HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Rights of Man
Author: Thomas Paine
Publisher: A & D Publishing, republished in 2007
ISBN-13: 978-1604591354 (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1604591358 (Hardcover)
ISBN-13: 978-0486408934 (Paperback)
ISBN-10: 0486408930 (Paperback)
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Teens and adults
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man (originally published in two parts, 1791 and 1792; republished in 1999 by Dover Publications Inc., 31 E. 2nd St., Mineola, NY 11501). Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-American political activist, author, social theorist, and revolutionary. He emigrated to the British American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the American Revolution. As the author of two highly influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, Common Sense (1776) that advocated colonial America’s independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and The American Crisis (1776–83), he inspired the Patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Britain. Afterwards, Paine returned to Europe and lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791-1792), in part as a defense of the French Revolution against its critics, especially Edmund Burke and his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”
Paine argues “the divine origin of the rights of man at the creation.” He noted, “We still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey, and permits none to escape without a tribute.” He must have foreseen the modern American Democrat party! Paine writes many things that are good, true, and noble, especially in the first part, but many things that are silly, especially in the second part where, as one writer noted, he basically proposed a late 18th century form of the welfare state, replete with progressive taxation, subsidies for child birth, and other fine statist amenities. It is an important work for the history student who wishes to get a glimpse into the workings of the mind of an important figure in American Revolutionary history, but Paine is far from a fair and impartial debater. Much of the book consists of personal attacks against Burke and other English statesmen. The writing at times can be very tedious. And Paine’s optimism regarding the perfection of a republican, representative government maybe was a little overstated and has not proven true.
Also, one may not agree with all of Paine’s views on religion. In fact, he became notorious because of his pamphlet The Age of Reason (1793–94), in which he advocated deism, promoted rationalism and “freethinking,” and argued against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular, though his concept of freedom of religion is commendable. While we may not necessarily concur with everything Burke wrote about the French Revolution, perhaps he had some insight that Paine in his blind passion did not see, since history speaks rather better of Burke’s misgivings than of Paine’s wild zeal. In fact, both parts were written before the Reign of Terror that resulted in 1793, from which Paine himself suffered. The Girondists regarded him as an ally, but the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, regarded him as an enemy, and in December 1793, he was arrested and imprisoned in Paris, though released in 1794 just before his scheduled execution. In 1802, he returned to America where he died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral as he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity.