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Tue Aug 6, 2019, 10:40 PM

Rights of Man

Last edited Tue Aug 6, 2019, 11:38 PM - Edit history (1)

I came across this column the other day by Gina Barreca, an English professor at the University of Connecticut. She talks a bit about American founding father, Thomas Paine, perhaps less well known than others.

Thomas Paine (whom I never think of as “Tom,” because I refer to men I admire by using their full name, as my husband Michael will attest) gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. Even in an otherwise terrific 2015 children’s book about the Founding Fathers, Paine is portrayed as playing for the “Junior Varsity Team.”

That’s only slightly more insulting than being dismissed as a “filthy little atheist.” That designation was awarded to Paine by no less than Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy was later willing to amend his insult by revising “atheist” to “deist” so long as he could keep the words “filthy” and “little.”

You’ll remember that Thomas Paine (who was 5-foot-11, same as Roosevelt, by the way) was the author of 1776’s “Common Sense,” a pamphlet that directly influenced the rebellion of the American colonies against Great Britain. He also wrote “Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason.” He was one of the great thinkers, writers and rhetoricians at the start of both the American and French revolutions.


Back in 1776, Paine issued warnings about the dangers of monarchies, and yet so many of his passages are applicable to the occupant of today’s White House — this is the trouble-making part — it’s tough to choose. Here’s my current favorite: “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent … Their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests and … are frequently the most ignorant and unfit.”



Rights of Man is also the name of a fairly common hornpipe played by many different string bands. Other than the title, I don't know if there is a hard connection between the tune and Thomas Paine, but I believe it comes from the same time period and is often associated with him. We would usually introduce it with a few words about Thomas Paine.

Here's one example:

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