In honor of Banned Books Week , I decided earlier this month to revisit Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
Originally published in England as two separate pamphlets (in March 1791 and February 1792), the 200-page book is still widely considered Paine’s most important and influential work.
It is also, according to the American Library Association “one of history’s most banned political narratives.” In England, it was contraband for decades. Selling this work of “seditious libel” could get you arrested, fined, imprisoned – or even, as in one case, transported. Both a defense of the French Revolution and an ideological take-down of English monarchy, Rights of Man caused a political furor almost unimaginable for us today. (Yes, even in the age of Trump). In 1792, brought to trial by the Crown, Paine fled his native England to avoid being hung as a traitor. He would never return.
Since that time, Rights of Man has remained controversial, a regular target of censorship efforts around the world. Even in the United States it hasn’t always been safe from challenges in schools and libraries.
Nor is it difficult to understand why. Paine’s insistence, conveyed in plain language, that ordinary citizens had an inherent, always-existing right to choose – and if necessary to change – their governments was and continues to be toxic to authoritarians of all political stripes.
I first encountered Rights of Man around 2010. Having read The Age of Reason and Common Sense, I was prepared for the conventions of eighteenth-century language, as well as Paine’s impressive gift for both lucid explanation and (often hilarious) sarcasm.
I was not prepared for the sheer breadth and compass of Paine’s democratic vision – nor the depth of his feeling for the oppressed. Of the supposedly “vulgar … ignorant mob,” the lowest of the poor classes throughout Europe, Paine offers this insight, two centuries before activists had a word for marginalization:
It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased, till the whole is out of nature. A vast mass of mankind are degradedly thrown into the back-ground of the human picture, to bring forward, with greater glare, the puppet-show of state and aristocracy.
The book is filled with such insights.
Yet, even after a second reading, I still find Rights of Man a difficult work to fully absorb. It is nearly impossible to summarize, because it is so many things at once. Far more than a polemic, it is also reportage, protest, political theory. It is at once sober journalism and withering satire, careful analysis and impassioned plea for justice. The late commentator Christopher Hitchens describes it as “one of the first ‘modern’ texts,” and “both a trumpet of inspiration and a carefully wrought blueprint for a more rational and decent ordering of society” (Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: a Biography, 11).
In its reach and complexity, the book is different, even, from Paine’s other writings. Unlike Common Sense or The American Crisis, it’s less a call to arms than a spur thought and reflection – though it is filled with evocative metaphor and stirring language. Unlike The Age of Reason, it doesn’t target a specific foe, such as organized religion – unless that foe is monarchy and “hereditary government,” which will strike most readers of today as last century’s news.
Ironically, the main barrier to fully appreciating Rights of Man in 2017 may be that its critique of “government” has been largely blunted over time – by the very progress that Paine himself hoped for and advocated. What was “seditious libel” worthy of trying to hang an upstart writer back in 1792 is today the “common sense” of nearly all modern democracies.
As Paine states in “Letter to the Addressers.” his summary and defense of Rights of Man, “I have asserted … and by fair and open argument maintained, the right of every nation at all times to establish such a system and form of government for itself as best accords with its disposition, interest, and happiness; and to change and alter it as it sees occasion.”
That is – people, meaning ordinary citizens, are the creators and shapers of government. And those same people have the right to change and reshape their government if they so choose.
Paine doesn’t need to convince us that such a belief is right, just, or natural. We presume those truths to be self-evident. What shocks us is that anyone might believe – or have ever believed – otherwise.
Americans in particular have been telling ourselves this story of how governments are best formed for over two hundred years. We tell it this way because we learned it from our Founders, including and especially Thomas Paine.
So what, if anything, can a work like Rights of Man say to us today, if so many of its precepts are already ingrained in our worldview? Haven’t we already absorbed all this business about representative democracies and written constitutions?
Well … perhaps – but it is helpful to remind ourselves of how much reality – political reality, in particular – is invented.
Rights of Man – like all Paine’s work, like the writings of all our Founders – was created at a time when modern democracy was experimental and widely mistrusted. Words and concepts matter. Historians point out that in Rights of Man, Paine transformed the meaning of the word democracy itself, giving it the largely positive connotation it carries today. In the late eighteenth century, thinkers and writers were still using democracy as a slur – a synonym for anarchy, lawlessness, “mob rule,” and the unmooring of civil order. John Adams understood the word in this sense, and like others of his time, characterized democracy as a kind of contagion – as “Paine’s yellow fever.” The statesman Edmund Burke became Paine’s ideological rival – and the catalyst for the writing of Paine’s book, when he dismissed as irrelevant some “paltry sheets about the rights of man.”
