Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man

Books That Changed the World

by Christopher Hitchens

“A better case can be made for the claim that Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man actually affected history than for other books so far published in the series, and Christopher Hitchens makes it with characteristic verve and style. An engaging account of Paine’s life and times [that is] well worth reading” —New Statesman

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 176
  • Publication Date September 16, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4383-9
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.75"
  • US List Price $18.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 176
  • Publication Date September 18, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3955-9
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.75"
  • US List Price $19.95

About The Book

Thomas Paine was one of the greatest advocates of freedom in history, and his Declaration of the Rights of Man, first published in 1791, is the key to his reputation. Inspired by his outrage at Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, Paine’s text is a passionate defense of man’s inalienable rights.

Since its publication, Rights of Man has been celebrated, criticized, maligned, suppressed, and co-opted, but in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, the polemicist and commentator Christopher Hitchens marvels at its forethought and revels in its contentiousness. Hitchens is a political descendant of the great pamphleteer, and in this engaging work he demonstrates how Thomas Paine’s book forms the philosophical cornerstone of the United States of America, and how, “in a time when both rights and reason are under attack, the life and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.”


“A better case can be made for the claim that Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man actually affected history than for other books so far published in the series, and Christopher Hitchens makes it with characteristic verve and style. An engaging account of Paine’s life and times [that is] well worth reading.” —New Statesman

“Hitchens is at his characteristically incisive best in writing of that champion of the oppressed, coadjutor of two revolutions, and eloquent proponent of the rights of man, Thomas Paine.” —A. C. Grayling, The Times (London)

“Brilliant portrait.. An attractive introduction to Paine’s life and work as whole . . . Hitchens remains a great writer, and a thinker of depth, range and vigour.” —Prospect (UK)

“As with all Hitchens, well worth reading and arguing with.” —Kirkus

“Hitchens writes in characteristically energetic prose” —Publishers Weekly

“Brief but potent, mixing biography, criticism and philosophy. At its center is his understanding of how committed Paine was to the cause.” —David L. Ulin,Los Angeles Times

“[A] spending series.” —Bill Ward, Minneapolis Star-Tribune


Chapter 1
Paine in America

To begin with a summary of Paine’s astonishing life and career is to commence with a sense of wonder that he was ever able to emerge at all. A favourite poem of the mid-eighteenth century was Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, and I find it impossible to think about Paine without revisiting this masterpiece of the might-have-been:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.

Gray, of course, does not omit to remind us that many latent absolutists and torturers have also gone to nameless dust without fulfilling their potential. His poem is not a work of mere sentiment. But when General Wolfe lay dying on the Plains of Abraham above Quebec in 1759, having defeated the French and having forever altered the destiny of the North American continent, he is supposed to have said that he would rather have composed Gray’s Elegy than won this historic victory. That year, the son of Joseph and Frances Pain was just fifteen, and living a highly unpromising life in the bucolic town of Thetford, in deep East Anglia. Joseph was a corset-maker (a “staymaker” in the idiom of the day) and a Quaker who had married the daughter of an Anglican lawyer. Young Thomas, sometimes known as Tom, did not add the “e” to the family name until he emigrated to America in 1774. (I shall from now on follow the example of Professor A. J. Ayer and call him “Thomas Paine” throughout.) But that was not the first time that he had run away.

Young Thomas’s first bolt for freedom came at the age of sixteen, when he fled the confining apprenticeship to his father’s staymaking business and made his way to the east coast of England, at Harwich, where he followed immemorial tradition by trying to go to sea. Later writers of stirring fiction for boys might have hesitated to invent a ship called The Terrible, commanded by a certain Captain Death, but such was the vessel, and such the master and commander, that might have carried this particular boy out of history. Joseph Pain arrived at the quayside in time to prevent his son’s enlistment on the privateer, whether out of Quaker principle or because of a reluctance to part with an apprentice it is not known, and the lad returned to the indentures of corsetdom for another three years before heading seaward again in 1756. The Seven Years War between the British and French empires had begun, and this time he managed to get himself signed on, by Captain Mendez of the good ship King of Prussia. He lasted only a short time in this employment, seeing some action in the coastal and Channel waters and discovering that flying splinters could be as deadly as cannonballs, before evidently deciding that the war—which was eventually to precipitate revolution in both America and France—was not for him. He took his prize money—naval warfare at that date was still semi-piratical—and went to London to try and improve himself.

