For most Americans, Thomas Paine is the radical Englishman, and former tax collector, who published Common Sense in early 1776. His claim that hereditary monarchy was an absurdity and that the “cause of America was in great measure the cause of all mankind” galvanized American rebels into thinking more seriously about independence than they had only a few months before.
Paine would go on to publish The American Crisis and other writings during the America Revolution before trying to find his place in the new United States after the war.
But in the early 1790s, Paine took up his pen once again, this time to defend the French Revolution, from its British critics, including his frenemy, Edmund Burke. The result was a two-part work entitled Rights of Man, a treatise that imagined a world that in some ways looks very similar to our own.
On today’s show, Dr. Frances Chiu joins Jim Ambuske to chat about her new guide book to Paine’s Rights of Man, published by Routledge in 2020.
Chiu, who teaches at the New School, is a historian of 18th and 19th century Gothic horror, as well as British reform and radicalism. Her guide book is a handy tool for understanding Paine’s ideas and their origins, with some far older than you might imagine.
Reading Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man with Dr. Frances Chiu
Interview published: December 2, 2021
Transcript created: January 3, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guest: Dr. Frances Chiu, New School
Jim Ambuske: Well Frances, tell us a little bit about Thomas Paine's life between the end of the American revolution and the outbreak of the French Revolution. And we meet this guy, at least in early American history in the revolutionary war is the guy who writes Common Sense, The American Crisis. And then after the war, he kind of disappears, I think, from the American imagination until he resurfaces in the French revolution.
He once again, finds a revolution that excites him, what's going on in those intervening years, between the end of the American war, and the beginning of the wars of the French revolution
Frances Chiu: At time, he sort of like, uh, you know, he's become a gentleman of leisure for some time. He's been requesting compensation for all of his quote unquote volunteer work, you know, like writing Common Sense.
I guess uh, writing that and all of these other writings, like on public good. And he's got a farm in New Rochelle, and he buys a small house in Bordentown, New Jersey. He gets involved in sort of inventing things like the smokeless candle. Paine gets really involved in trying to come up with a single span iron bridge.
So he's working on this for about, you know, two or three years. He gets one gentleman from England, John Hall to work with them on this. And it actually, there's quite a bit of excitement and he has this displayed and, you know, in the statehouse everything. People are impressed by it, but it really goes nowhere. So this is where Benjamin Franklin suggested that he go to France.
This is 1787. He tells him to go see public works at that time, Louis the Sixteenth's, ministers he meets to Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, who was an ambassador of France at this time, he's showing the bridges. He's also going to England as well to see his parents. He hasn't realized that his, you know, his father's died.
And so he's over there and he meets like the leaders of the opposition, including you know, Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke at this time, it's just really just helping him try to find a site for the bridge.
Jim Ambuske: What fascinates me about Paine in this period is he's like so many other people who are trying to figure out how to live in the new world that the American Revolution creates.
He's. I mean, he was always kind of a guy, right. Who, who would jump from opportunity to opportunity. But he seems discombobulated or dislodged or searching for something meaningful in the post-war period. And it's a, you know, it's really interesting that this, uh, speaking of bridges, like he, he sets out to, to build, as you say, a Peerless bridge, uh, and then he ends up in bridging the gap in some ways between the American revolution and the French.
Frances Chiu: That's a very good way of looking at.
Jim Ambuske: Tell us a little bit about Burke because you just brought in Edmund Burke and in the conversation, Edmund Burke is often the thought or sometimes thought of as the, you know, the great quote unquote conservative Irish member of parliament. He writes, uh, in favor of the American revolution, but as we'll talk about his decidedly against the French revolution, it sounds like their relationship then starts over this bridge.
Frances Chiu: At this time, Burke actually has a reputation as a liberal. I mean, he was a Whig and he was still mostly in favor of getting rid of the Test and Corporation Act. He was against capital punishment. He was also opposed to slavery. I mean, he was basically what you would call. I guess what we're center center leaning liberal, not like far left, like Paine for instance, and you as the one who was also trying to diminish the king's influence and at the same time also broaden to some extent enfranchisement, not as much as Paine, but
Jim Ambuske: Is it, better classify him then as a, in a sense, a political liberal as we might describe them today. But then as I think, as we'll talk about kind of a cultural conservative in terms of adhering to tradition?.