American political discourse has been, and continues to be, one long debate about rights: who has them, who should, what they entail, how they are to be enforced, what puts them under threat. When the Supreme Court hears a case, whether on health insurance or campaign funding or immigration, it acts as an arbiter of rights. Many of its most important cases historically have referenced and interpreted the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, better known to all of us as the Bill of Rights. We are nearly incapable of imagining a world without rights – or at least a theoretical assertion of them – as a given.
It has perhaps become too easy for us “post-moderns” to forget that there was a time in which rights were a foreign and forbidden language, a cause to charge writers with madness and treason, to jail booksellers and publishers and to burn authors in effigy. The media of Thomas Paine’s day cast his work in precisely those terms, whether through vicious editorial cartoons of “Mad Tom, the Man of Rights” or a scurrilous government-funded “biography” packed with falsehoods.
Yet Paine – and his ideas – have persisted.
Among many other things, Rights of Man advocates for a progressive tax structure and what we might today call a welfare state: government pensions for the old, education for the young and the unemployed, help for the impoverished and for new parents. Many of these ideas did not see fruition for a century and more after Paine’s death. Many others have yet to be even tried. Paine did not live to see most of the changes that his words helped bring about.
And just as he failed to see the coming Reign of Terror in France – an oversight that nearly got him killed (there were a great number of things in Paine’s life that nearly got him killed before he actually died … at the age of 73) – so he also failed to see that the dissolution of monarchy would not bring an end to war. Nor could he have known that democracy wasn’t a cure-all, and that many of the abuses he attributed to “the monarchical system” would prove a hazard to representative systems as well. The presidency of Donald Trump is far from the earliest example, but of course it springs most easily to mind. In reading Paine’s various descriptions of monarchy as afflicted by the ills of both youth and old age, it’s hard not to keep seeing Trump, the would-be emperor of America, with his alternating temper-tantrums and breathtaking ignorance.
It is government through the medium of passions and accidents. It appears under all the various characters of childhood, decrepitude, dotage, a thing at nurse, in leading-strings, or in crutches. It reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of nonage over wisdom and experience. In short, we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government …
Likewise, in contemplating the phenomenon of “alternate facts” and “fake news” that we read about daily, Paine’s warnings about the “the puppet show” and “mystery” of government take on new resonance.
Yet for me, as always, the most moving aspect of Paine’s writing is never ideology – or even bold, strong language, but compassion – and the kind of open-hearted idealism that our cynical culture loves to deride as naive fantasy.
There are moments, more perhaps in Rights of Man than any of his other works, when Paine’s faith in his fellow human beings – that is, in us, ordinary Jane-and-Joe Average citizens like you and me – is not only profoundly touching, but unsettling. Throughout the book, it is clear that Paine rests his faith less in a specific form of government than in his fellow human beings – in “we the people” and our willingness to assert and protect not just our own rights – but those of others. Representative democracy will work, he tells us, not because of this or that party or leader, but because “the nation” (in the Rousseauist sense, meaning “the people”) has the ultimate power to shape and control government.
“Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it,” he tells us. “Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. …. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require.” Those are rousing and hopeful words – words fit to encourage a resistance.
Paine also believed that we the people could see through the orchestrated lies that government (or the media) so often peddles. In “Letter to the Addressers,” he writes:
… how easily does even the most illiterate reader distinguish the spontaneous sensations of the heart, from the labored productions of the brain. Truth, whenever it can fully appear, is a thing so naturally familiar to the mind, that an acquaintance commences at first sight. No artificial light, yet discovered, can display all the properties of daylight; so neither can the best invented fiction fill the mind with every conviction which truth begets.
In Rights of Man, this sentiment is even more streamlined and poetic:
… such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. The sun needs no inscription to distinguish him from darkness.
In this age of floating signifiers, fake news, and tweeting presidents, it is challenging, even daunting, to adopt Paine’s optimistic stance on the self-evidence of truth. Media and technology have changed all of that, we keep hearing. We may (rightly) ask if Paine was being naive – and whether we are naive to trust what he says.
But we should not forget that speaking truth to power has never been a magic trick or a one-time proposition. Truth may “only” need to appear – but most of the time it needs to appear over and over again before it sinks it. Paine knew this, even if he doesn’t say so here. We can tell that by the number of times that he did, in fact, repeat those democratic ideals that we think we know, but rarely expend the effort to examine or teach or defend. Paine did all these things throughout his life, very often at great personal risk, over, and over, and over again.
Thomas Paine persisted – on many fronts beyond the printed page. And through those efforts, his thoughts and ideas have persisted into our own time.
We need to remember that, and follow his example.