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Book argues against anointing Thomas Paine as 'patron saint' of natural rights philosophy

Monday, August 27, 2018

LAWRENCE —English philosopher Thomas Paine's name is attached to individual documents that spell out the idea of natural rights not dependent on the laws or customs of any particular culture of government.

For those reasons, many historians associate him as one of the most influential figures in helping instill natural rights as catalysts for both the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century.

"It seems entirely natural for people committed to rights language to look back to Thomas Paine as the patron saint," said Jonathan Clark, professor emeritus who served as KU's Hall Distinguished Professor of British History. "And you're not allowed to think historically about Paine for precisely that reason. He has been turned into an iconic figure."

However, in his new book published by Oxford University Press, "Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution," Clark argues that is an oversimplification of history.

"It didn't work like that in the American Revolution or the French Revolution," he said. "Paine was not in his day the founding father of this language. This language of rights took a long, long time to develop."

Instead, Clark argues that Paine was a product of English political culture of his time. He was born in the late 1730s and died in 1809.

"The idea that natural rights are a universal language, I contend is extremely doubtful," Clark said. "It's made problematic once you look historically at the alleged foundation of that interpretation."

There's no evidence that Paine would have read influential works by John Locke, for example. Paine is usually credited as an American founding father for his ideas expressed in the 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense." Because he lived in France in the 1790s and is named as the author of the pamphlet "Rights of Man," he's seen as one of the main defenders of the French Revolution.

But instead, Clark said it is crucial to look at the individual contexts of each revolution.

"If you look closely you see Paine is not formulating a new idea of human rights," Clark said. "He's talking the old language of rights in which rights are much closer to what we call privileges."

In addition to criticizing how Paine formulated his arguments, Clark said there is important evidence that points to Paine not even writing certain passages in "Rights of Man." In a 2015 essay, Clark found that prose of a 6,000-word narrative in the pamphlet does not match Paine's writing style and is probably that of a native-French speaker, such as Marquis de Lafayette, who was seeking to make a strong name for himself in the French Revolution.

This type of revisionist historical research has attracted criticism, especially in this case because Paine is viewed often as English's greatest revolutionary. But it can provide new windows into more accurately how the idea of natural rights and even human rights and utilitarianism developed later.

"It's not the job of historians to be in favor of some figure or against another but to try to understand how things worked out as they did," Clark said. "Paine was more the inheritor of an old house than the architect of a new house."

Photo: John Wesley Jarvis, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.