Hitchens: How Paine's 'Rights' Changed the World Author Christopher Hitchens discusses how philosopher Thomas Paine's writings influenced human rights and the French and American revolutions. He says Paine's accessible rhetoric was key to his widespread influence.
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Hitchens: How Paine's 'Rights' Changed the World

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Thomas Paine is best remembered as the author of two pamphlets: "Common Sense," which sold Americans on the revolution; and "The Crisis," which rallied the troops and people to the cause at a critical moment with its ringing words: These are the times that try men's souls.

Paine later played a part in the French Revolution and did his best to spark rebellion in England as well. I have always considered monarchy to be a silly, contemptible thing, he wrote. I compare it to something kept behind a curtain, about which there is a great deal of bustle and fuss and a wonderful air of seeming solemnity. But when, by accident, the curtain happens to open and the companies see what it is, they burst into laughter.

As Christopher Hitchens notes in his new book, Paine anticipated not just "The Wizard of Oz," but the modern welfare state, the American Civil War and the United Nations. "Thomas Paine's 'The Rights of Man'" is the latest in the series from the Atlantic Monthly Press that we featured on Books that Changed the World. Christopher Hitchens joins us in just a moment.

Later in the program, Jason Trahan of the Dallas Morning News on the mistrial in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism case.

But first, if you have questions for Christopher Hitchens about Thomas Paine's part in two revolutions, why there's no memorial to him in Washington, D.C., and the legacy of "The Rights of Man," our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog: npr.org/blogofthenation.

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of "God Is Not Great." And he joins us from our bureau in New York City.

Thanks very much for coming in.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Very nice of you to have me.

CONAN: And you write that the argument between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - and by extension, the argument between right and left in America ever since - is actually an argument about Tom Paine.

HITCHENS: Yes, I think that's true. And both - I think both Adams and Jefferson acknowledged it in their different ways. Adams certainly thought of Paine as a very dangerous person. Remember, at the time Adams was writing, the word democratical, which is the word most generally used - or democratic, was meant as a term of insult.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HITCHENS: Someone who thought like that was someone who's in favor of mob rule. Probably, the word democracy doesn't get used in a non-pejorative way until Paine begins to write. So that's the context one needs for recalling that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, the mob rule that they were alluding to as, of course, at least in part the mob that fed the hemlock to Socrates.

HITCHENS: Yes, you could say that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HITCHENS: Paine, of course, agreed with Edmund Burke, who is the great - well, not - people call Burke a Tory; they're slightly wrong in saying that. Burke was a classical liberal. But Paine agreed with him that the rule of what would have been called ochlocracy, that's literally to say mob rule, the rule of the crowd, was a wicked thing. He, like Burke, was very worried by the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in London. He didn't like what he saw, which he saw more than Burke did, of the rule of sheer street force in Paris either. In fact, he was twice very nearly to lose his life to it.


HITCHENS: But he thought the educated common man, the man of no property necessarily but of some literacy and education, that that could change humanity and change civilization, change history for the better.

CONAN: And - which you remind us that indeed there were great arguments during the American Revolution between those, including Thomas Paine, who thought the Revolution ought to be a little bit more revolutionary.

HITCHENS: Well, yes, and in particular on the question of slavery.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HITCHENS: I mean, Paine wanted and twice tried to get the United States to begin itself with - second-guess, to begin again without what some people think of its original sin, of as its original sin.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HITCHENS: He wanted slavery struck out by the Declaration. Jefferson wrote a denunciation of slavery for the Declaration, which was amended and taken out, probably but not entirely because of the objections of Georgia and the Carolinas, also some New York forces who, if they weren't actually holding slaves, were doing a lot of transporting of them.

And then the second time that Paine took a great stand on this was against Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase, which he had actually suggested to Jefferson. Jefferson may have come by the idea himself, but it was originally Paine's idea that we should take advantage of the difficulties of Bonaparte, buy what they had to offer, which was doubling the size of the United States, and not allow any more slavery in the new territories, start again. And again was overruled. Jefferson was such in a hurry to get the sugar crop in that he allowed slaves to be unloaded at New Orleans, and Paine was terribly disappointed that time, too.

