Rights of Man, Common Sense, and Other Political Writings

By Thomas Paine; Mark Philp | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

BETWEEN 1775 and 1815, from the beginning of the American Revolution to the end of the French, the meaning of the term 'revolution' changed dramatically. In the mid eighteenth century, revolution involved a change in government, and in a more specialized sense, a return to the basic principles of the constitution: it had no connotations of progressive and permanent change. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the lexicon of reformers and radicals the term had come to mean a process of rapid, fundamental, and progressive social and political change. Reform efforts were no longer directed by a backward-looking concern with an original constitution or uncorrupted state; instead, they became linked to a belief in the advancement of mankind from barbarism to civilization, based on the spread of enlightenment and the recognition of the inalienable rights of man.

No individual's writing better exemplifies this transformation of the language of social and political change than that of Thomas Paine ( 1737-1809). And no individual has a better claim to be the world's first international revolutionary. Paine was a man of multiple citizenships: he played a major role in the American and French Revolutions, and did his best to ensure their imitation in Britain and Ireland. He had a wide circle of acquaintance among leading figures of this age of revolutions, including Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Burke, Condorcet, Lafayette, Danton, and Napoleon. He also held office under the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, acted as unofficial ambassador for America in Britain in the late 1780s, and in 1792 was an elected member of the French National Convention. In Britain, he earned the double distinction of being the most widely read of the radical pamphleteers of the 1790s, and the one whose works were most often prosecuted. He was outlawed in Britain in 1792, nearly guillotined in France in 1794, and anathematized as a Jacobin and infidel in America on his return in 1802.

-vii-

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