Thomas Paine’s Reflections on the Social Contract: A Consistent Theory?

  • Carine Lounissi


Although it has not always been the case in the past, Thomas Paine now tends to be viewed as more than a pamphleteer. He is often considered as an “activist-thinker”1 or as an “intellectual”2 and even more as a thinker.3 Yet his system of thought is not fully coherent and he sometimes expressed divergent, if not contradictory, positions during his life, which has often been underlined by critics and scholars.4 The fact that his writings were published in specific, often polemical, contexts precluded long theoretical expositions as he adopted a pedagogic strategy that made him suppress the philosophical underpinnings of some of his conclusions.5 One of the main ideas he stuck to, that government is based on a social or political contract and that only the latter can guarantee the legitimacy of governing bodies, is no exception to this rule. The fact that he never wrote a theoretical treatise about the social contract but instead included pages presenting elements of theory on which he relied to present his arguments in the polemical works he published forces the reader to piece together the parts of his theory scattered throughout his various writings. To a certain extent they make up a system of thought that can be reconstructed, although it is not fully consistent. Paine started to define the content of the agreement on which a legitimate government should be based in 1776 in Common Sense. He then developed this initial position mainly in Dissertations on Government (1786), in Rights of Man (1791–1792), and in Dissertation on the First Principles of Government (1795).


Common Sense Social Contract Contract Theory Civic Virtue Social Contract Theory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    In French, “penseur-militant.” Nathalie Caron, Thomas Paine contre l’imposture des prêtres (Paris: L’Harmattan, collection “L’aire Anglophone,” 1999), 382.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Writings, ed. Gordon S. Wood (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), xxi–xxii.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Especially since Gregory Claeys’s important book: Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1989). Twenty years later, a book about Paine’s thought was published in a collection devoted to “the political philosophy of the American Founders.” Jack Fruchtman, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2009). I wished to go on with this approach to Paine’s works in Carine Lounissi, La pensée politique de Paine en contexte: théorie et pratique. (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2012). This chapter is based on it.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    See, e.g.: Cecelia Kenyon, “Where Paine Went Wrong,” American Political Science Review 45 (1951): 1092. P. F. Nursey-Bray. “Thomas Paine and the Concept of Alienation,” Political Studies 16 (1968): 225. Gregory Claeys accounted for what previous scholars viewed as a major contradiction in Paine’s thought, i.e., the shift from a minimal and negative role of government to a greater and positive one. Claeys, Thomas Paine, 95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    “The epistemological and metaphysical grounding of his claims on right or equality is left unexplored,” Thomas Paine, Property, Welfare and Freedom in the Thought of Thomas Paine, A Critical Edition, ed. Karen M. Ford (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001), 15.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See, e.g., Alfred Owen Aldridge, Thomas Paine’s American Ideology (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1984), 107–146, and Fruchtman, Political Philosophy, 129–131.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    As Isaac Kramnick concluded, “few liberals were so fervently committed to democracy and egalitarianism,” Isaac Kramnick, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-century England and America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 160.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, ed. Mark Philp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 6.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    James Burgh, Political Disquisitions (Philadelphia, PA: Robert Bell, 1775), I, 3.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Donald S. Lutz, ed., Documents of Political Foundation Written by Colonial Americans: From Covenant to Constitution (Philadelphia, PA: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1986), 65.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Thomas Hutchinson, The History of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay (London: M. Richardson, 1765), II, Appendix 1, 457.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Ibid., 461–462.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Mark L. Sargent, “The Conservative Covenant: The Rise of the Mayflower Compact in American Myth,” The New England Quarterly 61 (1988): 238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 18.
    Thomas Paine, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: The Citadel Press, 1945), II, 241.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    Quoted in: Alfred Owen Aldridge, “The State of Nature: an Undiscovered Country in the History of Ideas,” Studies in Voltaire and Eighteenth Century 98 (1972): 7–8.Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    Quoted in J. R. Pole, “Enlightenment and the Politics of American Nature,” in Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich, eds., The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 207.Google Scholar
  17. 42.
    “Writers on government since the days of Locke, including Mr. Paine, are but the mere retailers of his ideas and doctrines,” a quote commented on by Paine in an article published on August 22, 1807. Alfred Owen Aldridge, “Thomas Paine and the New York Public Advertiser,” New York Historical Society Quarterly 88 (1953): 377.Google Scholar
  18. 44.
    Baruch Spinoza, Traité théologico-politique (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1965), Chapter 16, 268.Google Scholar
  19. 45.
    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (London: Penguin Classics, 1986), 113.Google Scholar
  20. 51.
    Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 56.Google Scholar
  21. 55.
    John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life (London: Bloomsbury, 1995), xx. Claeys, Thomas Paine, 5. Jack Fruchtman, Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994), 6–8. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, Progress and Its Critics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 180.Google Scholar
  22. 57.
    In contrast to what Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson have recently contended, “The Republic of the Moderns: Paine’s and Madison’s Novel Liberalism,” Polity 38 (2006): 466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 70.
    Gregory Claeys, ed., Political Writings of the 1790s (London: Pickering, 1995), V, 217.Google Scholar
  24. 86.
    Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 274.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Carine Lounissi 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carine Lounissi

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations