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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and Age of Reason

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Life, it was the season of Darkness…” That was from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. A great way to understand the dualistic nature of the French Revolution. Today we are looking at the fall of Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine wanted to be a part of this revolutionary process in France. We will see how his revolutionary predictions fell short, and how he lost his popularity and almost his life.

In our first Thomas Paine video, we saw how he became quite popular globally during the American revolution by writing Common Sense and The American Crisis. You can find that video here. After the American Revolution, Congress recognized Paine’s services and he received payment and land. During this time, he worked on other pursuits like writing the preamble of the abolition act of 1780 which freed 6,000 slaves in Pennsylvania. He served different clerk roles, and even moved back to England for work.

While Paine was in England, the French had just begun their own revolution in 1789 over extreme class disparities, heavy taxes, and unstable policies from the French Monarchy. This revolution had the potential to be something exceptional. Even though it had this potential, the world was split on what they thought about this revolution. Many celebrated it as the beginning of the end of an ancient tyranny. Others were afraid of its consequences. After all, if not the king, then who would run France? With this controversy, Thomas Paine, like many other Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, could not stay away from this excitement.

The British were terrified of the revolution with many condemning it like the conservative thinker Edmund Burke. In 1790, Edmund Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France. In this piece of writing, Burke argued that the French Revolution had damaged Western institutions throughout Europe such as the Monarchy, Aristocracy, and even the Church. As he states, “The Age of Chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.” He argued that these institutions gave western countries a solid social fabric that consisted of culture and morality which connected people together. He argued that the French rebels offered an inadequate alternative to this social fabric…an abstract idea of liberty and rights to connect people. Burke says that this abstract idea of liberty and rights is not solid enough and is way too vague, and because it is way too vague it will make the French revolution divisive, chaotic, and even violent. He advocates that reform would be better than revolution. Keep in mind that he wrote this in 1790, before the terror.

Edmund Burke's work angered Thomas Paine and as a result, he wrote Rights of Man in 1791 and 1792 to defend the French revolution. Paine says that Burke has dramatized and misrepresented the French Revolution for British patriotic and financial reasons in order to continue having a foe in France. He then gives his own positive account of the French Revolution to combat Burke’s negative account and gives reasons on why the revolution is justified and why its new republican government is justified.

Paine argues that government has been built on one of three sources throughout history. Superstition, Power, and Common Interest and only one of those is actually legitimate.

The source of Superstition is a government for the priestcraft: “When a set of artful men pretended, through the medium of oracles, to hold intercourse with the Deity, as familiarly as they now march up the backstairs in European courts, the world was completely under the government of superstition. The oracles were consulted, and whatever they were made to say, became the law; and this sort of government lasted as long as this sort of superstition lasted.”

The source of Power was a government that grew up from the ashes of the superstitious and was for the conquerors and monarchs. Paine explains that “Governments thus established, last as long as the power to support them lasts; but that they might avail themselves of every engine in their favour, they united fraud to force, and set up an idol which they called Divine Right, and which, in imitation of the Pope, who affects to be spiritual and temporal, and in contradiction to the Founder of the Christian religion, twisted itself afterwards into an idol of another shape, called Church and State.” He then goes on to say that this system is a brute, militant monster leaving immoral devastation in its path and by its mere existence, fails to protect the natural and civil rights of man. By its mere existence, it is tyranny…

Remember, for Paine the whole point of government is to protect these rights. Government should be there for the common benefit of society and nothing more. Paine uses this idea of tyrannical power to attack all monarchies, especially the one in England. He claims any reform that comes from this kind of government is futile because it is still attached to a monstrous institution. When institutions cannot engender the ways of life they were created to safeguard, they become self-serving and self-perpetuating at the expense of their citizens. He connects this with the English system and says that the English system is upside down. In England, democracy is given from the monarchy instead of being established by the people, and so it isn’t a true democracy and the subjects, not citizens, don't have a real Constitution. Paine advocates for England to create an actual Constitution to promote their happiness and protect their rights –in short, to make them citizens in the full sense. For this reason, revolution instead of reform is necessary to get rid of these oppressive institutions that threaten the rights of man. Only a revolution makes a subject into a citizen.

In Paine’s opinion, France has done this and grown up from being a fantastical-minded child, gripping onto nicknames, into a reasonable man by getting rid of the nobility and their childish titles. By doing this, France is ushering in a new era for the rest of Europe and the world: The era of Reason. As he states “Government founded on a moral theory, on a system of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the government of the sword revolved from east to west. It interests not particular individuals, but nations in its progress, and promises a new era to the human race.” This brings us to the final source, Paine’s idea of Common Interest.

