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Rights of Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Rights of Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Rights of Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Sep 1, 2009


Rights of Man presents an impassioned defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality that Thomas Paine believed would soon sweep the world. He boldly claimed, "From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished. Without consuming ... it winds its progress from nation to nation." Though many more sophisticated thinkers argued for the same principles and many people died in the attempt to realize them, no one was better able than Paine to articulate them in a way which fired the hopes and dreams of the common man and actually stirred him to revolutionary political action.
Sep 1, 2009

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English-born Thomas Paine left behind hearth and home for adventures on the high seas at nineteen. Upon returning to shore, he became a tax officer, and it was this job that inspired him to write The Case of the Officers of Excise in 1772. Paine then immigrated to Philadelphia, and in 1776 he published Common Sense, a defense of American independence from England. After returning to Europe, Paine wrote his famous Rights of Man as a response to criticism of the French Revolution. He was subsequently labeled as an outlaw, leading him to flee to France where he joined the National Convention. However, in 1793 Paine was imprisoned, and during this time he wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, an anti-church text which would go on to be his most famous work. After his release, Paine returned to America where he passed away in 1809.

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Rights of Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) - Thomas Paine



IN THE RIGHTS OF MAN, THOMAS PAINE, ONE OF THE MOST influential eighteenth-century proponents of American independence, presents an impassioned defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality that he believed would soon sweep the arbitrary authority of monarchy and aristocracy from Europe and the world. Writing as the French Revolution had just struck its most celebrated blow for freedom in the act of storming the Bastille, Paine boldly claimed: "From a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished. Without consuming . . . it winds its progress from nation to nation, and conquers by a silent operation. Man finds himself changed, he scarcely perceives how. He acquires a knowledge of his rights by attending justly to his interests and discovers in the event that the strength and powers of despotism consist wholly in the fear of resisting it, and that, in order to be free, it is sufficient that he wills it." Though many more sophisticated thinkers of the day argued for the same principles and many people on two continents died in the attempt to realize them, no one was better able than Paine to articulate them in a way which fired the hopes and dreams of the common man and actually stirred him to revolutionary political action. It is for this reason that Paine’s writings and especially his Rights of Man—the only comprehensive account he gave of his understanding of Enlightenment humanism—are of enduring importance to contemporary readers fascinated by the ideals that motivated multitudes during the age of revolutions and that can still excite a passion for universal justice today.

A participant in both the American and French revolutions and in the governments that first arose from them, Thomas Paine is best remembered as the highly popular pamphleteer whose incendiary Common Sense (published in January 1776) was largely responsible for motivating the American colonists to declare independence. He was born in England on January 29, 1737, and his impoverished early life offered scant evidence of the qualities that would later elevate him to literary and historical prominence. Taking the first available opportunity to improve his lot, he moved to America in 1775, coincidentally arriving at the time when revolutionary fervor was just taking hold. Common Sense ’s famous rallying call for an American declaration of independence was followed by a series of Crisis papers in which Paine inspired Washington’s demoralized troops with such notorious phrases as These are the times that try men’s souls. His subsequent writings, urging the French and English to abandon their oppressive styles of government and replace them with representative republics, also met with great public success, but they had less practical effect than Common Sense and the Crisis papers. They were written with the same vigor and literary flare as his earlier works and contained numerous striking turns of phrase that remain in the public consciousness, but the revolutionary tide had begun to ebb and Paine had failed to adjust his rhetoric. By clinging overmuch to his genuinely radical egalitarianism and attacking unwarranted privilege wherever he found it, especially in the institutions of organized Christianity, he eventually alienated almost all of his onetime allies and ultimately died almost unnoticed in 1809. His words, however, went on to live a life of their own, persisting in such popularly quoted phrases as, Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.

Few who knew Paine in his youth could have expected him to achieve what he rightly, if immodestly, called an eminence in political literature. Raised a Quaker, like his father, in Thetford, England, he was fortunate to have been sent to Thetford Grammar School, where apparently he was sufficiently trained in English to write uncommonly lucid prose later in life. The events of his early years are little known and seem to have been largely unremarkable. He followed his father into the corset-making trade, which he seems unhappily to have pursued when no other opportunities presented themselves.

Paine married in 1759, but his wife died only one year later. In 1771, he married again, but this union ended in permanent separation in 1774. That same year he moved to London, where he was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who was in England on behalf of the American colonies. With a letter of introduction from Franklin to his son-in-law in Philadelphia, Paine headed for America and the greater prospect of gainful employment. His budding interest in the political tumult of the time caused him almost immediately to leave the mundane tutoring job that Franklin’s son-in-law had secured for him and become a journalist. It is suspected that during his first year in America Paine had a hand in writing several articles published under pseudonyms, but these offered little indication of the literary talent and rhetorical acumen that would immanently catapult him to fame.