We cannot know for certain the fermentation that was at work within him, but there are three possible sources for it. The first was his upbringing. His father’s Quakerism, for which Paine retained a lifelong respect, would have represented quite a strong form of dissent in the England of the day, and especially in a quasi-feudal town like Thetford, dominated by the Duke of Grafton. Quakers and other nonconformists kept alive another tradition—that of the English Revolution that had culminated in the execution of the impious King Charles I in 1649. At grammar school, Paine refused Latin lessons on his father’s orders, Latin being the obscurantist official tongue of the throne and the popish altar. He concentrated instead on the English of Milton and Bunyan: the bards of the “good old cause” of the Commonwealth. (One of Milton’s most essential lines, “By the known rules of ancient liberty,” looked back to an innate freedom that predated kingship and nobility.)

A paradoxical reinforcement of this dissent came from compulsory Bible study at school, supplemented by instruction from Paine’s Anglican mother. He was later to say that he found the teachings of Christianity, especially the human-sacrifice element in the story of the crucifixion, repellent from the start. Freethinking has good reason to be grateful to Mrs Pain for her efforts.

A second influence may have been the time that Paine spent on the lower deck of the King of Prussia. As Patrick O’Brian’s remarkable seafaring novels remind us, the crews of the Royal Navy were full of nonconformist enthusiasts, who may have fought for the Crown at sea but who were Levellers and Republicans on land. Third—and much better documented—we can trace the influence of the London scene. A new class of literate artisans was making its appearance, much influenced by the thirst for knowledge and by the scientific innovations of the period. Paine became a habitué of the working-man’s lecture hall and the freethinker’s tavern, where enthusiastic discussion groups were the yeast for self-improvement and political reform.

This didn’t give Paine a living, however, and the next few years of his life remind one of Saul Bellow’s Augie March, for whom the laconic term “various jobs” provided the “Rosetta Stone” of his life. In 1758 he moved to the Channel port of Sandwich and became a staymaker after all. There he attended Wesleyan meetings and took part in the zealous Methodist promotion of “good works” and charity. He met and married a serving girl named Mary Lambert, daughter of an Excise officer or Customs official, but in 1760 she died, with her baby, in childbirth. It was back to Thetford for Paine, where with some help from the local Grafton magnates he sat the examination to become an Excise officer himself. By 1764 he had been given a post of responsibility on the North Sea coast, stamping goods for duty and watching for smugglers. He suffered dismissal after a year or so, having allegedly stamped some bales without properly inspecting them. This reverse sent him back to London to petition the Commissioners of the Excise for reinstatement. This was granted after he submitted a groveling letter; it was evident that he was not suspected of having taken any bribe. But reinstatement did not mean immediate reappointment, and for a while Paine had to subsist on what he could get for teaching poor children. This second period in London was to be decisive in his life, however, because he renewed acquaintance with one of his old lecturers, the painter and astronomer James Ferguson, and through him was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, a man who personified the alliance between scientific inquiry and free thought.

Exigency still drove Paine and, although he had the nerve to decline the next offer he had from the Excise—a post in a remote part of Cornwall—in 1768 he finally accepted a position at the Customs house in the Sussex town of Lewes, on the south coast. Here, he began to emerge as a figure in his own right. The town was small but like many seaports it had an open mind, and the radical tradition was deep-rooted there. At the White Hart tavern, Paine became a notable member of the Headstrong Club, which combined spirited dining with spirited debating, and also of the local council. He took lodgings with Samuel Ollive, a well-liked local tobacconist, and on his death in 1769 succeeded to proprietorship of the business. Two years later, he married the old man’s daughter, Elizabeth. He might, if the marriage had lasted, have become a well-found and humorous Whig: a red-faced local “character,” fond of a drop of brandy, with a fund of anecdote and a reputation as a bit of a rebel.

Instead, he literally talked his way out of such a fate. When the Excise men of the south coast decided to protest at their abysmal wage and to seek redress from Parliament, they bethought themselves of the eloquent debater and sometime lay-preacher Thomas Paine, and invited him to be their advocate and spokesman. He agreed to write the Excise men’s petition, and to travel to London to lobby for their cause. He was then kept hanging about in many an establishment anteroom over the winter of 1772-3, and victimized for his pertinacity by receiving yet another notice of dismissal from the Excise Commission. Meanwhile, the tobacco shop in Lewes failed in his absence, and his marriage expired in circumstances that are not clear. Paine was no ladies’ man, we know, and he acted with a generosity to his wife that may have indicated an urgent desire to be gone. He settled up in Lewes, went back to London, and presented himself to Benjamin Franklin.

