government".  Of course, being in favour of small government meant something different in the 18th century from what it means today.  Paine was writing in the days when taxation served to support monarchies, aristocracies and armies rather than to redistribute wealth - and he was far-sighted enough to set out a fairly detailed plan for a set of social welfare measures to be administered by the British government.

Paine was a man of his time in other ways too.  His talk of "reason" and "nature" is quintessentially a product of the Enlightenment.  So is his naive optimism.  He prophesied that Europe would be transformed from "a scene of iniquity and oppression" to a continent of constitutional democracies within seven years, so bringing "a new era to the human race".  It is particularly unfortunate that he saw fit to declare his opinion "that man, were he not corrupted by governments, is naturally the friend of man, and that human nature is not of itself vicious".  Of course, he hadn't yet heard of Napoleon, let alone Bismarck, Lenin or Hitler.

Paine can be criticised on other grounds too.  There is a streak of self-righteousness and polemic in his writing which is not attractive.  When reading his work, one feels at times that Burke's critique of the Enlightenment project as being naive and excessively theoretical had something to commend it.  Paine's arguments are often somewhat abstract and insufficiently rooted in real-world practice.  It is not difficult to mock Burke's lament for the lost age of chivalry, but it must be clear by now that governments can't survive and function on the basis of rationality alone.  It is, for example, a cliché to observe that the constitution of Paine's beloved United States is sustained not (or not only) by pure enlightened reason but by the mixture of social habit and emotional sentiment that Robert Bellah referred to as America's "civil religion".

On the other hand, Paine has had the last laugh.  Democratic republicanism has triumphed in the west, even in countries like Britain where governments remain nominally monarchical - though it did take a little longer than seven years.  His ideas about civil rights, representative government and the secular state, though shocking in their time, have become unremarkable and orthodox throughout the West.  Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.