In January 1776, at the age of thirty-nine, Paine’s life of anonymous obscurity came to an abrupt end with the publication of his hugely popular pamphlet, Common Sense. The brisk and spirited arguments presented in this work in favor of American independence and against colonial reconciliation with England seized the American imagination and irrevocably turned American sentiment toward independence—the declaration of which followed only six months later.

Common Sense bore all the hallmarks of Paine’s subsequent masterpiece, the Rights of Man. Stylistically, it was clear, concise, direct, and fiery. It captured the revolutionary spirit of the most elevated Enlightenment authors, brought their ideas to the level of the average reader, and injected them with an unparalleled sense of urgency. The Enlightenment’s leading proponents all held that the individual, through the exercise of his or her own reason, could understand the laws of nature ordering the universe as well as those that ought to govern free and moral individuals and societies. In Common Sense Paine fused the Enlightenment’s general notion of progress with the specific cause of the American colonists: The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected . . . . The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling . . . .

Loosely echoing thinkers like Locke and Rousseau, Paine distinguished between society, the natural product of the association of peoples based on their mutual needs and affections, and government, the sole rational purpose of which is the protection of societies’ members from threats to their pursuit of happiness and freedom. Paine cogently argued that government rests on the natural bonds of society and obtains its power and authority solely from the (often unconsciously given) consent of the governed. Monarchies and aristocracies, according to Paine, were at their core frauds that had to be maintained through ignorance and force. Their purpose was to redistribute through taxation the property of the majority to a few wealthy landown ers and members of the royal court. Moreover, Paine stipulated, since the most persuasive rationale for raising unbearably high taxes was a war of necessity, monarchies and aristocracies were inevitably driven to international provocations. In contrast, a government directly rooted in the needs and desires of its people and directly answerable to them—i.e., a representative republic—would be inclined to do everything possible to encourage peaceful relations with other nations for the sake of increased commerce and general prosperity. In light of these considerations and the unprecedented opportunity the American colonists possessed to found a benevolent republic based on the knowledge of the natural rights and true interests of all mankind, Paine argued that the idea of restoring the colonies’ allegiance to the crown was unthinkable.

Following the conclusion of America’s war of independence, Paine briefly retired from politics in order to pursue his scientific and engineering interests, most famously designing a single-arch iron bridge, on behalf of which he traveled to France in 1787 and then to England the following year. It was not long, however, before he was once again drawn into politics, this time by the growth of revolutionary activity in France and the publication, in November 1790, of Edmund Burke’s conservative attack upon the French revolutionaries and their principles.

Burke was a member of the British House of Commons and in this role had consistently been a supporter of the cause of American independence. Paine was friendly with Burke, and the two had spent time together while Paine was in England following the American Revolution. But when Burke let loose a withering attack on the French Revolution in a speech to Parliament on February 9, 1790, and then elaborated upon it for hundreds of pages in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine could not resist taking up the gauntlet.

Excited to no end by the prospect that the French Revolution was the first European fruit growing from the seed of rational republican government planted in America, Paine was at a loss to understand how a man who had eloquently supported the American Revolution could turn upon the very principles which had motivated it at precisely the moment when they appeared to be taking hold in Europe. It was Paine’s outrage at Burke’s reactionary conservatism in defense of England’s corrupt monarchy and bloated aristocracy that gave birth to the Rights of Man.

In the Rights of Man, Paine vigorously sets forth a comprehensive account of his extraordinarily radical Enlightenment humanism. The work was issued in two parts: the first containing both an attack on Burke’s defense of the crooked English system and a description of the rights of man as endorsed by France’s revolutionary National Assembly, the second primarily occupied with a detailed plan for using existing British tax revenue to set up a welfare state and eliminate poverty. The most important aspect of the Rights of Man is that it reveals far more explicitly than any of his other works that at the core of Paine’s ideology lies a belief that political and economic inequality is rationally indefensible and morally intolerable. It was on this principle that, when push came to shove, Paine would not give an inch, whereas his more pragmatic allies recognized that, in order to actually run a government, adherence to such a principle must be curtailed.

