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Thomas Paine’s defence of the French Revolution

The title page of Paine’s Rights of manThe title page of Paine’s Rights of manThomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote Rights of man to refute Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the revolution in France. For Paine, the French Revolution represented the beginning of a new era. He argued in favour of rational republicanism and put forward the view that governments should support the natural and civil rights of all men.

Paine’s writing style made these ideas accessible to a wide audience, with language and arguments appealing to working people as well as the educated classes. 

Portrait of Thomas Paine, with a picturesque image of Paine pointing to his workPortrait of Thomas PaineTens of thousands of copies of the book were sold. Copies were widely circulated and read out in inns and coffee houses. Following the publication of the second part, the British Government sought to suppress the work and indict Paine for seditious libel. He fled to France, where he was offered French citizenship as well as a place on the National Convention.

The first of this two part work was published in 1791. The copy from which the title page shown here is reproduced is a fifth edition and was published that same year. This shows how popular Rights of man was.

The portrait of Paine also shown here has been inserted into this copy by a previous owner. The portrait is from John Baxter's History of England (1796) and shows a picturesque image of Paine pointing to his work, standing beneath a scroll inscribed ‘Equality’.

This copy is bound with Observations on Paine's rights of man: in a series of letters by ‘Publicola’. These letters, which attack Paine’s arguments, were originally published in the summer of 1791 in a Boston newspaper. ‘Publicola’ was the pseudonym of John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) who was the sixth president of the United States from 1825 to 1829.

In this exhibition

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