This distinguished gentleman, who had been in London as a representative of the American colonies, had recently had his own patriotism sorely tested. Attempting to redress some of the more obvious injustices of Britain’s rule over the thirteen colonies, he had been very roughly handled at committee hearings in Parliament and accused, in effect, of being a subversive. The long stupidity of King George’s policy could have been designed to make English Americans into revolutionaries, though it had not yet had quite that effect. Franklin—the discoverer of the lightning-rod, and of the connection between lightning and electricity—gave Paine advice that could be summarized in the later slogan, “Go West, Young Man.” Franklin went further, and equipped him with a letter of introduction to his son William, who was then the Governor of New Jersey, and to his son-in-law Richard Bache, an underwriter in Philadelphia. It read:

The bearer Mr Thomas Pain is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man. He goes to Pennsylvania with a view of settling there. I request you to give him your best advice and countenance, as he is quite a stranger there. If you can put him in a way of obtaining employment as a clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor (in all of which I think him very capable,) so that he may procure a subsistence at least, till he can make acquaintance and obtain a knowledge of the country, you will do well, and much oblige your affectionate father.

That was a slightly tepid recommendation, perhaps—Franklin’s acquaintance with the young man was not a long or a deep one—but it was enough. In September 1774 Paine took ship for Philadelphia. Once again, he was almost lost to history by an outbreak of either typhus or scurvy on board, and had to be carried ashore on a stretcher. This was a shaky start to an immense redress in the New World, this time one imported from the Old.

For the first time in his life, Paine was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Philadelphia was the capital of a state—Pennsylvania—that had been founded by the Quaker William Penn. It was hospitable to every form of religious and political dissent, and as we have seen from the example of Priestley, Franklin and others, a magnet city for those who wished to pursue scientific inquiry. It boasted several excellent bookstores and contained many tavern-based discussion groups where a veteran of the White Hart at Lewes could prove himself. Paine had hardly begun his acquaintance with this exciting town when he met Robert Aitken, a bookstore proprietor who was hoping to start a new publication, The Pennsylvania Journal. He almost at once invited Paine to take on the managing editorship. In the first issue, Paine proved himself a natural journalist by writing an editorial which managed to extract good copy from his awful experience on the Atlantic crossing:

Degeneracy here is almost a useless word. Those who are conversant with Europe would be tempted to believe that even the air of the Atlantic disagrees with the constitution of foreign vices; if they survive the voyage, they either expire on their arrival, or linger away in an incurable consumption. There is a happy something which disarms them of all their power both of infection and attraction.

I have not been able to discover whether Paine was writing this in conscious opposition to the most illustrious European natural scientist of his day, the Comte de Buffon, who stoutly maintained that the very atmosphere of America was conducive to cretinism in man and beast. (Thomas Jefferson, then unknown to Paine, was to compose his Notes on the State of Virginia partly as a reply to Buffon’s theories.) At any rate, he approached his new country with all the zeal of a new convert and enthusiast.

By the time of Paine’s disembarkation, the colonial crisis in relations with the British motherland was already mounting. In order to pay for the expenses of the Seven Years War, which had removed the French military presence, London had imposed new taxes on the supposedly grateful colonies, and had furthermore decided to use these colonies as a dumping-ground for surplus products from elsewhere in the Empire—most famously the tea of the East India Company. In most minds, this was still a quarrel within the family. Men like Samuel Adams in Boston, Thomas Jefferson in Virginia and Benjamin Franklin, shuttling between London and Pennsylvania, were committed to protecting their rights as freeborn Englishmen under the Crown. But Crown policy, like a brittle antique sword, was dull and inflexible, and insisted upon taxation without representation.

Throughout 1775, Paine used a number of pseudonyms—”Atlanticus” and “Amicus”—to produce a stream of articles. By no means starry-eyed about his new homeland, he was swift in his denunciation of the slave trade, which maintained an open market in human beings in Philadelphia itself. “That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising.” He announced himself an abolitionist, and became a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He also found the time to reflect upon a system of welfare for the young, and pensions for the old, that was unique for its time and which will recur as the story proceeds.

In April 1775 a small but deep trench of blood was filled, between British and American forces, at the battles of Lexington and Concord. From this point onwards, the dispute between Crown and colonists ceased to be fraternal and became fratricidal. Paine was readier than most to advocate separation and independence: his own experience of being “English” had not been that of a gentleman farmer or protected tradesman, but rather that of an ill-used civil servant. By September he had published a song entitled—what else?—”The Liberty Tree.” Greatly inferior to the work of Joseph Mather, its concluding verse went:

But hear, O ye swains (’tis a tale most profane),
How all the tyrannical powers,
King, Commons and Lords, are uniting amain
To cut down this guardian of ours.
From the East to the West blow the trumpet to arms,
Thro’ the land let the sound of it flee:
Let the far and the near all unite with a cheer,
In defense of our Liberty Tree.

