by Thomas Paine
The original, squashed down to read in about 20 minutes
Thomas Paine, son of a Norfolk corset-maker, published this book as a defence of the recent French and American Revolutions, in reply to the conservative Edmund Burke's 'Reflections on the Revolution in France'. For it, Paine was tried in his absence and convicted of seditious libel. It has come to be seen as a seminal statement of liberty and equality, and a major influence on the spread of democracy.
RIGHTS OF MAN
Among the incivilities by which nations or individuals provoke and irritate each other, Mr. Burke's pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance. There is scarcely an epithet of abuse with which Mr. Burke has not loaded the French Nation. He calls the Declaration of the National Assembly of France, "paltry and blurred sheets of paper about the rights of man."
Does Mr. Burke mean to deny that man has any rights? If he does, then he must mean that there are no such things as rights anywhere, and that he has none himself? But if Mr. Burke means to admit that man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally?
Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man?
The Mosaic account of the creation, whether taken as divine authority or merely historical, is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expression admits of no controversy. "In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied. If this be not divine, it is at least historical authority, and shows that the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record.
His natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights. Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society.
In casting our eyes over the world, it is extremely easy to distinguish the governments which have arisen out of society, or out of the social compact, from those which have not; but to place this in a clearer light they may be all comprehended under three heads.
Thirdly, The common interest of society and the common rights of man.
The first was a government of priestcraft, the second of conquerors, and the third of reason.
When a set of artful men pretended, through the medium of oracles, to hold intercourse with the Deity, as familiarly as they now march up the back-stairs in European courts, the world was completely under the government of superstition. The oracles were consulted, and whatever they were made to say became the law; and this sort of government lasted as long as this sort of superstition lasted.
After these a race of conquerors arose, whose government, like that of William the Conqueror, was founded in power, and the sword assumed the name of a sceptre. Governments thus established last as long as the power to support them lasts; but that they might avail themselves of every engine in their favor, they united fraud to force, and set up an idol which they called Divine Right, and which, in imitation of the Pope, who affects to be spiritual and temporal, and in contradiction to the Founder of the Christian religion, twisted itself afterwards into an idol of another shape, called Church and State. The key of St. Peter and the key of the Treasury became quartered on one another, and the wondering cheated multitude worshipped the invention.
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.
We have now to review the governments which arise out of society. In such, the fact must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
A constitution is not a thing in name only, but in fact. It has not an ideal, but a real existence; and wherever it cannot be produced in a visible form, there is none. Can, then, Mr. Burke produce the English Constitution?
The English Government is one of those which arose out of a conquest, and not out of society, and consequently it arose over the people; and though it has been much modified from the opportunity of circumstances since the time of William the Conqueror, the country has never yet regenerated itself, and is therefore without a constitution.
I now proceed to draw some comparisons between the French constitution and the governmental usages in England.
The constitution of France says that every man who pays a tax of sixty sous per annum (2s. 6d. English) is an elector. Can anything be more limited, and at the same time more capricious, than the qualification of electors is in England?
The French Constitution says that the number of representatives for any place shall be in a ratio to the number of taxable inhabitants or electors. In England, the old town of Sarum, which contains not three houses, sends two members; and the town of Manchester, which contains upward of sixty thousand souls, is not admitted to send any.
The French Constitution says that the National Assembly shall be elected every two years. What article will Mr. Burke place against this? Why, that the nation has no right at all in the case; that the government is perfectly arbitrary with respect to this point.
The French Constitution says that the right of war and peace is in the nation. Where else should it reside but in those who are to pay the expense? In England this right is said to reside in a metaphor shown at the Tower for sixpence: so are the lions; and it would be a step nearer to reason to say it resided in them, for any inanimate metaphor is no more than a hat or a cap.
The French Constitution says, There shall be no titles; and, of consequence, all that class of "aristocracy" and "nobility," is done away. Titles are but nicknames, and the thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character, which degrades it. It talks about its fine blue ribbon like a girl, and shows its new garter like a child. A certain writer, of some antiquity, says: "When I was a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." It is from the elevated mind of France that the folly of titles has fallen. It has outgrown the baby clothes of Count and Duke, and breeched itself in manhood.
