The Routledge Guide to Paine’s Rights of Man by Frances A. Chiu (London & New York: Routledge, 2020)
The American Revolution, John Adams famously wrote in 1818, was begun in the “minds and hearts of the people” before the American Revolutionary War began. It was a suggestion that the Revolution was unique and the result of distinctly American-held ideas and principles. It was also Adams’ way of discounting European influences and his way of saying that newcomers to America such as Thomas Paine, who arrived right before the War of Independence began, contributed nothing of substance to the ideas that were already shaping events.
Indeed, Adams also stated well after the American Revolution that Paine not only contributed little to America’s revolutionary principles, but what few revolutionary ideas he did share with American readers were not original and had been picked up by him from what he overheard others talking about in Philadelphia. Then, Adams gruffed, Paine simply repeated in his pamphlet Common Sense ideas that Adams had been arguing for in the Congress for years.
Adams’ argument about the history of American revolutionary ideas is not entirely persuasive, but his criticism of Paine brings out a fair question: where did Paine get his radical and reformist principles? If not America, where? Were they simply brought across the Atlantic with him, already fully formed as Paine scholar J.C.D. Clark has recently argued? Or, did Paine just possess an astute ear for hearing what was going on in his new country as a newcomer, as Adams suggested, and had a unique talent for popularizing political ideas?
Some answers can be found in a new work by Paine scholar and author Frances A. Chiu, in her new book, The Routledge Guide to Paine’s Rights of Man. Dr. Chiu, a professor of literature and history at the New School in New York City, and likely the first person to offer an American college course devoted entirely to Thomas Paine, has recently written a highly informed book on Paine and the influences on his political thought.
Paine’s two volumes of Rights of Man, 1791-1792, were published in London in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Chiu’s book offers a guide to the Rights of Man and continues the recent trend of exploring Paine’s place within European and American intellectual traditions.
As her book shows, Paine was much more than just a good observer and explainer of events taking place around him after his arrival in America in late 1774. His political thought was rooted in Europe and developed in America. And he made genuine contributions to both, especially his ideas on republicanism and reformist politics.
Paine’s direct connection to European thought is most interesting, given his well-known statement that “I neither read books, nor studied other people’s opinions; I thought for myself.” It reminds me of what Thomas Jefferson once said about drafting the Declaration of Independence. Responding to a charge from Richard Henry Lee that Jefferson had copied James Otis and John Locke when writing the Declaration, Jefferson said: “Otis’s pamphlet I never saw, & whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it.” Readers would do well to be wary of both Paine’s and Jefferson’s statements.
In the case of Jefferson, the coincidences of phrases from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and those used in the Declaration are simply too remarkable to dismiss. For example, several phrases, including “a long train of abuses,” and “people are more disposed to suffer” (Locke) and “mankind are more disposed to suffer” (Jefferson), appear in both works. The highly educated Jefferson had, at the very least, a sharp memory for what surely he had once read, when composing the Declaration.
But in Paine’s case, it’s more difficult to reveal the sources of his ideas or those who influenced him. Certainly, he was influenced by others more than he let on. This is the subject of much of Chiu’s analysis, which demonstrates not only how Locke but reform movements such as the Levellers and Diggers, and individuals such Algernon Sidney, James Harrington, John Cartwright, and other English social contract and Whiggish reformers, must have influenced his political thought and, especially, his Rights of Man.
Chiu’s purpose throughout her guide to this famous work is to show that Paine’s ideaswere firmly rooted in European, especially English, political thought. His writing shows he was at ease taking on his friend and supporter of the American Revolution, Edmond Burke (a friendship that shortly ended after Burke condemned the French Revolution and its principles), employing both informed and clever arguments about reformist politics and the fundamental principles of republican thought, and mocking Burke’s devotion to monarchy.