Frances Chiu: At this time, he would have been perceived, I think, as sort of a moderate liberal, especially since he started turning against religious toleration for Protestant dissent, but this time, I mean, he's still moderately liberal, but then when the French revolution comes along, he becomes a sort of like full fledged conservative.
Although it's worth noting at this time too, that Burke always did have conservative leanings. With the American revolution, he basically said that, you know, these colonists had always sort of, govern themselves. They deserve to continue doing so that was his rationale. Right. So yeah, you can say that he was cultural conservative, but then when the French revolution, that's when it really becomes interesting because right after the right after the fall of the Bastille, people in Britain were actually very excited about this. Oh, wow. The French are finally catching up with modernization. They're coming into finally becoming more open-minded. It is no longer going to be as abosolutist and despotic. And so at this time, uh, you have Richard Price who was a very famous artist and dissenter, celebrating the French revolution at this commemoration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
And he said, this is a really great, and Burke is shocked by it, but also at the same time, I think he might've also been shocked by Paine's reaction as well too, because Paine was basically tried to urge him to get the revolution started in England. And Burke is no, we can't have this at all.
Jim Ambuske: We've got a good system here. Let's not muck that up.
Frances Chiu: Exactly, exactly. Reflections on the Revolution France. This is his attempt to say that, no, this is the wrong thing for France. He goes on to say that the French had a good thing going on. They should not have wrecked it, but he compares the whole government to this old castle that doesn't need to be struck down, but just modified, just fixed up here. And they're repaired here and there. And he goes on to complain about the King's powers being stripped away from them. The abolition of titles, amongst the nobility. If they lose a political influence, we will no longer have properly learned men taking over France. And he goes on to talk about how it was proper for France to have a state church. Cause if they didn't, everyone would run a muck. He basically says that, you know, you really need to retain traditions as is. Or otherwise it's going to descend into chaos. And I think in the short term, you know, we could say that Burke was correct because they had the rate of terror. It was shrewd enough to see what was going on. I mean, he could see what was going to happen in the next 20, 30
Jim Ambuske: Maybe just to sum up then with his position, with Burke's position on the American revolution. What he's arguing in a sense is, that Americans are claiming rights that they've already they've had for a long time, that it's been their tradition to govern themselves for a long time.
You know, there's this old idea of salutary neglect and they've that they were essentially left alone to manage their own interests. Whereas in the French.
Frances Chiu: It always has a certain degree of certain degree of autonomy.
Jim Ambuske: And then with the French revolution is you saying, listen, you can make tweaks, but if you overthrow the entire order, chaos will ensue. Who knows where this is going to end?
Frances Chiu: Yeah, that's correct.
Jim Ambuske: So Burke writes this reflections on the French revolution and I gather that his old buddy Thomas Paine is not too terribly excited about this. What is Paine's reaction?
He's very surprised by it. And he says, I'm exceedingly, sorry I've had anything to do with him.
There were several other people who were responding too. The onslaught against Burke is just so furious because the first person right, was absolutely Mary Wollstonecraft. You know, the first modern feminist. Catherine McAuley is a chemist and Protestant dissenter, Joseph Priestley, you know a whole slew of other people. And then Paine comes along. And actually in some ways you could say relatively late in the game, because he comes I mean, his response responses in early 1791. He tries to refute work almost point by point. So he begins by criticizing Burke's criticism of Richard Price. And here, this is basically where Burke has said that Richard Price is talking nonsense when the Glorioius Revolution happened people were just obeying the rules and that's why they got William and Mary over rather than taking James the Second that this is not a popular vote, this is just part of the rules.
Is this Paine in the first part of Rights of Man?
Frances Chiu: Yeah. This statement by Burke is heavily refuted by almost everyone, but Paine probably makes the best case this, this is where he goes on to say that just because rules held by for 1688 doesn't mean that they still hold today. And so he makes this big point about how [00:08:00] everything needs to be modernized. You cannot have these rules from the 17th or 15th century or else governingBritain. It's like a dead taking over the living and he really gets into the subject rights.
The subject of rights is really not new at all. You know, if you really want to look at it, it goes all the way back to creation and God gave everyone their rights. And the only distinction that he ever made was between male and female. What he's trying to do is say that the subject of rights is not as modern newfangled innovation, but it's been around for centuries.
Jim Ambuske: As you say it goes, uh, he makes the case that it goes all the way back to time inmemorial, but then there are these moments in English history that he can draw on to point out like, well, you know, this peasants revolt, you know, several centuries earlier, was a clear indication that, uh, people of a lowly sort, especially people of a lowly sort had rights that had to be respected and that you can't just countermand them by adhering to quote unquote traditional values that maintain the few against the many.