CONAN: Yes. And in a way, "The Rights of Man" is another argument between Thomas Paine and, well, Edmund Burke, a great figure, as somebody who was supporter of the American Revolution but who - both writing in the very early days of the French Revolution, this was an argument between them about what might ensue from the French Revolution.

HITCHENS: Yes, and in a way they're both right. I mean, Burke is - was, as you say, a great defender of the American Revolution. Actually, he was the editor of Jefferson's last appeal to King George, a vindication of the rights of North America. But what - the last thing they tried before saying, okay, Paine is right. We're going to have to leave the empire altogether.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HITCHENS: He was a great defender of the rights of the people of India against the depredations of British imperialists like Warren Hastings. And I think Conor Cruise O'Brien, in his study of Burke, is right in saying he was trying by indirection to plead for his native Ireland as well, and to try and secure independence for Ireland somewhat by stealth, by pleading in this way, which meant that he had to oppose the French Revolution because Jacobinism was just going to mobilize all the forces of reaction in Britain and there'll be no more talk of reform.

And he also foresaw the likelihood that Jacobinism would lead to a military dictatorship, dictatorship of just one man, Napoleon Bonaparte. When you read his paragraphs on that, you have to say, well, these are very prescient. However, Paine's riposte, which was that you don't understand that this is not just the slaughter at the guillotine of one monarch. By the way, Paine was opposed to the execution of King Louis, and he was opposed to capital punishment in general. He said, this is undoing the work of centuries. It's destroying not a man but a system of monarchy, and this is a thing that absolutely has to be done. He was also hoping, of course, that another republic would come on the scene, a major European one, that would end the isolation of America.

CONAN: And, indeed, that the seeds of the revolutions that he had seen in America and in France, seeds that he played no small part in planting himself, would find fertile ground in England, which, of course, was set off by the, well, the radicalism of the French Revolution and the English response to it.

HITCHENS: Yes. I mean, many - you have to wait many years. But by the time they're moving for universal suffrage, England finally gets under way long after Paine's dead, in the mid-19th century. It is often inspired by his writing. There was a long delay in the seminal effect of it, but the Chartist movement, for example, ought a great deal to him as did various movements in Ireland, which when they were in their infancy he'd also supported.

But the irony was one I think you alluded to a little earlier. Paine wanted the American Revolution to be much more radical and deep going and far going, and he wanted the American Revolution, excuse me, the French Revolution to be somewhat more restrained, not to become too utopian, too fanatical, or too totalitarian. And I think it's actually the sign of a very brave and principled revolutionary that he was willing in both cases to quarrel with his friends on these matters.

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Hitchens about his new book, "Thomas Paine's 'The Rights of Man,'" part of the series on Books that Changed the World. If you'd like to join our conversation: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Let's talk with Chris(ph), Chris with us on the line from Tallahassee in Florida.

HITCHENS: Thank you very much for letting me ask a question...

CONAN: Sure.

HITCHENS: ...to Mr. Hitchens. And I know you touched on it slightly, but by our standards it may be hard to judge. But what I wanted to ask you, by their standards, was Thomas Paine considered a difficult and obstreporous person, maybe a difficult person to get along with, and could that have affected his place in history?

HITCHENS: Yes. He was thought of as a rather farouche character, if you will allow the expression, a rather spiky guy. No one ever remembers him saying anything mean or cruel or nasty, and in his personal dealings, he seems to have been very honest and very fair. But he could be quite rude in print. He was a very stern polemicist. And he had a beverage problem. He was a boozer, and sometimes that seems to have made him untidy and perhaps even a little malodorous. The problem got worse as he got older.

And he had a piety problem as well. He didn't really believe that religion was good for people. In fact, he thought that on balance it was more harmful than an inculcator of morals or ethics. He wasn't an atheist, as he's often been accused of being. He was actually rather a respectful deist. He thought there probably was an author of creation. He didn't think religion could help you to understand that.

CONAN: Indeed. He was writing parts of "The Rights of Man" and referring frequently to the Bible, which you suggest he was doing from memory.

