Paine’s Rights Reconsidered

  • Gregory Claeys


This essay explores three aspects of Paine’s legacy that relate to his treatment of rights theories, especially in Rights of Man (1791–1792). The first of these problems is with respect to the impact of Paine’s account of creation in The Age of Reason (1794) and on the rights claims presented in Rights of Man. The second addresses the innovatory position adopted by Paine at the end of Rights of Man, Part the Second, where, it is often contended, the first modern welfare agenda was proposed as a means of countering poverty. The third concerns the religious milieu in which the text was read, and the theory of equality it implied and invoked. Taken together these problems indicate that Paine represents a vital turning-point in rights discourse, one whose implications we have yet to confront fully.


Female Genital Mutilation French Revolution Civil Religion United Nation Declaration Religious Basis 
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  1. 1.
    Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas Paine. Rights of Man, ed. G. Claeys (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 38.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On Paine’s connections with Methodism, and its popular and egalitarian tendencies, see John Keane. Tom Paine. A Political Life (London: Bloomsbury, 1995), 46–49.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Thomas Paine. The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Moncure Conway (New York, 1908), 4:102.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., 4:215.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., 4:264; 266–267; 288 (Paine’s response to Llandaff).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Claeys, Paine, 196. The background to this process is illuminatingly sketched in Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade. International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 159–184.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See “Socialism and the Language of Rights,” in Miia Halme-Tuomisaari and Pamela Slotte, eds., Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights: Genealogy of a European Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 206–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 12.
    See generally Gareth Stedman Jones, The End of Poverty? A Historical Debate (London: Profile Books, 2004).Google Scholar
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    C. B. Macpherson, in D. D. Raphael, Political Theory and the Rights of Man (London: Macmillan, 1967), 8.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    Alan Forrest, The French Revolution and the Poor (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 13–33.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 100.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 111.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    Gary Kates, The Cercle Social, the Girondins, and the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 149.Google Scholar
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    R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled. The Year of Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941), 34.Google Scholar
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    This is explored further in my “Paine and the Religiosity of Rights,” in Rachel Hammersley, ed. Revolutionary Moments (London: Bloomsbury, London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 85–92.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    I describe this as a myth in the sense that while individuals may possess equal legal rights within specified social categories (e.g., as adults, as non-criminals, as sane persons, etc.), the supposed equality of such rights is utterly vitiated by inequality of wealth, which makes rights effectively purchasable as commodities like any other. We should recall, here, perhaps, that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen passed by the National Assembly in August 1789 described equality before the law as amongst the rights proclaimed, not equality in the abstract. A useful introduction here is Lynn Hunt, “The Paradoxical Origins of Human Rights,” in Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Greg Grandin, Lynn Hunt and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Human Rights and Revolutions (2nd ed., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 3–20.Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    This is broadly the perspective adopted in Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010).Google Scholar

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© Gregory Claeys 2016

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