Frances Chiu: He does mention that this revolt in the second part, Rights of Man and he said that these men are acting more important than the barons who defied, you know, king John of the Magna Carta.
Jim Ambuske: That's really fascinating because the Magna Carta 1215 is often seen as kind of the bedrock of where the origins of are a part of our, I would say constitutional democracy, both in the United Kingdom and the United States that 1215 is seen as a kind of city upon a hill.
You might say, but it's 1381 then sounds like, at least in Paine's estimation that it's equally, if not more critical moment in which English men asserted their rights in ways that Americans later Englishman would soon follow.
Frances Chiu: Yeah, yeah.
Jim Ambuske: Paine writes Rights of Man in two parts. And we've kind of gotten into the first part a little bit, but can you give us a little bit more of a sense of what's in that part one? And then I'd love to talk about the publication aspect of it, because that's a fascinating dynamic too.
Frances Chiu: He's writing about the rights, that everyone has, God given rights. He goes on to say that this is why the French were correct in getting rid of the titles, because what are these titles really mean?
What is the true distinction between say a duke and a marquis? I mean, what is their value. When you have an aristocracy, you really only have one heir. He basically sucks up all the sources. Paine talks about the fact that they get everything. And then not only that that you have the younger siblings, especially the men who are not really provided for quote unquote, they have to get a jobs in the government, which are very, very well compensated.
You know, what a waste of money that these people who are just born to the right families get these positions. So basically the government is supporting these types of people. And he goes on from there to talk about the church. Burke had talked about the church being important for stabilized society at least, Paine goes on to say that this whole idea of one church claiming privileges was just really was ridiculous.
He goes beyond the Protestants dissenters to talk about the need for religious toleration. Paine goes on to say that the idea of toleration of religion is really not for men to decide it's for God.
Jim Ambuske: What's interesting to me is it sounds like a lot of what Paine is interrogating and criticizing is the relationship between the social structure, which is deeply tied to a landed hierarchy, a landed class, the way that that is entangled with the government and the two kind of perpetuate each other or, or in the sense designed to. But then there's this also this religious element where England is a Protestant nation. The king is ahead of the Protestant Anglican church or the Church of England. And all of these three elements, mutually reinforce each other and kind of keep, as you say, everyone in their quote, unquote, proper place thereby prohibiting them or inhibiting people to assert the rights of man in a very real sense.
Is that, is that kind of what's going on here?
Frances Chiu: Right. I think Paine was already seeing this whole idea of what we call the 1% dominating society and the governments to benefit themselves. And he sees the French sort of abolishing that system, at least getting rid of it or questioning it, although what's interesting, you know, he was in America, you could already see this system being built up, because if you think about, you know, almost all of the men who are dominating onwards in America at this time were we, you know, were landed elites. They were very wealthy. There are many like, you know, slave owners, Thomas Jefferson, uh, Henry Laurens. You really do wonder what Paine thought about this. And if you ever looked at it from that light that, you know, Hey America is actually also being built by these elites..
Jim Ambuske: Yeah I say it seems like a less stratified society, even though, as you point out, right, people like Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, New York merchants, uh, the, you know, those kinds of folks, they've got disproportionate economic and social power, therefore political power, but then he's liking what's happening in France because they're wiping out all these estates and there's like a radical leveling going on where people are put on, at least he thinks theoretically equal terms and that they can better than. Or maintain and defend their rights in a more equitable fashion.
[So Paine writes his first part. Why does he decide to write two parts and not one big book?
Frances Chiu: I'm not sure if he actually intended or many of us are not sure if he actually tended to do a second part, but what changes things around is the fact that in France in 1791, actually in June, 1791, Louis the 16th decided to escape from France. And this pretty much signal to everyone that he was not living up to his teams. I mean, he was not supporting the revolution. And this is where you begin to have this question in the back, you know, do you really need to have a monarchy?
Paine criticizes monarchy a lot in there, but you know, he praises Louis the 16th for trying to reform things. So he's not absolutely questioning monarchy, but when you get to the part two, that's when he really leans into and says that just the most ridiculous system ever. And that representative is much, much better. In Common Sense he was already criticizing the premises of hereditary government, but he was really making this argument towards the Americans.