HITCHENS: Yes. He knew the Bible more or less by heart and he was able to write his counterpart book "The Age of Reason" - counterpart, I mean, to "The Rights of Man" - when in jail in Paris and under sentence of death from a sort of quasi-agnostic regime, full of ironies. He wrote that the Bible is complete nonsense, manmade, plagiarized from earlier Jewish books and later exploited by Muslims to plagiarize another holy book from those predecessors.

He was a very good textual critic. No one had ever said in public, these books are manmade; they're not the word of God at all. But he was writing, I have to say as an atheist myself, he was writing to defend God against those who believed in him.

HITCHENS: Did this persona serve to...

HITCHENS: He was writing to vindicate God's reputations against the believers.

CONAN: I'm sorry, Chris, go ahead.

HITCHENS: I'm sorry. Did this persona serve to give him maybe a lesser place in history that he might have originally had?

HITCHENS: Well, it certainly gave his enemies all kinds of excuses. And in his last few years when he finally came back to the United States, having been broken in health by imprisonment in France and exile and having been disowned by George Washington and Governor Morris and various other of his old friends and living in very reduced circumstances on a slight pension from Congress. Yes - and being an atheist which is - rather being accused of being an atheist.

CONAN: Yet, we've managed...

HITCHENS: And taking refuge in the brandy bottle. Yeah, his last years were pretty squalid. And when he first went to vote in an election, he was turned away. It was in upstate New York, not allowed to vote until - he couldn't register. He wasn't an American citizen. This was the guy who had the idea of the American Revolution and first - almost certainly was the first one to use the words United States of America.

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Hitchens.

Chris, thanks very much for your call.

HITCHENS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: His new book is "Thomas Paine's 'The Rights of Man,'" part of the series of Books that Changed the World.

If you'd like to join the conversation our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking with Christopher Hitchens about his new book "Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man,'" the latest in the series on Books that Change the World.

Thomas - Christopher Hitchens, rather, is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and author of the book "God Is Not Great." If you have questions for him about the "Rights of Man" or the legacy of Thomas Paine: 800-989-8255, e-mail: talk@npr.org.

HITCHENS: I have no wish to believe on that subject. Thus, he expired with his reason and his rights both still staunchly defended until the very last.

HITCHENS: Ah, it's rather well-written, I think, as you - as I hear it from you. Rather well-phrased. Yes, I thought it was worth stressing because there was a time - actually, it still comes up occasionally when the religious would say of anyone who'd ever written skeptically or with criticism of belief, ah, well, on their deathbed they asked for a priest and they tried to repent.

And stories of this kind were spread about a number of people, and with Paine we happen to know - though the story was, of course, told about him - from superior eyewitnesses that it's not true. And it reminds me also of the death of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume who died, you may be interested to know, on the fourth of July, 1776, a day that produced the revolution that he had longed foreseen would come and supported - the American colonists' declaration against the crown. But he knew he was dying and continued to maintain that there was nothing to fear in death. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: David Hume died on Aug. 25, 1776, not July 4 as indicated by Hitchens.] And James Boswell, the most famous biographer of all time, couldn't believe this and went - journeyed to go see him and sit with him and found to his astonishment, no, it is true. Dr. Hume is going and he has no fear of the hereafter any more than he has fear of the time before he was born, when he didn't exist either. And they're, therefore, these two great tributes to 18th and 19th century stoicism and philosophy as against superstition and the exploitation of it.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Erica(ph), Erica with us from Phoenix, Arizona.



ERICA: I wanted to ask about Thomas Paine's background prior to coming to the colonies or the New World. I understand it was quite turbulent and that his father or grandfather had been running away in some sort, from England.

HITCHENS: No. You're nearly right. I mean, when Paine tried to run away to sea, which a lot of young men of his age did when they found there were no prospects in the rural towns...

CONAN: What was the name of the ship of again?


CONAN: Was it...

HITCHENS: The Terrible.

CONAN: The Terrible, yeah.

HITCHENS: The Terrible and the commander was Captain Death.

CONAN: Yes. Right.