Paine would hear none of this. Throughout his polemic against Burke, his defense of the rights to liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression, and his detailed scheme for redistributing existing tax monies to the poor there runs a persistent theme: It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders. The central argument of the Rights of Man is one that earned Paine some fleeting friendships in revolutionary France but ultimately cost him many allies in America and led to his being outlawed for sedition in England. It is also one that would win him few adherents among the prosperous and powerful in any nation today. The truth of the contemporary human condition, according to Paine, which needs only to be recognized in order to be changed, is as follows: Men are born by nature equal and good, content to live with a relatively equitable distribution of material goods, provided these are adequate to the maintenance of a comfortable life. But the majority of people are everywhere corrupted by a few rapacious members of the species who use force and deception to establish governments, the sole purpose of which is to satisfy their unlimited avarice. Such governments enslave their people, driving the bulk of them into desperate circumstances in order to pay for their rulers’ debauchery, and conduct wars simply to legitimate excessive taxation and perpetuate a decadent status quo.

The enlightened governments that would arise in the wake of the age of revolutions would, Paine believed, be dramatically different, and he described the criteria by which they should be measured as follows: When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

After publishing the Rights of Man, Paine went on to play an active role in the early stages of the French Revolution and to write the Age of Reason, the third and last of his major works, in which he attacked organized religion, and Christianity in particular, for colluding with oppressive governments in the subjugation of mankind. This work, however, merely served to further tarnish Paine’s reputation in America and Europe, both of which had by this time taken big steps away from the sort of revolutionary freethinking he espoused. In fact, a rise in reactionary conservative thinking would dominate the intellectual currents of both continents for the rest of Paine’s life, and so the man who first coined the phrase United States of America would ultimately die and be buried in the country of that name without public recognition of his contribution to its existence or to the cause of human freedom.

Paine’s prediction of the global spread of representative government has been borne out by the events of the last two centuries, but his hopes that this would inevitably produce a more equitable distribution of property have not. The industrial revolution and the rise of monopoly capitalism in the nineteenth century brought with them an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and a growing trend toward the abusive treatment of labor. It was in this context that Paine’s brilliantly articulate and impetuous writings against entrenched wealth and in favor of the elimination of poverty were rediscovered by American and European workers’ rights movements. Though the strength of such movements has waxed and waned since the mid-1800s, Paine’s stature as spokesman for the oppressed and underprivileged has slowly but steadily risen to the point where he is now celebrated in his native England and his adoptive America as, if not a favorite son, at least a remarkable and important member of the revolutionary era’s political and literary pantheon.

David Taffel is the author of Nietzsche Unbound: The Struggle for Spirit in the Age of Science and managing editor of The Conversationalist, a global news and culture website. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University where his dissertation was awarded the Hans Jonas Memorial Prize for Philosophy.


TO GEORGE WASHINGTON, President of the United States of America


I present you a small Treatise in defence of those Principles of Freedom which your exemplary Virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish.—That the Rights of Man may become as universal as your Benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the Happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old, is the Prayer of


Your much obliged, and

Obedient humble Servant,



FROM THE PART MR BURKE TOOK IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, it was natural that I should consider him a friend to mankind; and as our acquaintance commenced on that ground, it would have been more agreeable to me to have had cause to continue in that opinion, than to change it.

At the time Mr Burke made his violent speech last winter in the English Parliament against the French Revolution and the National Assembly, I was in Paris, and had written him, but a short time before, to inform him how prosperously matters were going on. Soon after this, I saw his advertisement of the Pamphlet he intended to publish: As the attack was to be made in a language but little studied, and less understood, in France, and as every thing suffers by translation, I promised some of the friends of the Revolution in that country, that whenever Mr Burke’s Pamphlet came forth, I would answer it. This appeared to me the more necessary to be done, when I saw the flagrant misrepresentations which Mr Burke’ Pamphlet contains; and that while it is an outrageous abuse on the French Revolution, and the principles of Liberty, it is an imposition on the rest of the world.

I am the more astonished and disappointed at this conduct in Mr Burke, as (from the circumstance I am going to mention), I had formed other expectations.

I had seen enough of the miseries of war, to wish it might never more have existence in the world, and that some other mode might be found out to settle the differences that should occasionally arise in the neighbourhood of nations. This certainly might be done if Courts were disposed to set honestly about it, or if countries were enlightened enough not to be made the dupes of Courts. The people of America had been bred up in the same prejudices against France, which at that time characterized the people of England; but experience and an acquaintance with the French Nation have most effectually shown to the Americans the falsehood of those prejudices; and I do not believe that a more cordial and confidential intercourse exists between any two countries than between America and France.

When I came to France in the Spring of 1787, the Archbishop of Toulouse was then Minister, and at that time highly esteemed. I became much acquainted with the private Secretary of that Minister, a man of an enlarged benevolent heart; and found, that his sentiments and my own perfectly agreed with respect to the madness of war, and the wretched impolicy of two nations, like England and France, continually worrying each other, to no other end than that of a mutual increase of burdens and taxes. That I might be assured I had not misunderstood him, nor he me, I put the substance of our opinions into writing, and sent it to him; subjoining a request, that if I should see among the people of England, any disposition to cultivate a better understanding between the two nations than had hitherto prevailed, how far I might be authorized to say that the same disposition prevailed on the part of France? He answered me by letter in the most unreserved manner, and that not for himself only, but for the Minister, with whose knowledge the letter was declared to be written.

I put this letter into the hands of Mr Burke almost three years ago, and left it with him, where it still remains; hoping, and at the same time naturally expecting, from the opinion I had conceived of him, that he would find some opportunity of making a good use of it, for the purpose of removing those errors and prejudices, which two neighbouring nations, from the want of knowing each other, had entertained, to the injury of both.

When the French Revolution broke out, it certainly afforded to Mr Burke an opportunity of doing some good, had he been disposed to it; instead of which, no sooner did he see the old prejudices wearing away, than he immediately began sowing the seeds of a new inveteracy, as if he were afraid that England and France would cease to be enemies. That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of Nations, is as shocking as it is true; but when those who are concerned in the government of a country, make it their study to sow discord, and cultivate prejudices between Nations, it becomes the more unpardonable.

With respect to a paragraph in this Work alluding to Mr Burke’s having a pension, the report has been some time in circulation, at least two months; and as a person is often the last to hear what concerns him the most to know, I have mentioned it, that Mr Burke may have an opportunity of contradicting the rumour, if he thinks proper.



AMONG THE INCIVILITIES BY WHICH NATIONS OR INDIVIDUALS provoke and irritate each other, Mr Burke’s pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance. Neither the People of France, nor the National Assembly, were troubling themselves about the affairs of England, or the English Parliament; and why Mr Burke should commence an unprovoked attack upon them, both in parliament and in public, is a conduct that cannot be pardoned on the score of manners, nor justified on that of policy.

There is scarcely an epithet of abuse to be found in the English language, with which Mr Burke has not loaded the French Nation and the National Assembly. Everything which rancour, prejudice, ignorance, or knowledge could suggest, are poured forth in the copious fury of near four hundred pages. In the strain and on the plan Mr Burke was writing, he might have written on to as many thousands. When the tongue or the pen is let loose in a frenzy of passion, it is the man, and not the subject, that becomes exhausted.

Hitherto Mr Burke has been mistaken and disappointed in the opinions he had formed of the affairs of France; but such is the ingenuity of his hope, or the malignancy of his despair, that it furnishes him with new pretences to go on. There was a time when it was impossible to make Mr Burke believe there would be any revolution in France. His opinion then was, that the French had neither spirit to undertake it, nor fortitude to support it; and now that there is one, he seeks an escape, by condemning it.

Not sufficiently content with abusing the National Assembly, a great part of his work is taken up with abusing Dr Price (one of the best-hearted men that lives), and the two societies in England known by the name of the Revolution Society, and the Society for Constitutional Information.

Dr Price had preached a sermon on the 4th of November 1789, being the anniversary of what is called in England, the Revolution which took place 1688. Mr Burke, speaking of this sermon, says, ‘The Political Divine proceeds dogmatically to assert, that, by the principles of the Revolution, the people of England have acquired three fundamental rights:

1. To choose our own governors.

2. To cashier them for misconduct.

3. To frame a government for ourselves.’

Dr Price does not say that the right to do these things exists in this or in that person, or in this or in that description of persons, but that it exists in the whole; that it is a right resident in the nation.—Mr Burke, on the contrary, denies that such a right exists in the nation, either in whole or in part, or that it exists anywhere; and, what is still more strange and marvellous, he says, ‘that the people of England utterly disclaim such a right, and that they will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes.’ That men should take up arms, and spend their lives and fortunes, not to maintain their rights, but to maintain they have not rights, is an entirely new species of discovery, and suited to the paradoxical genius of Mr Burke.

