19 September 2011

Christopher Hitchens On Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man

Though his role as the signal figure calling for the independence of the United States (he was the first to use the term) is often overlooked in American history textbooks and political conversation (mostly due to a clerical backlash against him over his succeeding work, The Age of Reason), in Europe—and other regions—Thomas Paine is remembered as the father of republican democracy in the modern world.  

Not only was he the father of American independence, he was also mentor of the beginning Scottish republican movement, an Englishman considered the godfather of Irish republicanism, and the flame of liberty that helped inspire the French Revolution of 1789. 

In many circles today, American as well as European, he is likewise thought of as the first socialist philosopher of the modern era due in part to his two works mentioned above plus essays and articles promoting abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, fair wages and safe working conditions for labor, universal suffrage, and many others promoting the general welfare of all humanity. 

Christopher Hitchens, an English-American history professor and strong believer in the humanist values of the Enlightenment, recently took an extensive look at Paine’s Rights of Man in his recent book by that same title.  The core of Hitchens’ examination of the work lies in chapters 3 and 4, which examine Parts One and Two of Paine’s book respectively.

In the Introduction, Hitchens’ describes the sharpest points of disagreement between Paine and the Irish Whig philosopher Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France served as the main instigation for Paine’s writing Rights of Man, at least in Part One (dedicated to George Washington). 

Burke, who had been an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and might have been expected to likewise support that taking place in France, on the contrary staunchly opposed it, largely because of the parallels between the goals of the French revolutionaries and those of the republicans in England, Scotland, and Ireland (though vocal advocate of the rights of the Irish, he opposed the Paine-inspired United Irishmen) of the time. 

Hitchens notes Paine’s liberal use of the example of the Marquis de Lafayette (known after his republican abdication of the noble title as Gilbert du Motier) as what he suggests Paine viewed as the equivalent of the later Che Guevara, to whom Paine dedicated Part Two.  The essence of Burke’s manifesto, according to Hitchens, was that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was England’s revolution and that it established once and for all the principle of heredity that Paine so abhorred. 

Hitchens’ introduction includes the ritualistic greeting of the Society of United Irishmen (which contains references to the “liberty tree”), the first verse of the Robert Burns poem “The Tree of Liberty”, and a parody of the British national anthem “God Save Our King” (originally a Jacobite diddy stolen from the supporters of the deposed House of Stuart and sung to the same tune as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) written in 1791 by Joseph Mather, a radical activist, largely in honor of Thomas Paine and his book published that year, Part One of Rights of Man.

In Chapter 1, Hitchens describes “Paine in America”, beginning with the steps by which Paine came to be in the about-to-be new nation. 

The first event which he notes as evidence of Paine’s yearning for freedom is the latter’s attempt, at age 13, to sing on with the crew of a privateer vessel named (no kidding) The Terrible, which was under the command of one (also no kidding) Captain Death.  Though he suggests that the strictness of the Quaker household in which he was brought up was one of the reasons for Paine’s lust for freedom, Hitchens also cites the family’s Quakerism as a strong influence in Paine’s inclination toward dissent, especially when he felt injustice. 

A successful attempt three years later to sign on with another ship and a different captain during the Seven Years War gave Paine the capital he needed to start an independent life and career in London. 

The most important employment to Paine’s later career as a propagandist and revolutionary was as an excise officer.  After obtaining a post in Cornwall, Paine became a member of the local debating club, and when the excise officers nationally decided to petition for better working conditions, it was Paine to whom they looked; it was his eloquent petition and defense thereof which brought him to the attention of Benjamin Franklin. 

In America, Paine’s most important works for the cause of American independence, according to Hitchens, were the pamphlet Common Sense and the essay The Crisis.  One of his last important writings before returning across the Atlantic was Letter to the Abbe Raynal, composed in answer to Raynal’s Revolution d’ Amerique, which attempted to minimize the significance of the American Revolution.

In Chapter 2, “Paine in Europe”, Hitchens details Paine’s dealings with republicans in England, Scotland, and Ireland as well as in France, and touches briefly upon briefly upon the dispute between Burke and Paine, saving fuller discussion for the next two chapters, though he does defend Burke’s liberal credentials on several points.  He notes that Paine’s friend Thomas Jefferson helped write the French Declaration de Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen and that Paine’s friend the Marquis de Lafayette was commander of the National Guard. 

Among the groups Hitchens lists Paine being involved with in England are the ‘Friends of Liberty’, the ‘Revolution Society’, and the ‘Society for Constitutional Information’ (noting that the second was not as revolutionary as its names suggests while the third innocuously named group was more so).  Without going into detail on the dispute between Burke and Paine, Hitchens tells of the difficulty Paine had getting both Part One and Part Two of Rights of Man published, then how he left England one step of the hangman. 

Regarding Paine’s adventures in revolutionary France, Hitchens begins with showing Paine’s alignment with the Girondin faction in the National Convention, which sat on the right of the speaker, versus the Montagnard faction (which Hitchens makes the common mistake of referring to as the “Jacobins”; at this time both groups were members of the Jacobin Club, and, in fact, the Girondins were then the dominant faction in the Club, a position they held until the Reign of Terror), which sat on the left. 

