The shout heard 'round the world

June 16, 2006

Christopher Hitchens praises Thomas Paine, a revolutionary who introduced the concept of 'rights' to the common 'man'

I recently gave a lunchtime talk on the relevance of Thomas Paine at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London. My emphasis was on human rights, but I mentioned that, in part two of his Rights of Man , the radical political writer had laid out a detailed and "costed" plan for a welfare state. I was agreeably surprised when the chairman produced a glossy IPPR pamphlet on a proposal to give young people a capital sum as a start in life. It was directly modelled on Paine and had a quotation from his work on its opening page.

For all that he anticipated the Beveridge report by about a century and a half, the main lustre of Paine's reputation will always depend on his bold decision to put the word "rights" and the word "man"

into the same sentence for the first time. There had been discussions of rights before, most notably the assertion of the divine right of kings and the debate between John Locke and Thomas Hobbes over the nature and origin of rights themselves. But it was the son of a Thetford corset-maker who acted the part of Prometheus and brought this argument within the reach of the average citizen.

His insistence that if there were to be rights, then they could be claimed by anybody had an electrifying effect on the newly literate class of artisans who were beginning to find a place on the English political stage. The Rights of Man became perhaps the first true bestseller, following as it did the enormous success of Paine's pamphlet Common Sense , which had acted as the catalyst for the American Declaration of Independence.

"To have had a part in two revolutions," wrote Paine towards the end of his life, "is to have lived to some purpose." Influential as he certainly was in both the American and French upheavals, one can still slightly improve upon this claim. In the American case, Paine wanted the original revolution to be more radical. In particular, he wanted the Declaration of Independence to prohibit slavery and the slave trade. He lost that battle, as all the world now knows. In the case of France, where he was elected to the Constituent Assembly as a delegate from Calais, he strove to prevent the Jacobins from making the revolution too sanguinary and dogmatic.

A sworn foe of all monarchy, he nonetheless led the opposition to the execution of King Louis because his hatred of capital punishment was stronger than his repudiation of the hereditary principle. This "softness" got him into grave trouble with the hardliners, who threw him into the Luxembourg prison and let him rot under sentence of death until the wheel turned and Robespierre himself went to the guillotine. To have had a part in trying to revolutionise two revolutions is an even nobler claim.

It was in prison that Paine wrote the successor volume to The Rights of Man . It was called The Age of Reason , and in a no less Promethean manner he put the argument against organised religion on the printed page for all to see. Many philosophers of the time were agnostic or atheist but kept quiet about it: Paine was in fact a deist but he thought that the supposedly "revealed" texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were an insult to the god of nature, and he placed freethinking on a shelf within the reach of the average person. The preface to the book contains this remarkable statement: "You will do me the justice to remember that I have always supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it."

With these words - which form a bridge between John Milton's Areopagitica and the later statements of John Stuart Mill - Paine cut through the traditional arguments in favour of censorship. It was not just the right of a person to speak that was at stake, but the right of others to hear and to have their own opinions challenged. At a stroke, he rendered negligible the sinister insinuation that a little censorship can be good for you, whether it comes in the guise of "sensitivity" or "security".

There is no official memorial to Paine in either his country of birth or his country of adoption. And perhaps that is nothing to complain about. If you ridicule the hereditary ruling class and pour scorn on religionyou cannot expect plaques and statues. His memorial, rather, is in what Yeats once called "the book of the people". He was an early exponent of the rights of labouring men, of the right of slaves to be free, of the right of Ireland to be independent and of the struggles of both America and France to "begin the world over again".

Paine was a practical man with careful proposals for reform and he was also an idealist and a romantic, who might have echoed his friend William Blake in declaring that it is often "the mind-forg'd manacles" that are the hardest ones to break.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair . His book Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography is published by Atlantic, £9.99.

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