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Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) Hardcover – July 23, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Thomas Paine's critique of monarchy and introduction of the concept of human rights influenced both the French and the American revolutions, argues Vanity Fair contributor and bestselling author Hitchens (God Is Not Great) in this incisive addition to the Books That Changed the World series. Paine's ideas even influenced later independence movements among the Irish, Scots and Welsh. In this lucid assessment, Hitchens notes that in addition to Common Sense's influence on Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, Paine wrote in unadorned prose that ordinary people could understand. Hitchens reads Paine's rejection of the ministrations of clergy in his dying moments as an instance of his unyielding commitment to the cause of rights and reason. But Hitchens also takes Paine to task for appealing to an idealized state of nature, a rhetorical move that, Hitchens charges, posits either a mythical past or an unattainable future and, Hitchens avers, disordered the radical tradition thereafter. Hitchens writes in characteristically energetic prose, and his aversion to religion is in evidence, too. Young Paine found his mother's Anglican orthodoxy noxious, Hitchens notes: Freethinking has good reason to be grateful to Mrs Paine. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

Hitchens' sprightly Books That Changed the World volume arrives fortuitously, while his atheist screed God Is Not Great (2007) rides high on American best-seller lists. For Paine, though not precisely atheist (he was a deist), contributed vitally to nonbelief through his logical, materialist rejection of biblical literalism. Hitchens inserts scraps of Paine's religious criticism into an appreciation that primarily stresses Paine's advocacy of antimonarchical revolution and constitutional republicanism. Paine's most practically influential writing was the pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which inspired the American Revolution, but Rights of Man (1791–92) is his greatest work. It is largely a reply to Edmund Burke's severely critical Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and Hitchens discusses it as such, giving Burke his due but affirming Paine's greater liberalism and demonstrating his more accessible and engaging literary style. Though Hitchens eschews discussion of rights per se, including Paine's definition of them, he refreshingly notes his hero's great shortcoming: he didn't see that ideologically driven revolution would lead to tyranny. Olson, Ray

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Product Details

  • Series: Books That Changed the World
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; First American Edition edition (July 23, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871139553
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871139559
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #82,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was the author of Letters to a Young Contrarian, and the bestseller No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family. A regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly and Slate, Hitchens also wrote for The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and The Independent, and appeared on The Daily Show, Charlie Rose, The Chris Matthew's Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and C-Span's Washington Journal. He was named one of the world's "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Britain's Prospect.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

84 of 91 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on September 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This pint size book provides some interesting commentary on the writings of Thomas Paine. Although it is also a mini biography, it is foremost a tale of the verbal battle between Paine and Edmund Burke who wrote a criticism of the French revolution entitled "Reflections on the Revolution in France."

Paine always spoke his mind. His fiery remarks helped spark the American revolution, and later, in France, he so freely vented his opinions on what the French should be doing that he was thrown into prison, and narrowly escaped execution. Paine was vastly irritated by Burke (who deplored the French revolution), and was prompted to do a 19th century version of flaming.

Thomas Paine wasn't the only one irked by Englishman Burke. Jefferson wrote about him to a friend of his discussing the "rottenness of his (Burke's) mind." How else should a new American feel about Burke's glorification of the aristocracy and scruffy put-down of the rights of citizens. It is both informative, and entertaining to read about this famous debate between Burke and Paine.

I feel obliged to add John Barrell wrote a very negative review of this book in the London Review of Books. He accuses Hitchens of historical inaccuracy and even plagiarism. Nevertheless I enjoyed the book. It is quite accessible to the average reader, and I highly recommend it.

Finally I can't help but remark on what seems to be an ego trip on Hitchen's part. On the front and back cover of the book is a picture of a man. Thomas Paine's picture? No, Christopher Hitchen's picture. Again, on the front cover, we find Mr. Hitchen's name in significantly larger type than the name of Thomas Paine. I guess when you have a book on the best seller list (God Is Not Great) you get a little puffed up.
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62 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Roy E. Perry on September 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Christopher Hitchens, whose previous publications include Why Orwell Matters; Thomas Jefferson: Author of America; and the international best seller God Is Not Great, has been called "a Tom Paine for our troubled times" (The Independent, London).

In Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, Hitchens has penned an enlightening account of the life and work of Thomas Paine (1737-1809).

"Thomas Paine's Rights of Man," he writes, "is both a trumpet of inspiration and a carefully wrought blueprint for a more rational and decent ordering of society, both domestically and on the international scene."

Paine, "the firebrand of the Revolution," helped foment the American Revolution through his powerful and, for the times, incendiary, writings, most notably his first great work, Common Sense (published in 1776; its working title had been Plain Truth).

Hitchens calls this earlier work "the largest achievement in the history of pamphleteering. . . . Of Common Sense it can be said, without any risk of cliche, that it was a catalyst that altered the course of history."

Later works by Paine include The Crisis (sometimes referred to as The American Crisis), The Age of Reason, and Rights of Man. It is Hitchens' commentary on the last-mentioned work which constitutes the lion's share of the present volume.

Hitchens asserts that Paine's Rights of Man was "not just a paean to human liberty. It was partly a short-term polemic, directed in particular at Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France."

Edmund Burke, who had earlier supported the American Revolution, "seemed to be mutating from Whiggery through Toryism and into a full-blown reactionary.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Music Omnivore on November 28, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Hitchens is best known now for the "God" book, but those who find him disagreeable on that count shouldn't necessarily pass up this gem if they are interested in America's revolutionary beginnings.

Thomas Paine was probably the primary rabble-rouser for the American Revolutionary War. He was an unlikely pamphleteer, having just come to the colonies from an undistinguished life in England.

In Common Sense he lambasted the idea of royal privilege (let alone rule) and proclaimed The Law Is King! That statement alone shows his relevance for today, as debate over the proper extent of executive power rages.

Paine got a raw deal from history, probably because he was a deist and explicitly rejected (in The Age of Reason) formal religion of any kind.

The best reason to read this book is if you want to understand Paine's role in the American Revolution without picking up a textbook-size tome. You also get a quickly drawn but insightful portrait of the man generally.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Eric A. Isaacson on October 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Christopher Hitchen's book on Thomas Paine and his "Rights of Man" is an eloquent, yet easy and enjoyable read.

Hitchens is a masterful essayist, who produces his typically smooth, flowing and cogent prose. His scholarship on Paine is derivative, to be sure, resting on the scholarship of others. Don't mistake Hitchens for a professional historian.

And Hitchens is not terribly good, as generaly matter, about documenting where his ideas and facts come from.

Still, this book is book is an important one, because it not only treats Paine's life and ideas ably and with utmost respect, but also because it disseminates Paine's ideas to a far larger audience than scholarly texts ordinarily reach.

Hitchens should be commended for this wonderful little book.

Eric Alan Isaacson
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