I especially enjoyed one passage of Chiu’s book about Part 1 of the Rights of Man, relating how Paine used the manly reputation of the Marquis de Layfette to attack Burke’s use of flowery imagery in Reflections:
No less radical is Paine’s presentation of the Fall of the Bastille. Directing his attention to the revolution itself, [Paine] begins by introducing the Marquis de Lafayette, a recent hero of the American revolution, establishing him as a foil to Burke. Presented in a manner that harks back to the centuries-old conflation of republican virtue and manliness, as seen from Machiavelli through Sidney, the unquestionably masculine Lafayette is praised for having relinquished effeminate luxury during his ‘flowery years of youth’ for the more masculine ‘woods and wildernesses of America.’ Paine further reinforces the links between liberty and manliness in his approbation of the ‘clear, concise, and soul-animating’ sentiments of the Declaration [of Rights]: a work posited as one so gloriously at odds with Burke’s Reflections, replete with undue deference to ‘musty records and mouldy parchments.’ Not unlike Mary Wollstonecraft or Brooke Boothby, both of whom had already taken Burke to task for his ‘flowers of rhetoric’ and a ‘wild and flowery field,’ Paine draws attention to the latter’s ‘ineffectual’ declamation and arguments, ‘gay with flowers.’
In Part II of Rights of Man, Paine finally got into trouble with America’s old nemesis, King George III. He had not attacked the king quite so directly in Part I, but in Part II Paine returned to the verbal attacks on monarchy so characteristic of his American pamphlets. As Chiu explains:
Here, Paine rehearses the history of “cruelties and crimes” associated with monarchies, while returning to the more strident anti-monarchical sentiments of Common Sense and the Crisis papers. Leaning into the uncertain aspects of hereditary traits and capabilities, he points out that “an office that may be filled by a person without talent or experience” and can “consequently devolve on a madman, an imbecile, or a tyrant” was nothing short of “an absurdity.”
Words such as those earned Paine an arrest warrant from on high. He barely escaped England for France before his certain arrest for sedition, having been warned by some of his English reformist friends. But in such “seditious” writings, Paine also explored in Part II many themes of republican political thought, including constitutions, representation, equality, individual rights, and even more reformist ideas such as progressive income taxes and public welfare schemes. These ideas would continue to inform reform movements for generations to come, both in Europe and America.
Even after all of the attempts to tie Paine to specific reformist individuals and their writings, it remains challenging to uncover direct influences on Paine’s political thought. Chiu shows, rightly, that Paine did not arrive in America with ideas “fully formed” which he brought with him from Europe and simply applied to his new country. Instead, his experiences in America, and with the American and French revolutions in particular, continued to shape his views. And although Chiu does an admirable job trying to connect Paine’s ideas clearly to English sources, she sometimes has to make her case persuasively, lacking solid evidence.
Indeed, throughout her work, Chiu has to resort to such phrases as the following to demonstrate Paine’s intellectual inheritance. Speaking of his being fired from his job as a tax collector in England before coming to America, for writing his Case of the Officers of Excise petitioning Parliament for higher wages and better working conditions for excise men, Chiu has this to say:
Even if his sacking did not necessarily turn him into an enemy of the state as construed by the radical reformer William Cobbett, it may have served to convince Paine that the English government—one largely presided by propertied elites—was deaf to the plight of ordinary people. Such an experience may even have convinced him of the truth of contemporary reformist writings if he was in any way skeptical; he may have nodded in agreement with Burgh’s and Murray’s remarks on selfish aristocratic interests in Parliament and beyond. As such, it would not have required exceptional effort for the former excise officer to cross the aisle, so to speak, by defending the colonists and their resistance to taxation without representation while criticizing a Parliament oblivious to the wants and needs of the people.
There are lots of “may have” statements and conjectural connections here, leaving doubt as to the exact sources of Paine’s intellectual debt.
Still, for historians and political theorists trying to ferret out influence is a fun, albeit at times frustrating, enterprise. But if you believe as John Adams did (and I do), that revolutionary ideas preceded the American Revolution, then it is always worth a refresher to explore where they originated. Chiu’s book is an excellent resource for such a review, for its breath and depth provide a good background for how those ideas emerged and how they were communicated to the people.
John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6854.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, August 30, 1823, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-3728.