The source of Common Interest was a government of Reason. Paine states, “The fact therefore must be, that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.” He states that the new governments that are arising are entirely representative governments, which are constitutional republics, where the wants and needs of society are better met than any other system. It makes it where the people have legitimate control over their governments, it balances the different interests from different regions of a large nation, and is a government of and for the people.

Using an organic metaphor, he states, “That which is called government, or rather that which we ought to conceive government to be, is no more than some common center in which all the parts of society unite. This cannot be accomplished by any method so conducive to the various interests of the community, as by the representative system. It concentrates the knowledge necessary to the interest of the parts, and of the whole. It places government in a state of constant maturity. It is . . . superior, as government always ought to be, to all the accidents of individual man, and is therefore superior to what is called monarchy.”

Paine says that republics harmonize self-interest with community interest along with society and government. His ideas on republican government basically took John Locke’s liberal ideas on general government and transformed them to be more radical, democratic, and something that we would recognize.

After all the attacks on Britain's institutions in the Rights of Man, Paine was forced to flee London to France in 1792 to avoid arrest after his work was declared seditious. His work was very popular, and it has been seen as some of the best articulated and received arguments for the French Revolution. While in France, he participated in the revolution, and he was pretty moderate in the National Assembly. He pushed the Americans to be more radical during the American revolution, but he actually pushed the French to be more moderate in theirs.

In 1793, he would work on and publish the Age of Reason. The Age of Reason was written for multiple reasons. It was written to defend a creator God from all organized religion, and it was written as a response to France’s turn toward secularism and atheism. He writes, “The circumstance that has now taken place in France of the total abolition of the whole national order of priesthood, and of everything appertaining to compulsive systems of religion, and compulsive articles of faith, has not only precipitated my intention, but rendered a work of this kind exceedingly necessary, lest in the general wreck of superstition, of false systems of government and false theology, we lose sight of morality, of humanity and of the theology that is true.”

In part one, Paine would attack organized religion, especially Christian belief, but would still advocate for religious freedom. This work would be his final steppingstone in his religious evolution and he would actually state his own religious creed. “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy. But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”

Paine’s stances on belief and religious freedom, opposing the execution of the King of France, wanting to adopt a solid constitution, and other controversial issues would anger the more radical members of the French revolution such as Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobin club. They saw Paine as too moderate and as result, Paine, along with other moderates, would be imprisoned in France and faced certain death for treason. Paine would be locked up there for ten months but James Monroe, the new American Minister to France, secured his release in 1794.

Paine would then continue working on the second and third part of the Age of Reason. In the rest of the Age of Reason, he would really attack Chrsitianity calling it a “fabulous mythology.” He argued that the bible was full of contradictions, not historically accurate, came from older mythologies, and could not be verified. He argued that we should be skeptical of it. He then went on to attack the connection between church and state calling it adulterous and saw that the political revolution that might happen all over the world would lead to a religious revolution that would allow citizens to be skeptical about religion. His own works actually reflected this process going from Common Sense, a work on politics, to the Age of Reason, a work on religion. He believed after this religious revolution, “man would return to the pure, unmixed and unadulterated belief of one God, and no more.”

Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason sparked outrage all over the world, especially in Britain and the United States. Paine had gone too far for the British and Americans and was reviled. The second great awakening in the United States was in full swing and it detested Paine’s ideas. It also didn’t help that the French revolution became extremely radical in their politics, bloody in their methods, and even cultish in their beliefs. The Reign of Terror was at the height of its bloodshed and the world was horrified. Paine also made the mistake of attacking President George Washington for doing nothing about his arrest in France. Paine not only attacked his leadership as President, but also attacked his leadership he once praised during the Revolutionary War.

Paine returned to the United States a hated man. He died in 1809 where only a handful of people attended his funeral. His body would be dug up, sent to Britain by journalist William Cobbett to try to memorialize him, and then lost for the rest of time. He is the only Founding Father not to be buried in the United States and no one knows where his body is. Thomas Paine had angered the Americans and British by being too Radical, and angered many in France by being too Moderate. This brings us to our question today? “How should we remember Thomas Paine?”



Ayer, A.J., Thomas Paine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. James Dodsley, Pall Mall, Londons,


Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man": A Biography. Atlantic Monthly

Press, 2007.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason: Being investigation of true and fabulous theology. New

York: The Truth Seeker Co., 1898.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Girad, Kansas Haldeman-Julius Company, 1920.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense and The Rights of Man. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.

Paine, Thomas. The Complete Writing of Thomas Paine. New York: The Citadel Press, 1945.

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