And here he's directing it mostly to the British. That is probably, the biggest distinction. And he goes on to say, for instance, that, you know, you can have a system where you have a king who was stupid, crazy and despotic.
Jim Ambuske: Maybe all at the same time
Frances Chiu: And all at the same time. Right. Oh, I guess some, some might I think argue that, Hey, it's possible for a democracy to have made up the same. You know, the three off to embody the same categories.
Jim Ambuske: Uh, questionable leadership is not the domain of simply of hereditary monarchies. That's that is for sure.
Frances Chiu: So he talks about that and he, you know, he talks about the fact that it just really started because of the military system. And at the same time, many of these wars have occurred throughout the ages, have always been for the purpose of supporting the which ever monarch was on the throne or getting a new one on the throne, you know, one or the other.
Jim Ambuske: So Paine publishes part one, who's reading it. And what's the reaction.
Frances Chiu: At this time, it was criticized by many, even the Whigs I say. Uh, but then, you know, the radicals I'd say like, his friends are really mad when Mary Wollstonecraft, many of them thought Paine's work was absolutely brilliant. You had these groups reading Paine and being very enthusiastic about it, but at the same time, it's priced at three shillings, which is about, um, three days of work for a skilled trades, a lot of money. However, because of the lax copyright laws, many newspapers are currently printing like large excerpts from Rights of Man and there probably some publications we've may have reprinted the whole thing over a series of, you know, installments.
Jim Ambuske: So Part One is priced at you say something over three shillings, which is several days wages for the common laborer. So it's in the hands of the elite, the kind of the people that Paine is criticizing and not in the hands of folks who, uh, sensibly to he's speaking to. But then, Part Two I gather then has a lower price and then that.
Frances Chiu: Yes, a much lower price. It is now six pence. I mean, it's very affordable, and then he decides to make Part One six pence as well, too. So it is much easier access .
Jim Ambuske: That's much better.
Frances Chiu: But I think that with Part Two. The most outstanding part is that he makes these proposals for universal suffrage and really what we would say, like a public welfare system you know, providing and he wanted a system where it will be nationalized. So no matter where you lived, you could have some kind of stable system of support. And he goes on to make the case, that young couples to get some assistance when they get married, because it's very hard to sort of family. And he goes on to say that you should not have men and women working into their seventies or eighties.
So he wanted the proposal system where men and women would get Â£6 a year if there were in the fifties and then Â£10 a year over 60, and you saying that all this money, if you want to, where it's coming from, it's going to be coming from your taxes. So look, when you pay into them in whatever form you will get all this back when you hit 50.
Jim Ambuske: What I find fascinating is that Paine in many ways, sounds like he's anticipating the modern, British welfare state with pensions and health protections and things like that. But that's not going to fly in the eighteenth century. And the fact that he publishes Part Two at a lower price and then has Part One at a lower price as well. I would imagine then it's in the hands of more people, is that when the Yorkshire pudding really hits the fan amongst the elite?
Frances Chiu: It's terrifying to say the least. I think it was around May 21st, 1792, just about three months after it was published. [Prime Minster William Pitt the Younger] puts out a proclamation against, you know, seditious writings and then has Paine charged with, um, seditious writings. They have negative biographies written about him written for the common man.
So they're all criticizing how this is full of garbage and he's full of class envy and everything. And at the same time, they have all these local magistrates and churching and king mobs burning effigies. And this has turned into like a very festive event where, you know, you would go burners, effigy and get, you know, food and punching whatnot.
Jim Ambuske: That sounds like a party.
Frances Chiu: They were in a sense bribing people to attend these events. It's hard to say how many people actually opposed it and how many were supporting it secretly.
Jim Ambuske: So am I hearing you right then, then there was a kind of attempt to manage the optics of the situation in a sense, uh, and use these kind of fun parties to make the point that pain was really unpopular and that most people didn't agree with what he was saying and it's all just a bunch of horse hockey?
Frances Chiu: Exactly. Right. That's exactly. I mean, some of these burnings are really outrageous . There's one where they got someone to scream while he was being pounded.
Jim Ambuske: Like to simulate him being, being executed or something like that?
Frances Chiu: And burnt. They started spying, you know, following them around. And I think at one point he was at a party William Blake was there and he basically warned Paine that if you go home, you're dead man. Now by then, Paine had already been invited to become sort of like an MP in France. So he decides to flee to France at this time. And the day that he left, the authorities actually tried to arrest him. Meanwhile, he goes to France and he's absolutely celebrated almost a completely different world.