HITCHENS: And his father probably was very - did well to get him off that ship as it was about to sail. But he was born in a small town called Thetford of a fairly poor family with not many prospects; apprenticed, as many young men were, to a trade. The not particularly attractive trade of making corsets for ladies out of whalebone - tried to run away, was brought back by his Quaker father, who probably instilled some early radicalism in him; ran away again, eventually become a customs and excise officer, got into trouble for trying to form a union, a labor union for those guys and to demand a pay raise. By this stage, was meeting subversive Americans and freethinkers in London like Benjamin Franklin, who made him think that the best chance for a young man in his position was to go to Philadelphia.

CONAN: But...

ERICA: I was just wondering, in his upbringing, why religion was so, you know, a strong - he developed such a strong opinion against religion?

HITCHENS: Well, probably because he was taught the Bible very well. He went to a very serious school. His father was a Quaker and this was at a time, remember, when what the Quakers would have recalled was the Cromwellian revolution, the Protestant Revolution...

ERICA: And that...

HITCHENS: ...the overthrow of the monarchy in Britain, the execution of King Charles in 1649, the destruction of all these achievements by the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, the reestablishment of a church that was a department of monarchy, where the divine right of kings was still half believed in.

This is important, by the way, first because he represents this Protestant, freethinking, Quakerish, anti-clerical, anti-established-church, anti-monarchic tradition that leads to the American Revolution eventually, because I think the English Revolution is the ancestor of theirs.

ERICA: Right.

HITCHENS: But is also, it's very important for the one word we're discussing, even when we're not mentioning it - in his case, the word "rights." We take the word "rights" for granted. No one had ever suggested there were rights for humans before.


HITCHENS: No one had ever considered putting the idea on paper. There was the idea that kings had a divine right to rule, their right came from God. If anyone asked, by what right does the king do this? How does he take my land? How does he impose taxes on me? How does he make me a soldier? How does he make me obey him? By what right? Quo warranto? In Latin.

They would say, by the right that God gave him. So then gradually the idea begins to occur to people that that means there were rights, if that's true. Someone's got them. Well, why don't we all have them in that case? And once that question had been asked, you see, it couldn't be repressed, it couldn't be silenced, and Paine is the first to ask it.

ERICA: He was centuries before his time.

HITCHENS: He certainly was.

CONAN: Erica...

HITCHENS: And he had to be - as a result, having no power, no money, no influence, no weapons or anything behind him - just with the power of that idea, he had a huge influence on two world historical revolutions.

CONAN: Erica, thanks very much.

ERICA: Thank you.

CONAN: E-mail question, this from Jeff. Please qualify your allegation that Paine was a boozer. This has always been a convenient stick used to wipe him.

HITCHENS: Well I - look, I don't think it's the worst thing you can say about somebody. I mean, it's actually been said of me a couple of times, and often maliciously. I mean, I think it's rude to decline the offer of a cocktail, but one mustn't let it become the master rather than the servant. I've been into this with Paine and with sympathetic biographers, letter writers, people who knew him. I have the feeling, actually, that at least in his later years, he did slightly let it become his master, which is a terrible fate to allow to happen.

I don't think that he wrote "Common Sense" out of the brandy bottle, of course, or any of the other works he did. If he'd been smashed, he couldn't have written so beautifully and he wouldn't have had total recall of things like the Roman Biblical verses. But the end was bit shabby, and I think it may have had something to do with another sad thing about his life, which is he never seemed to have had a decent relationship with a woman.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Steve(ph), Steve with us from St. Louis.

STEVE: Hi. I'm - I was really interested to hear the way that you describe the interaction between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, because as somebody who's studied philosophy, the impression that I get from many philosophers, certainly not Thomas Paine, but from many others - you know, Hume and Kant and Burke, that these were guys who just sat around and, you know, they wrote within their community of academics but that it was a very much an academic movement.

And the way that you describe this, that there was a very serious political undertone and overtone to what they were doing, so I was wondering, do you think that we should reconsider whether these guys are philosophers or if they're really, you know, politicians, kind of, in the academic cloth?

HITCHENS: Well, very interesting point. I mean, someone like, say, David Hume, who I'm pretty certain from my own researches had privately concluded that there wasn't probably any basis for the Christian religion, he was very reluctant to say so in public. He didn't want to stir people up. He didn't want to create a crisis for himself either. And he wrote very carefully about it.

