Published in two parts, in 1791 and 1792, Thomas Paine's Rights
of Man was a direct rebuke to Edmund Burke's condemnation of
the French Revolution. The book proposed a more democratic and open
process of politics, and sought to provide a programme for equal
political rights. Paine argued that unless parliament was controlled
by a majority of ordinary people it would never work in the majority's
interests and, in colourful language, emphasised the evils of hereditary
government: 'A banditti of ruffians overrun a country, and lay it
under contributions. Their power being thus established, the chief
of the band contrived to lose the name of robber in that of Monarch;
and hence the origin of Monarchy and Kings.'
Paine recommended that men over 21 should have the vote, that the
House of Lords should be abolished, and that taxation should be
graduated and based on wealth. He also advocated the introduction
of old age pensions ('not as a matter of grace and favour, but of
right') and maternity grants.
Paine renounced any profits from the book, making possible cheap
editions, which allowed the book to reach a large working-class
readership. It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance
of Rights of Man. It gave huge encouragement to the corresponding
societies and other radical groups of the 1790s and beyond. The
second part (which appeared in 1792) was thought by contemporaries
to have sold 200,000 copies, and by the time of his death in 1809
it is estimated that 1,500,000 copies had been sold throughout Europe.
The readership was in fact undoubtedly much higher, as copies were
passed around between groups of people and sections of the book
were read out aloud to stimulate discussions at political meetings.
Catalogue reference: TS 24/3/9 (1792)