paine thrown in prison for controversial writing

Thomas Paine was more than just a journalist.  Thrown in prison on more than one occasion because of his passionate and controversial writing, Paine was one of the preeminent writers on infant America’s fight for freedom at the end of the 18th century.  Best known for Common Sense, published in 1776, Paine also wrote The Rights of Man that, when censored by the government, simply increased its popularity.  In The Rights of Man, Paine takes a humanistic approach, believing strongly in the power and goodwill of man to overcome its problems and chastises governments that interfere with the natural order of society.  Paine’s primary ethical appeal is to appear sensible and benevolent by using clear, unsophisticated diction and a cool, relaxed style of writing.  Instead of using intense, fervent phrases, Paine relies on concise, defined wording and a style of writing that entices the writer to take his side of the argument.  It is after all quite difficult to rebuff the notion that our own society is more

Paine’s sensibility is plainly evident in the first paragraph where he opens with a thoughtful, clearly stated sentence and continues to his thesis, a short sentence that contains all he needs to set up his argument in the essay.  Paine wastes little time in getting to the point and rarely strays from that style.  The opening sentence, “Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government,” (Paine, 393) unobtrusively states Paine’s argument and contains no unnecessary words that some writers like Edmund Burke often use for no apparent purpose.  The essay takes on a logical feel to it because Paine does not seem to let his disagreement with Burke overshadow his goals in the essay.

In addition, Paine abandoned the first-person style that many of his contemporaries favored for a third-person style that makes him seem more humble and gives him credibility as being removed from the situation.  Written as a response to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution of France, Paine’s third-person style highlights the difference between their opinions even further and adds to their separate qualities.  The use of “we” throughout the piece also served to draw in the reader and increases the chance that they will be swayed by Paine’s argument.  Many of the sentences, had they been written in first-person, would seem to push the reader away and make the argument less valid, in their eyes at least.

Paine waits until the end of the piece before he even mentions Burke’s name because he needs to ensure that the readers who were previously ambivalent have taken his side before attacking his counterpart.  Even when mentioning Burke, Paine maintains an even keel and does not rip into him fully because that would discredit some of the sensibility he works to build up until that point.  That paragraph is a particularly good example of the cool writing style and tone that he uses in this essay.

Paine especially gains his audience’s support by using humanism to his advantage.  He believes strongly that society, without the constant participation and involvement of the government, can and does exist in perfect harmony.  Burke, contrarily, speaks of “the ignorance and fallibility of mankind,” (Burke, 389) a statement that only makes him seem more removed from the audience.  If humans are uninformed and gullible, how is it that his audience can believe that he too is not uninformed as well.  Paine associates himself with reader and in using “we” again continues to sway the reader towards his side of the argument.  The reader is made to feel similar and Paine’s benevolence is exhibited.

While the reader’s of this essay would have been primarily wealthy English and Americans of an elite class (illiteracy was higher among lower classes and literature was expensive), word of mouth would spread word throughout the ranks and due to Paine’s remarkable popularity as a result of his Common Sense, most would be interested in what he had to say.  On Society and Civilization however is written quite differently than Common Sense; the earlier work’s objective was quite different and was thus written with a fervor not seen in the latter.  But Paine was intentional about the tone and both suited their respected pieces’ goals.  He offers ethical appeals in both and is successful in both.

The bid for a successful ethical appeal is successful because he is very effective at making the reader feel involved and uses a tone that is more relaxed than most would expect from a heated revolutionary journalist.  The way in which Paine rationalizes all his statements and provides examples to back them up, as well as the organization of the piece all contribute to its flowing nature and give it the sort of credibility he had hoped for.  Unfortunately, not everyone in England felt the same way and Paine was imprisoned there, but in reading this essay today, we can see the merits in its argument more so than someone directly involved in the situation.

Paine’s primary ethical appeal of sensibility and benevolence are achieved with a remarkably short piece of writing that leaves few areas uncovered and can be applicable in any period, though the examples are drawn from the 18th century.  The manner in which Paine approaches the topic and employs the ancient-Greek idea of humanism makes his writing feel like that of an earlier era.  His concise, lucid, and relevant argument is thoughtfully put together and not many can argue that they themselves are incapable of acting piously, thus the idea of humanism is a perfect backbone to this argument.  It brings out the compassionate side of Paine and contrasts that sharply with Burke’s callous style.  Therefore, the piece is effective and achieves both its goal of rebuffing Burke and displaying Paine is a favorable light.


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