Attempting to replicate his American success with Common Sense and The Crisis, Paine wrote in September 1792 the Lettre de Thomas Paine au Peuple Francais, which was scoffed at by Robespierre and the Montagnards.  However, it was his pamphlet On the Propriety of Bringing Louis XVI to Trial, and even more so his later Opinion de Thomas Paine sur l’affaire Louis Capet, which brought about his imprisonment and near execution (which he escaped only by a lucky accident) during the Reign of Terror.  Paine was only released from imprisonment after the arrival of a new ambassador, James Monroe, who was his friend, replacing Gouvernor Morris, his political enemy over Paine’s call for universal suffrage in America.  Not to Paine’s credit, he supported the coup d’etat which established the five-man Directory.  However, Paine opposed Napoleon’s seizure of power as ‘First Consul’, and hearing of his imminent arrest, his old friend Jefferson, now President of the United States, invited him to return.

Chapter 3, “Rights of Man, Part One”, begins with a telling of the philosophical disputes between Paine and Burke which led to the former’s writing Rights of Man.  Hitchens points out the weaknesses of Burke’s arguments as well as what he sees as his few strengths.  He likewise contrasts the paucity of Burke’s rhetorical ability with the quick wit of Paine’s words both spoken and written. 

At the time, Hitchens says, Paine’s language in Rights of Man was seen as coarse and unsophisticated, but he points out that Paine intended for his work to be read and understood by common people, using his ample knowledge of the Bible (King James’ Version) and of the works of Shakespeare to illustrate and punctuate his points. 

While Burke asserts that the English so-called “constitution” sprang from the Glorious Revolution, Paine counters, following Jefferson, that it rather has its basis in the Norman Conquest, an idea to which many people in England could relate, even at that late date, nearly 800 years distant. 

One point upon which Paine and Burke disagreed, and with which Paine deals with extensively in Part One, is the privileges of the Church, which Burke, being a staunch Catholic, strongly supported. 

The last part of the chapter describes how Hitchens sees Paine’s greatest contribution to political discourse being the latter’s marriage of human rights to political democracy.

Chapter 4, “Rights of Man, Part Two”, Hitchens begins with a quote from Adam Smith’s On The Wealth of Nations, noting that Paine, correctly, assumed his readers would understand the reference as a rational put-down of the mystical system employed by Burke, revealing yet more of Paine’s literary expertise. 

In Part Two, Hitchens notes, Paine becomes much more pragmatic, attacking the ideas of monarchy and heredity with numerous examples, comparing the government in America with the corrupt and crumbling system in the United Kingdom.  Paine attacks Burke’s ideas about the British “constitution”, including the proposal that the Magna Carta was an advance toward liberty. 

Hitchens reviews Paine’s extensive proposals for democratic republican government, his preference for a single-house legislature (instead of the two-house adopted by the United States), his suggestion that triennial election elections be held to replace one-third of the legislature every three years, and that the three branches of government remain absolutely separate in order to prevent the type of authoritarian assaults on democracy to which hereditary systems such as that in England were too often prone. 

Paine proposed abolishing poor houses as well as becoming the first to propose cradle-to-grave support for all citizens. 

At the end of the chapter, Hitchens approvingly describes Paine’s call for America, Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic to form a federation to mutually reduce their navies and impose the same on the rest of Europe, then to convince Spain to free its colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

Chapter 5, “The Age of Reason”, discusses the work of Paine which earned him the most enmity in America, chiefly among the powerful clergy of New England. 

Hitchens shows how its core contention, that religions based on supposed “revelation” are as inimical to liberty and the rights of humanity as political despotism, is a necessary companion to Paine’s more political prior work.  Furthermore, examples from this work demonstrate Paine’s extensive knowledge, and critical examination, of the central foundation of the Christianity in which he was surrounded.  However, he also points out the contradiction between Paine’s aim to prove that religion is immoral and his simultaneous desire to demonstrate that belief in God is necessary.

In the conclusion, “Paine’s Legacy”, Hitchens deals with Paine’s last years, chiefly the fallout from the publication of The Age of Reason and his protests against the treatment of American Indians.  He notes at the end how Paine provided inspiration to advocates of Parliament reform in England, abolitionists in America, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, the Labour movement in England, women suffragettes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, the first president to cite Paine since FDR.

The best epitaph for Thomas Paine is that which is written on a plaque on the Rue de l’Odeon in Paris on which he lived in from 1797-1802: "Thomas Paine. English by birth. American by choice. French by decree. Citizen of the world."  (NOTE: Pictured above, taken by me on May Day 2011.)


E.J. Dodson said...

With your permission, I would like to add your commentary to the online library of articles of Thomas Paine Friends.

Ed Dodson, President
Thomas Paine Friends

Chuck Hamilton said...

Mr. Dodson, no problem, you have my permission, and my gratitude.

Chuck Hamilton said...

Btw, you are also welcome to add this one if you like: http://notesfromtheninthcircle.blogspot.com/2011/07/tom-paines-bones.html