A History of World Societies,
The Revolution in Western Politics, 1775-1815
In 1776, English-born Thomas Paine
published a pamphlet, Common Sense,
urging British colonists in North
America to defend their liberty by declaring independence from Great Britain.
In 1791, back in England, he issued his Rights of Man
in defense of
the French Revolution. The following year he was elected to the French National
Assembly. While serving there, he was arrested by Robespierre and spend several
months in prison during 1793, but avoided the guillotine. Upon the invitation
of President Thomas Jefferson, he returned to the United States in 1802. Seven
years later he died a relatively obscure death, roundly criticized by the
American press for his atheistic views. His life spanned the greatest upheaval
in the Western world - the forces unleashed by the French and American revolutions.
Through his writings, he was instrumental in the spread of ideas such as popular
sovereignty, equality before the law, and nationalism. The following Internet
activities will explore his life and times. His story represents the emergence
of the modern liberal nation state.
- You may want to begin by printing this page. As you explore
different sites, use the printout to refer back to the instructions and
questions detailed in each activity.
- On many web sites you can increase the size of the images
by clicking on them. Whenever possible, use the larger images to examine
fine details in photographs.
- Go to Thomas
Paine. After reading this brief overview of Paine's life, begin preparing
a timeline or chart that highlights his life. When and where was Paine born?
When and where did he die? When did he live in the United States (or the
British North American colonies)? What occupations did he hold there? When
did he live in Great Britain? What occupations did he hold there? When did
he live in France? What occupations did he hold there? When did he write
Common Sense, The Rights of Man, The American Crisis,
and Age of Reason?
- Now study the timelines at The
French Revolution: 1789-1795, Napoleonic
Timeline, and The
Revolutionary War Era: 1763-1789. What major events in France and the
United States did Paine witness? Where was he when the American Declaration
of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man were signed?
Where was he when the American army defeated the British at the Battle of
Yorktown? Where was he during the French Reign of Terror between 1793 and
1794? Where was he when Napoleon seized power? Add this information to your
timeline of Paine's life, and keep it handy. The rest of these activities
will explore the impact Paine had on these major events and the impact they
had on him.
- Before examining Paine's influence on the revolution
in Western politics, you need to understand the intellectual climate in
which he operated. Born in the eighteenth century, Paine was strongly influenced
by the ideas of the European Enlightenment. (You might want to review the
activities in Chapter 18, "Toward a New World-View in the West,"
before continuing.) In particular, Paine was influenced by John Locke and
Voltaire. Go to John Locke and read
the sections entitled "Life" and "Two Treatises of Government."
What were Locke's views on government? Pay special attention to the fifth
paragraph. Now go to Voltaire.
What were Voltaire's views on individual liberties? Describe Locke's and
Voltaire's views of the relationship between government and those governed.
Did they believe there should be any restrictions on government? Who or
what would these restrictions protect?
- Paine's first great work was Common Sense,
a pamphlet in which he urged British colonists in North America to declare
their independence from Great Britain. In this essay, he first articulates
his concepts of "popular sovereignty," or the idea that government
should rule for the people and at the people's consent, or the principle
that governments confer no special privileges on any particular group such
as an aristocracy or the clergy. Go to Common
Sense and read this excerpt. What kind of government does Paine advocate
for the new nation? How was it to be chosen? What powers would it have?
What powers, explicitly, would it not have? What rights would the people
have under this system of government? (Pay close attention to the fifth
paragraph.) Were all people supposed to enjoy these rights equally, or were
the rights designated to certain groups?
- Paine's ideas had a profound impact on the American
Revolution. Read The
Declaration of Independence, which the colonists proclaimed in 1776
to justify their break with Great Britain. How are Paine's ideas on popular
sovereignty and equality before the law reflected in this document? Does
the document advocate popular sovereignty? Why does it argue that popular
sovereignty did not currently exist in the colonies? What rights, according
to the declaration, do humans possess? Do they apply to all individuals
or just to certain groups?
- The ideas of popular sovereignty and equality
before the law are also represented in another of the great documents associated
with the American Revolution -the United States Constitution. Read the Preamble
to the Constitution. How does this short statement reflect the ideas
of popular sovereignty? Why do you think the framers chose the phrase "We
the people"? How do those three words reflect the goals of revolutionaries
such as Paine? Now read The
Bill of Rights. What rights do the people possess under this framework
of government? Why do you think the early government of the United States
believed that it needed to codify these rights?