The method which Mr Burke takes to prove that the people of England have no such rights, and that such rights do not now exist in the nation, either in whole or in part, or anywhere at all, is of the same marvellous and monstrous kind with what he has already said; for his arguments are, that the persons, or the generation of persons, in whom they did exist, are dead, and with them the right is dead also. To prove this, he quotes a declaration made by parliament about a hundred years ago, to William and Mary, in these words: ‘The Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, do, in the name of the people aforesaid, ’—(meaning the people of England then living)—‘most humbly and faithfully submit themselves, their heirs and posterities , for EVER.’ He also quotes a clause of another act of parliament made in the same reign, the terms of which, he says, ‘bind us’—(meaning the people of that day)—‘our heirs, and our posterity, to them, their heirs and posterity, to the end of time.’

Mr Burke conceives his point sufficiently established by producing those clauses, which he enforces by saying that they exclude the right of the nation for ever: And not yet content with making such declarations, repeated over and over again, he farther says, ‘that if the people of England possessed such a right before the Revolution,’ (which he acknowledges to have been the case, not only in England, but throughout Europe, at an early period), ‘yet that the English nation did, at the time of the Revolution, most solemnly renounce and abdicate it, for themselves, and for all their posterity, for ever.’

As Mr Burke occasionally applies the poison drawn from his horrid principles, not only to the English nation, but to the French Revolution and the National Assembly, and charges that august, illuminated and illuminating body of men with the epithet of usurpers, I shall, sans ceremonie, place another system of principles in opposition to his.

The English Parliament of 1688 did a certain thing, which, for themselves and their constituents, they had a right to do, and which it appeared right should be done: But, in addition to this right, which they possessed by delegation, they setup another right by assumption, that of binding and controlling posterity to the end of time. The case, therefore, divides itself into two parts; the right which they possessed by delegation, and the right which they set up by assumption. The first is admitted; but, with respect to the second, I reply—

There never did, there never will, and there never can exist a parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the ‘end of time,’ or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore, all such clauses, acts or declarations, by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void.—Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, has no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated. When man ceases to be, his power and his wants cease with him; and having no longer any participation in the concerns of this world, he has no longer any authority in directing who shall be its governors, or how its government shall be organized, or how administered.

I am not contending for nor against any form of government, nor for nor against any party here or elsewhere. That which a whole nation chooses to do, it has a right to do. Mr Burke says, No. Where then does the right exist? I am

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Lo que piensa la gente sobre Rights of Man (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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  • (3/5)
    Written during the era of the French Revolution, this book was one of the first to introduce the concept of human rights from the standpoint of democracy. The Rights of Man was actually published as a direct response to a piece written by Edmund Burke attacking the French Revolution. Paine’s book focuses on the positives of that revolution and why it was necessary. I think it’s important to learn more about the conversation that was happening when our nation was being developed. We were building something from scratch, but we were being influenced by everything that was happening in the countries around us. “If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable; but by the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all the parts are brought into cordial unison. There the poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged. Industry is not mortified by the splendid extravagance of a court rioting at its expense. Their taxes are few, because their government is just: and as there is nothing to render them wretched, there is nothing to engender riots and tumults.”The core argument in the book rings true. A government’s job should be to protect the rights of its people. It’s not the government’s job to create those rights, only to protect them. Paine argues that the more power a government has the more it takes away the rights of its people, the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. He argues that because man is inherently evil, he will default to evil when given too much power. BOTTOM LINE: Not a book I’d reread for fun, but one that I think it is important to read. Understanding the decisions that were made when your nation was created helps you understand many of the conversations currently happening in our country. “Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” 
  • (3/5)
    I know that this is a classic, and I should be waxing lyrical about it, particularly as my politics tend to the socialist, BUT, the thing that strikes me most with this book is the naivety. We twenty-first century beings are too World weary to accept that ANY system of government is going to lead to the promised land, let alone this dated set of pie in the sky doctrines. Paine's main tenet is that less is best on the government front and, whilst I do anguish about some of the nanny knows best mentality of the UK at the moment, it is also painfully true that a sort yourselves out approach only leads to the fittest crushing the minnows.I also found the constant sniping at Mr. Burke tedious: Paine does not need to decry an alternative viewpoint, just give us his own. I really expected to be uplifted by this work but failed to learn much of anything from its pages (I leave others to decide if this was due to my stupidity or the more streetwise attitudes of the present day).
  • (5/5)
    Paine was a freaking genius! I admire him so much -- his life, his writings, his damn brain. He's one of the few from the past that I would pay a fortune for to sit down for a drink with him and just chat, pick his pray, engage, learn. No longer given enough credit these days, but one of the most influential men of his period, ironically more for the US than for France. This is an excellent treatise and if you've not read it, or his other works, by all means, please do!