Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2011
The first part of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man burst on to the political scene in March 1791. It was an immediate sensation, being far and away the most popular of the replies to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). It was followed almost exactly twelve months later by a second part, which was soon bound with the first and sold in cheap editions throughout the country. Alarmed at the success of the book, and especially concerned that it was being made available to people of the vulgar sort who could not correct for themselves as they read, the government issued a Royal Proclamation against seditious writing, and the Attorney General prepared a case to try Paine for seditious libel. The trial, originally set for July 1792, was deferred until November, by which time Paine had been elected to the French National Convention and had taken up residence in France. In his absence he was found guilty and outlawed; he never returned to his native country.
On the face of it, Paine’s Rights of Man replies to Burke’s Reflections. It differs from the host of other pamphlets published in response to Burke by its success in reaching and communicating to a wide audience (with Paine actively promoting its cheap circulation through the auspices of the Society for Constitutional Information) and by the radicalism of its principles. Scholars have appropriately raised questions as to how far the ‘Debate on France’, or the ‘revolution controversy’, as it has more latterly come to be known, really is an exchange of ideas or a discussion of principles, rather than being a process of assertion and counter-assertion of principles that do not systematically engage with those of the other side.