- These ideas of popular sovereignty and equality
before the law also shaped the French Revolution. Go to the Declaration
of the Rights of Man, passed by the French National Assembly in 1789.
How does this document reflect the ideas of popular sovereignty and equality
before the law? How similar are the rights expressed here to those in the
of Rights? What is the connection between these two documents? In other
words, why do you think they both express similar ideas despite being written
on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean? (You might want to review page
700-701 in McKay, A History of World Societies [Sixth Edition] for
- Unlike the American Revolution, which was violent
in its own right, the French Revolution precipitated major social upheaval.
The entire status quo in French society was disrupted. At one point, between
1793 and 1794, a French government executed thousands of its enemies, including
the king and queen of France, nationalized most of France's manufacturing
enterprises, and drafted all able-bodied men into the national army. Indeed,
Paine himself was arrested as an enemy of the state in 1794 when he refused
to support the execution of Louis XVI.
- Because of these unprecedented measures, many
intellectuals in Europe denounced the entire nature of the French Revolution,
even some like the Englishman Edmund Burke, who supported the American Revolution,
at least early on. Read Edmund Burke and
the quotations at We
Love Freedom: Do You? What do you think Burke meant when he argued that
societies cannot have freedom without order? How do you think the French
Revolution influenced this attitude?
- Burke feared the democratic overtures of "popular
sovereignty." Instead, he favored a constitutional system such as existed
in Britain, where the king, the aristocracy, the church, and the common
people shared power. To review the differences between absolutism - which
France had before the Revolution, when the king claimed all power of government
- and constitutionalism (see Activity Two in Chapter 16).
- Paine, who had returned to England, immediately
responded to Burke's criticism of the French Revolution with his own essay,
The Rights of Man. Read the Conclusion
of this essay. Why did Paine argue that a republic was better than a monarchy?
Why do you believe that Paine believed that all people have the right to
popular sovereignty? Do you believe that Paine had any particular audience
in mind when he wrote The Rights of Man? This universal idea that
all people are entitled to popular sovereignty and equality before the law
is a major legacy of the American and French revolutions. No one person
expressed it better than Paine.
- The chaos and excesses of the French Revolution
led to Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'etat in 1799. From 1799 to 1815, Napoleon
ruled France as a dictator. Even then, he did not completely abandon the
concepts of popular sovereignty and equality before the law. For example,
read about The Code
Napoleon, the revised civic laws Napoleon introduced in 1804. Which
revolutionary ideas are addressed here? Were there separate laws for different
groups of people? According to this essay, the Napoleonic Code helped promulgate
many of the ideas of the French Revolution. How? Did other countries adapt
it? Did Napoleon force it on any other places besides France?
- Paine left Napoleon's France and returned to America
in 1802, no doubt disappointed in France's abandonment of republicanism.
His remaining years were lonely and sad. One of his last major works, The
Age of Reason, was critical of organized religion. For Paine's personal
views on religion, read "The Author's Profession of Faith" at
Age Of Reason - Part I. Paine declares his belief in God, but not in
any particular creed. These views proved controversial, and Paine died without
much notice in 1809. Yet his legacy endures.
- Paine, his life and ideas, bridged two revolutions
in the late eighteenth century whose ideas still influence us today. The
ideas of popular sovereignty and equality before the law called into question
the entire social status quo of the Western world, in more ways than Paine
and his contemporaries realized. As the article states, Paine was one of the earliest
critics of the institution. How did the ideas of the American and French
revolutions necessarily call slavery's existence into question? Now read
Paine's An Occasional
Letter On The Female Sex. When it came to equality before the law, do
you believe Paine believed women were included? Why or why not?
- Even though the American and French revolutions
originally excluded women and African Americans from political liberties,
the ideas they generated led many European men and women, such as Paine,
to grapple with issues of sexism and racism for the first time. Analyze
what attitudes and assumptions generated by the American and French revolutions
led Paine and others to question long-held assumptions about the status
of women and Africans in European societies. Why do you think most revolutionaries
rejected full political and legal equality for all citizens? Considering
long-term developments, however, explain the effect of the American and
French revolutions on the status of women and minorities in Western societies.