No Paine No Gain

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essay on the Paine/ Burke Dichotomy. Enjoy

Submitted: April 17, 2017

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Submitted: April 17, 2017

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This paper examines the ideological conflict between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke regarding the French and American Revolutions. It is divided into four parts with part one being an overview of the philosophical differences between these two men, parts two and three presenting each of their respective arguments, and part four, finally, endeavors to explain why Thomas Paine's view eventually gained prominence over Burke’s. In short, this essay will illustrate how Burke’s and Paine’s ideals are opposite in light of an examination of their views on natural rights, the rights of man to overthrow their government, and on human nature. Burke and Paine represent opposite ends of the political spectrum. Burke’s archetypal conservatism values history, and tradition, while Paine’s hard lined leftism advocated for revolution and popular democracy. Ironically, Edmund Burke sympathized with the colonists in North America in their rebellion, but he did not support the complete social revolution which took place in France during the last years of the 1700s. Thomas Paine, on the other hand, supported both the French and American revolutions. Paine’s writings are often credited with inspiring rebellion in the colonies. The colonists, in turn, acted as a source of inspiration for the French lower classes. Burke did not believe in overthrowing the social order or existing French monarchy. In contrast to the French Revolution, the American Revolution did not result in a new social order, as most of the colonial rebel leaders were already aristocratic and wealthy men. These individuals wanted to rule the colonies as they saw fit, rather than subject themselves to absentee rulers who had no concept of what conditions were like in the colonies and thus, was less problematic in Burke’s estimation. The French Revolution, on the other hand, specifically sought to overthrow of the established order, which Burke held so dear. The nobility and much of the aristocracy were killed by the peasant class and the centuries-old system of government was violently and suddenly replaced by a republic. In Burke's view, the now ‘free’ French populace ran amok, destroying everything which displeased them and the Revolution itself amounted to little more than a tyranny of the masses. Supporters however, like Paine, claimed that such a revolution was the inevitable result of the centuries-old tyranny of the monarchy. The monarchical system of government was the worst form of government there could be, according to Paine, for it openly disregarded the will of the people it ruled. ‘Natural sovereignty’, in Paine’s view, lay with the people, not the Monarchy. To do otherwise would violate ‘the natural rights of men’. Laws created by monarchs that rule without the consent of the governed are considered illegitimate. In Paine’s final analysis, the monarchy was a terminal parasite, feeding off the true sovereigns, the people, while offering little in return. Burke disagreed with the very foundation of these arguments. He did not believe in inherent individual rights, but that rights were given only through the sovereign. As a stalwart defender of English imperial monarchy, Burke vehemently rejected the idea that people should choose their own rulers. The people had no natural right to choose their governors, according to Burke. He noted that the "fictitious" right of the people to choose their governor was a bastardization of the Declaration of Right, passed immediately after the Glorious Revolution. Rather than a declaration of so called ‘natural rights’ of the people, this statute was enacted for the settling of the succession of the crown when there was no ‘natural’ successor from the previous monarch. This declaration was followed by a second statute a few years later, again formulating a policy for selecting a monarch from among those who were in the established line of succession. “Both of these acts, in which are heard the unerring, unambiguous oracles of Revolution policy, instead of countenancing the delusive, gypsy predictions of a "right to choose our governors," prove to a demonstration how totally averse the wisdom of the nation was from turning a case of necessity into a rule of law” (Burke 29). For Burke, equality was an insidious construct; some would always be rulers and others ruled. Any attempts to change this ‘natural order’ would result in chaos, as evidenced by the violent events in France. If power were left to the poor huddled masses, they would quickly turn to plunder thewealth of the few. In the end, this redistribution would spread resources so thin so as to give each individual an infinitesimally small share leaving no one better off than if they had simply submitted to the established rule. Burke disagreed with the elevation of the common masses in France, noting even that the Assembly in France was composed of: “obscure provincial advocates, ... stewards of petty local jurisdictions, country attorneys, notaries, and [members of] the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the fomentors and conductors of the petty war of village vexation” (Burke 54). Burke saw the Assembly, much like the people it represented, as comprised mainly of the mediocre and undeserving. Burke’s treatise claims that absolute democracy is as tyrannical as an absolute monarchy, the only difference being that absolute democracy also degrades into anarchy. Burke noted that the French destroyed the institutions which stood between the individual and the state such as guilds, provinces, and organized religion. As a result, he claimed, the individual was left defenseless against the state which speaks for the people but can never be controlled by them. Burke further asserts that the people do not really know their own best interests. When their will conflicts with their good, they must be restrained by an authority which is independent of them (see Thomas Hobbes). Otherwise people will abuse freedom and destroy themselves. This idea attacked the fundamental principles of the French Revolution however; that sovereignty lies with the people and is expressed through laws made by elected representatives of the citizens. Consequently, Paine's response was terse. He often used sarcasm, but this was perhaps one of the most entertaining instances. Here, Paine responds to Burke's remark that the English would forcibly resist the claim that they have the right to choose their own governor:

“That men should take up arms, and spend their lives and fortunes, not to maintain their rights, but to maintain they have not rights, is an entirely new species of discovery, and suited to the paradoxical genius of Mr. Burke” (276). Paine’s false dichotomy here paints the idea that Burke, in his ‘paradoxical genius’ was either too insane or blinded by adoration for the monarchy to see that his assertion ignored human nature. It is this human nature which Paine sought to elevate to a natural law. He believed that all individuals have an inner sense of self-determination and that human nature was basically good and sensible. Men, could therefore be trusted to choose their own leaders, and to govern themselves through popularly elected representatives. The examples of the American and French revolutions made this clear to citizens all over the world and Paine believed that it was foolish to try and ‘reestablish ignorance’, no matter how fancy the words and grammatical constructions one used (Paine 357-58). As such, Paine rejected Burke's idea of history and tradition defining the rights of men, despite the flourish and syntax with which he expressed this idea. Paine's basic argument was therefore very simple and direct: people have the inherent right to choose their government. Consequently, they also have the inherent right to overthrow this government if it degrades into despotism. It is in this key idea where Paine finds the justification for the French Revolution specifically. While Burke disapproved of the overthrow and execution of a monarch who was relatively moderate, Paine argued that the moderation of Louis XIV did not excuse the despotic nature and history of tyranny of the French monarchy in itself. The French revolt was not against the Monarch himself then, but against the very nature of the autocratic French monarchy as a whole (Paine 283-85). In my mind, as well as that of arguably the demonstrable majority of the western developed world, Paine's arguments carry the overwhelming force of reason. Today, few (current despots notwithstanding) question the notion that individuals are born with certain natural rights and that among these rights is that of political self-determination. Individuals in modern democracies have (at least in theory and for the most part) the right to choose their governors. Monarchy then cannot be considered a viable system of government because by definition, it opposes inherent rights of self-determination. Burke rightfully decried the violence of the Revolution, but ignored the atrocities of centuries of monarchical rule. Burke’s support of traditional aristocracy appears as an (albeit dangerous) relic with little positive substance to offer in the understanding of modern government. In contrast, Paine’s writings capture the spirit of both the American and French revolutions and of Les Miserables (which is not even about the actual french revolution). This spirit has come to represent the treasured American value of rule ‘by the people, for the people, and of the people’.

Works Cited Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Paine, Thomas. “The Rights of Man.”


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