Jim Ambuske: A few less bonfires and effigys, there, it sounds like?
Frances Chiu: Right.
Jim Ambuske: Well, Frances you've written a guidebook to Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. Why write a guide book?
Frances Chiu: I always been interested in Paine, I guess, you know, since my doctoral dissertation.
And then I read John Keane biography of Thomas Paine, I was just completely blown away. You know, I've got to teach a course on Paine. So I've been teaching I've taught Paine for about several years. About maybe like six years before I got invited by Harvey Kaye to write a guidebook on the Rights of Man for Routledge.
When I was teaching a course, I was already thinking that I'd gotten a good idea of what kind of questions that students are asking about Rights of Man, and about other books, which were published in this period. So what I basically wanted to do was show the evolution of rights, how it developed through the centuries from and 1140 or so through civil wars and show half the idea of political rights evolved, political rights, as well as the concept of say economic justice. I was interested in seeing how many of the ideas that Paine discussed has sort of evolved through the centuries. Did pain have any awareness of these writers?
Jim Ambuske: I like the fact that this project came about in part, because of your experiences in the classroom. And then, so I'm wondering how you hope people will use this guidebook either in their classes or just on their own as they're studying the rights of man in their own time.
Frances Chiu: I want to show how the idea of rights evolves. And I also wanted to show how for instance, people became interested in universal male suffrage, how they became more interested in inequality in all of these issues. And so how Paine dealt with them. And so I just wanted to show basically how he related to all of these, you know, all these concepts. The last chapter does talk about how Paine is still relevant in today's age. There's one point where Paine says the system is still corrupted. It still has not changed. And in this book, I wanted to show you know, talk about how Paine developed in this tradition of questioning, uh, of looking into inequality, looking into ways of making, living more possible, and also showing how I think it's still relevant in today's day and age.
Jim Ambuske: More Conversations after break.
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Jim Ambuske: All right, Francis, what book are you reading right now?
Frances Chiu: I am actually reading the Wasp Establishment by E Digby Baltzell.. It's really fascinating because he was saying that, you know, we need to have an aristocracy, but an aristocracy that is open to everyone, it's really fascinating because again, it really goes back to, well, what Paine is talking about here.
Jim Ambuske: Who is the author you most admire?
Frances Chiu: I really enjoy Stephen King. For historians I like Robert [?] alot. And I also enjoy a lot of Harvey Kaye too, because like really knows how to make it so relevant to today's day and age. Um, and then there's like a lot of horror. I just finished reading, um, Robert Mariscos Burnt Offering. It was only about like 205 pages at the, oh, I want this to go on, this is like really so exciting. And there's like so much that is, uh, I mean, he really knows how to create chills without blood guts and you know, gore, it it's really fascinating.
Jim Ambuske: Good tips for the upcoming fall season then.
Frances Chiu: Yes.
Jim Ambuske: What is the most exciting document you've ever found over the course of your research?
Frances Chiu: I think one of the ones that was most excited to read was James Murray's sermons To Asses. He was supposed to be the most incendiary writer before Thomas Paine came along. There's actually some places where he's probably even more daring than Paine himself. But basically as first line is, um, you know, if asses preached to men, why may not mankind preach to ass-kind?. This is where he's talking about, uh, taxes on the poor are very unfair there, and the wealthier paying very little. This copy was actually based upon the radical publisher's copy, and he rested places. This would get me in trouble. This can not be published. There's line upon line upon line of that. And it was just really fascinating to see that.
Jim Ambuske: Okay. And last question at the end of the day, what do you hope folks take away from your work?
Frances Chiu: This particular book? Um, I mean, I'm hoping that people will see of course how much research I've put in it, which is basically by you know saying how Paine did relate to all of these early writers. I guess you could say, as I basically want to dispel any misconceptions that were associated with Paine.
Jim Ambuske: Well, Francis thank you very much. This has been great.
Frances Chiu: Thank you, Jim. You've been wonderful host.
Frances A. Chiu, the author of The Routledge Guidebook to Paine’s Rights of Man, is a cultural historian who studies 18th-and 19th-century Gothic/horror as well as British reform and radicalism. She has published in such peer-reviewed journals as 18th-century Life and Romanticism on the Net and is currently at work on a new book, Reading the Gothic: Matthew Lewis’ Monk. Frances teaches at The New School.