Paine-fully Conservative?

Remembering "Rights of Man" and the Original Left-Right Divide

This coming Saturday, March 13th, will be the 230th anniversary of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), founding father and progenitor of the political left, bequeathed a philosophical legacy that now forms the taken-for-granted background for American liberals and conservatives alike. Meanwhile, Paine’s rival, the political theorist and statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797), has been comparatively neglected as American conservatism cannibalizes itself.

This week provides a fitting opportunity to reflect on Paine’s insidious reach, and to return to the true roots of conservatism.

Thomas Paine, Father of the Left

Thomas Paine is considered one of America’s founding fathers because of the role played by his bestselling pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis, in mobilizing public opinion against Britain.

At the time Paine wrote these booklets, the full extent of his radicalism was not clear. The American cause had supporters that drew on Christianity and the conservative traditions of English law, as well as radical supporters who drew on the European Enlightenment, but the distinction between these ideologies was not clear at the time. One reason this distinction was not clear is because both groups used similar language and worked towards similar goals. This was further complicated by the fact that other binaries (i.e. Tories vs. Patriots, Federalists vs. Anti-federalists, etc.) were more high-profile. It was not until 1791 when Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man that the roots of his political radicalism became clear, leading to the Left-Right binary that has dominated politics ever since.

Paine advocated an individualistic notion of freedom, where liberty and human rights are understood a priori. We call a truth a priori (lit. “prior to experience”) when it is deduced from first principles rather than from experience or tradition—if it is self-evident rather than rooted in external considerations.

In the anti-traditional atmosphere of the French Enlightenment of the 1750s, the philosophes had developed a fixation with a priori truths. Their ambitious Encyclopédie project used abstract theories about the human condition (specifically, theories about equality, individualism, natural rights, and social contract) as a foundation for a series of prescriptions on how society and politics should unfold. Thomas Jefferson, who had been schooled in the French Enlightenment, reflected the cultural mood in the Declaration, with its primary appeal to self-evident truths and its merely secondary appeal to external considerations.

Among our primary rights is that of personal liberty, which Paine situates in the context of personal autonomy. The state must organize relations among humans in a way that secures the freedom and autonomy that is each person’s primordial entitlement.

Because Paine believed our basic rights are true a priori, it followed that political wisdom is not about prudential reasoning in the context of tradition and lived experience; rather, it is about uncovering principles that are necessarily true at all times and places. Once these principles are identified, society has an obligation to enforce them regardless of consequences in time and space.

The disregard for consequences make this theory of liberty organically connected with violence. Thomas Jefferson, whose views were similar to Paine’s, wrote in a letter to William Short that even if all but two people were killed in the fight for freedom (which for Jefferson always meant a non-monarchical form of government), such violence would still be justified. This is an extraordinary admission, but it is the logical consequence of the Enlightenment philosophy popularized by Paine.

Edmund Burke, Father of Conservatism

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Anglo-Irish statesman who offered qualified support for the American revolution, but from a conservative perspective.

For Burke, rights and freedoms are very real, as evidenced by the fact that he spent most of his parliamentary career defending underdogs in a series of lost causes. Yet Burke did not believe human rights and freedoms exist in a vacuum abstracted from our lived experiences in time and space. Liberty is not an a priori right but the product of tradition, family, and faith. It is passed on in much the same way as property is transmitted, from one generation to another as an inheritance. For Burke, a truly free society is not one of atomized individualism, where entitlement to rights exists in isolation from the flourishing of the whole. Rather, freedom, goodness, and rights are shared qualities that must be pursued communally and protected through proper order.

Battle Lines Become Clear

Though Burke’s political philosophy was diametrically opposed to Paine’s, this was not immediately obvious for the reasons already noted. In fact, in 1788, Paine spent several days in Burke’s home, and they appeared to share much in common. Paine appreciated the friendship and wrote to Thomas Jefferson to say he was “in some intimacy with Mr. Burke.”

After visiting Burke, Paine travelled to Paris, where revolution was brewing. It is clear from Paine’s letters to Burke that he expected the latter to be supportive of the revolution even as he had supported the American cause. But this was not the case. In 1790, Burke published his classic Reflections on the Revolution in France, dismantling the entire apparatus of Enlightenment political thinking.

In his Reflections, Burke responded to individualistic theories of citizenship that had been growing throughout the century and which were reaching a crescendo in France. Burke showed that liberty and human rights can only be preserved within the context of community and tradition. Accordingly, political reasoning is not about uncovering truths that exist independently from time and space; rather, it is about prudential reasoning in the context of a people’s traditions and the realism of actual life. In support of this, Burke drew on the long tradition of English liberties, which were not deduced from first principles but established in the long tradition from the Magna Carta through to the, so-called, Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Paine felt obliged to reply to his friend, which he did by writing Rights of Man. Finally, the philosophical and spiritual differences between the two thinkers became evident, on full display for the two men and the whole world.

In Rights of Man, Paine makes explicit that the autonomy of the individual is the primary end from which governments derive their legitimacy. Society exists in order to fulfill personal desires, and thus the common good becomes the aggregate of private goods.

We are All Paine-ists Now

It is worthwhile to ask whether the pop-conservatism throughout contemporary America has remained faithful to the legacy of Burke.

In the COVID-era controversies, when we talk about “the rights of the individual,” and “my right not to be told what to do,” do we mean it in a Burkean sense, where liberty is communal and political reasoning must be specific to the contingencies of time and space? Or have we drifted unthinkingly toward Thomas Paine, where my-right-to-this-and-that exists prior to the realities of society’s health and heritage?

This is a question I have been exploring in various interviews, as I conduct field work on changing understandings of conservatism. Sadly, I have found that many pseudo-conservatives in America have imbibed a parody of their tradition that follows in the wake of the author of Rights of Man rather than the author of the Reflections. We have become Paine-fully Conservative.

This Saturday, to celebrate the 230th anniversary of Rights of Man, I will not be reading Thomas Paine at all, but Edmund Burke’s masterful Reflections on the Revolution in France.

I invite all conservatives to join me, and thus return to our roots.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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