He began to speak openly of independence, taking care to phrase his convictions in quasi-biblical tones. “Call it independence or what you will,” he wrote, “if it is the cause of God and humanity it will go on. And when the Almighty shall have blest us, and made us a people dependent only on him, then may our first gratitude be shown by an act of continental legislation, which shall put a stop to the importation of Negroes for sale, soften the hard fate of those already here, and in time procure their freedom.” (“Continental” was the rather grand name that the colonists had given to their Congress, with its thirteen state delegations. At the time, America was to the northern continent rather what Chile is to the southern one—a long ribbon of territory extending down the littoral of an ocean, and hemmed in by mountains on the landward side. But there was a latent ambition to add at least British Canada to the tally of independent states, as well as to expand into the interior.)

Simultaneously, Paine repudiated the absolutism of Quakers in respect of the use of force. Repudiation of arms was all very well, “but unless the whole will, the matter ends, and I take up my musket and thank heaven he has put it in my power.” And he criticized those who looked only to the interests of their own particular colony, insisting that people should start thinking of themselves as “Americans.”

In retrospect, all things seem to have pressed towards the event. But while a rebellion over colonial grievance was almost certainly inevitable, a “war of independence” was not. Paine had been honing his quill on the question for some time. He was fortuitously separated from his post at the Pennsylvania Magazine in late 1775, having had a falling out with one of its sponsors (who in revenge spread the rumour that Paine was a heavy drinker, a slur that clung to him throughout his life, most probably because it was partly true). He was now in every sense “free” to unmask his batteries, and to produce the largest achievement in the history of pamphleteering. Of Common Sense it can be said, without any risk of cliché, that it was a catalyst that altered the course of history.

The catalyst of the catalyst may well have been Dr Benjamin Rush, a brilliant Philadelphia physician who held strong abolitionist views and took an active part in scientific and rationalist discussions in the city. He urged Paine to write a polemical summary of the American case, in order to rally the public, but to avoid the dread words “independence” and “republicanism”. Paine was not naturally contra-suggestible, but we may nevertheless thank Dr Rush for helping him to make up his mind. He determined to call for separation from Britain, and furthermore to call for a new form of government.

There is no official memorial to Thomas Paine, the unofficial “founding father,” in Washington. None the less, most young Americans at some time or another are told to read his Common Sense, and his later pamphlet The Crisis, and some of the phrases from both are part of the common stock of political and journalistic discourse. It is not difficult, even at this remove, to understand why such a terse and concentrated work should have had the effect that it did.

Paine first appealed to the natural pride of Americans as hard-working pioneers who had laboured manfully to create a new society. “society,” he said, antedated all forms of government, which was superimposed upon it as, at best, a necessary evil. He then spoke to them in the tones of the only book they all had in common, namely the Christian Bible (albeit in its “King James” English version). He sought to demonstrate that the Old Testament contained no warrant for kingship, while managing to imply, flatteringly, that the original non-hierarchical Eden had been replicated in the New World. He did not, of course, trouble himself with those passages of scripture which do suggest that the powers that be are ordained of God. With a similar disregard for paradox and contradiction, he founded many of his claims of ancient liberty on the ancestral rights of Englishmen to be free of conquest and usurpation by foreign monarchs, such as William the Conqueror, and quoted Milton just as any Cromwellian partisan might have done. Yet he took particular care to stress that many of the colonists were not English, and thus that the demand of allegiance to a British Crown was essentially non-binding on them. Prefiguring the idea of a multi-ethnic state, he asserted that:

This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe . . . all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are countrymen; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which the divisions of street, town and county do on the smaller ones; distinctions too limited for continental minds. Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent.

This alone was enough to dismiss the sentimental idea of Britain as the parent or “mother” country: a lazy phrase then in common use.

To this, Paine also added the idea of religious diversity. Despite the presence of several versions of Christian belief on American soil, the Church of England still demanded, as it did at home, a subsidy from the state and a monopoly on orthodoxy. This “Episcopalian” arrogance revolted Paine, who wrote that the government should have no role save that of the guarantor of confessional pluralism.

Perhaps most nobly of all, he reacted with disgust to the British policy of divide-and-rule, which offered inducements to American Indians and freed slaves if they would join the ranks of King George’s army. This, wrote Paine, was doing two sorts of injustice, both to the earlier victims of British policy and to the more recent targets of it: “the cruelty hath a double guilt, it is dealing brutally by us, and treacherously by them.” All these moral strokes, however, and all these successful and amusing lampoons upon the absurd crowned figure of King George III and his marauding monarchical predecessors, were not enough in themselves. Paine tipped the balance, in the mind of his readers, by insisting on two very practical points. Since separation was inescapable sooner or later, might not NOW be the time? And was it not the case that Americans were already strong and capable enough to do it?