Let us then examine the grounds upon which the French Constitution has resolved against having a House of Peers in France.
Because, in the first place, aristocracy is kept up by family tyranny and injustice.
Secondly. Because there is an unnatural unfitness in an aristocracy to be legislators.
Thirdly. Because the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary poet laureate.
Fourthly. Because a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody.
Fifthly. Because it is continuing the uncivilised principle of governments founded in conquest, and the base idea of man having property in man, and governing him by personal right.
Sixthly. Because aristocracy has a tendency to deteriorate the human species.
The French Constitution hath abolished or renounced Toleration and Intolerance also, and hath established Universal Right Of Conscience. Toleration is not the opposite of Intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms.
Were a bill brought into any Parliament, entitled, "An Act to tolerate or grant liberty to the Almighty to receive the worship of a Jew or Turk," or "to prohibit the Almighty from receiving it," all men would startle and call it blasphemy. There would be an uproar. The presumption of toleration in religious matters would then present itself unmasked. Who then art thou, vain dust and ashes! by whatever name thou art called, whether a King, a Bishop, a Church, or a State, a Parliament, or anything else, that obtrudest thine insignificance between the soul of man and its Maker? Mind thine own concerns. If he believes not as thou believest, it is a proof that thou believest not as he believes, and there is no earthly power can determine between you.
The inquisition in Spain and the persecution of dissenters in England does not proceed from the religion originally professed, but from this mule-animal, engendered between the church and the state.
Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is alway the strongly-marked feature of all law-religions, or religions established by law.
One of the first works of the National Assembly in France, instead of vindictive proclamations against dissent, as has been the case with other governments, was to publish a declaration of the Rights of Man, as the basis on which the new constitution was to be built, and which is here subjoined:
The opinions of men with respect to government are changing fast in all countries. The Revolutions of America and France have thrown a beam of light over the world, which reaches into man.
The rights of men in society, are neither devisable or transferable, nor annihilable, but are descendable only, and it is not in the power of any generation to intercept finally, and cut off the descent. If the present generation, or any other, are disposed to be slaves, it does not lessen the right of the succeeding generation to be free. Wrongs cannot have a legal descent. When Mr. Burke attempts to maintain that the English nation did at the Revolution of 1688, most solemnly renounce and abdicate their rights for themselves, and for all their posterity for ever, he speaks a language which can only excite contempt for his prostitute principles, or pity for his ignorance.
When we survey the wretched condition of man, under the monarchical and hereditary systems of Government, dragged from his home by one power, or driven by another, and impoverished by taxes more than by enemies, it becomes evident that those systems are bad, and that a general revolution in the principle and construction of Governments is necessary.
As it is not difficult to perceive, that Revolutions on the broad basis of national sovereignty and Government by representation, are making their way in Europe, it would be an act of wisdom to anticipate their approach, and produce Revolutions by reason and accommodation, rather than commit them to the issue of convulsions.
TO: M. DE LA FAYETTE
After an acquaintance of nearly fifteen years in difficult situations in America, and various consultations in Europe, I feel a pleasure in presenting to you this small treatise, in gratitude for your services to my beloved America, and as a testimony of my esteem for the virtues, public and private, which I know you to possess.
Your sincere, Affectionate Friend,
Independence is my happiness. When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: then may that country boast its constitution and its government.
Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is produced by the two Revolutions of America and France. By the former, freedom has a national champion in the western world; and by the latter, in Europe. When another nation shall join France, despotism and bad government will scarcely dare to appear. The insulted German and the enslaved Spaniard, the Russ and the Pole, are beginning to think.
The present age will hereafter merit to be called the Age of Reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world.
Why may we not suppose, that the great Father of all is pleased with variety of devotion; and that the greatest offence we can act, is that by which we seek to torment and render each other miserable? As to what are called national religions, we may, with as much propriety, talk of national Gods. It is either political craft or the remains of the Pagan system, when every nation had its separate and particular deity.
It is now towards the middle of February. Were I to take a turn into the country, the trees would present a leafless, wintery appearance. Yet people might by chance might observe that a single bud on a twig had begun to swell. I should reason very unnaturally to suppose this was the only bud in England which had this appearance. It is, however, not difficult to perceive that the spring is begun.
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