University of Kansas historian Jonathan Clark says Thomas Paine didn't write the account of the French Revolution included in the Rights of Man

Historians in the News
tags: French Revolution, Thomas Paine, Marquis de Lafayette

Jonathan C. Clark is completing a monograph on the social and political thought of Thomas Paine. It concludes with an appendix of “Paine De-Attributions.”

Here is a familiar outline account of the French Revolution, long established and echoed in various forms in many textbooks. The Revolution’s antecedents can be traced to Louis XIV. He was a despot: by show and ostentation, he lured the French into an attitude of subordination and political passivity. Only among subsequent philosophers was a spirit of liberty preserved. Montesquieu gave that spirit veiled expression. Voltaire dared to write open satire against statecraft as well as priestcraft; he deserves the thanks of mankind, whatever his personal motives. Rousseau and Raynal expressed high ideals of liberty. Quesnay and Turgot showed that the administration of government could be reformed. Together, they spread throughout their country a spirit of political inquiry, and prepared the way for the reception in France of the example of the American Revolution....

Beyond the ranks of professional historians, the wider public is subliminally convinced that that was, broadly speaking, how things were. This deep conviction can be explained, for the story as set out above is only an abridgement of the account that first appeared in Thomas Paine’s phenomenally successful Rights of Man (1791). About 6,000 words in length, it forms the central historical passage in that work. It is located in its pages just before the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens, a famous document which therefore appears to vindicate the preceding narrative. Few of the component parts of this story were wholly new, but in Rights of Man they were memorably drawn together and given classic expression. To English-speaking observers it seemed that the story must in its essentials be true, since Paine was there to observe events, and since Paine, as England’s greatest revolutionary, naturally had a unique insight into the nature and causes of what is conventionally termed the “Age of Revolutions”. 

Rights of Man certainly achieved canonical status. Published in that remarkable work, this model has powerfully shaped the understandings of the French Revolution held by anglophone readers from 1791 to the present. They (and I) came to take it for granted, and so we failed to notice the problem. This 6,000-word narrative is eloquent, idealistic and visionary. There is, indeed, only one difficulty: Paine cannot have written it. He wrote it out; some of it he put into his own words; but he cannot have been the primary author. If so, this model cannot rest on his authority. Indeed, its status as merely one possible interpretation comes again into focus.

Paine was undoubtedly the author of the remainder of Rights of Man, and its readers have naturally looked to that work for an explanation of the French Revolution. But the adulation or blame heaped on Paine’s book by its supporters or opponents has occluded the strangeness of this 6,000-word passage. It is, to begin with, different in tone from the rest of the work. The prose is unlike Paine’s, although he evidently contributed some phrases (the joke that “nobility” was just a synonym for “no-ability” is one he may have remembered reading in the local newspaper when he was an exciseman in Lewes, Sussex). He may have been responsible for the report of the Comte d’Artois’s visit to the Parlement of Paris on August 17, 1787 – “I was then standing in one of the apartments through which he had to pass, and could not help reflecting how wretched was the condition of a disrespected man” – though this is not certain. ...

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