Whereas someone like Thomas Paine is - therefore, you're right. Hume is within the academy, within the circles of scholarship and the elite. Paine is the preeminent spokesman of a new class of people who are emerging at just that time. We used to call them the artisans, self-educated working men with a skill. It might be that they're printers, very often they were.

CONAN: As Franklin was, yes.

HITCHENS: Yes. Very, very often, it would be a printer. Not that often would be a staymaker, but all kinds of people who're proud of craft that requires more than just the work of their hands. They have professional associations. They've taught themselves to read or they've become literate. They realize that they know more than the government needs them to know. They know more than they need to just be the people who keep the system running. And they develop political ambitions. And Paine is the perfect spokesman of this group of people who meet in taverns and coffeehouses and public squares to discuss self-improvement and the improvement of society.

And that's why - it's Promethean, I suppose, is the word I'm looking for. It's the desire to share the fire, not just with the gods but with the whole of humanity, so everyone can warm themselves by the flame and see by it, too.

CONAN: Yet you describe Paine - and he was certainly more than just a writer, he took up a musket and marched off to be on the staff of General Greene, in the American Revolution. He was - he took - as you suggest - enormous risks in the French Revolution as well, where he was a deputy and served in Paris. He was a very practical man and not above, in his writings as in "Common Sense," well, subjugating almost everything to his end - he was out to create something, to accomplish something; he was not simply writing philosophy.

HITCHENS: He was one of those very fortunate people who had the luck to live in a time when it really looked as if, as he put it - Ronald Reagan used to be fond of quoting this, of all people - he said, we have it in our power to begin the world over again. Most people live their lives politically in times of, you know, weariness and compromise and ordinariness.

But every now and then, there are moments - I used to think when I was young, that I actually was witnessing one in 1968, a sort of global movement where - that was a revolutionary one. The feeling is very difficult to convey to somebody who hasn't had it, but yes, there's a second chance.

CONAN: Yes. You quote...

HITCHENS: The old order is collapsing, and intelligent and worthy and idealistic new forces are there to take its place. You need both those two things to be happening. And it's very rare that both happen at the same time.

CONAN: You quote Paine as writing, to have had a hand in two revolutions was, quote, "living to some purpose."

HITCHENS: Yes, beautifully phrased.

CONAN: Yes. Thanks very much for the call, Steve.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go to, this is Jason(ph), Jason with us from Brunswick in Georgia.

JASON: Good afternoon, gentlemen. I have a question. What was Thomas Paine's relationship with Robespierre, and what maybe Robespierre thought of him? I could take my question off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much.

HITCHENS: With Robespierre and with...

CONAN: Danton.

HITCHENS: ...Danton in particular, Paine's relationship was very fraught. He was swept by acclaim into an honorary seat in the French Assembly. The French Revolution declared that friends of liberty from other countries should be in the assembly too. And he and a couple of others were elected by acclaim, he from a seat in Calais, by the English Channel. And very quickly involved in a very important debate, what are we going to do about the king.

And the Jacobins wanted him executed as soon as possible. Paine said that would be a big mistake, A. because one wanted to start a France, a new France, without bloodshed; second, because America's friendship would be important for the new French Republic. And King Louis had been a great friend to the American Revolution; had sent brave generals like Lafayette and a lot of money to help us against the Redcoats, and so forth.

And he was shouted down on these points and told, how would you know? You're a Quaker; you're a humanitarian. You don't understand the necessity for swift revolutionary justice. And I think he probably realized at about that point that if that could be said of him in this way, it would sooner or later be said of him in another. In other words, he'd be accused of treason, which would mean that he was in real trouble. And, of course, that's what did happen.

CONAN: Yeah. We're talking...

HITCHENS: Revolution, as they say, devoured itself. And very, very nearly, only by the purest of luck didn't kill Paine.

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Hitchens about "Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man.'" You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Yet, you also say, again, after that terrible experience being in a French prison - his life being saved by the merest of chances - that then he goes back to the United States of America and roots against England in its long fight against a man he really detests, Napoleon.

HITCHENS: Yes, it's - I say, a paradox; some might say a contradiction in Paine's writing, that because of his loathing of the British Empire and the British monarchy, and the fact that I think he, in a long absence, rather lost touch with developments in Britain; didn't realize how much even the British workers and radicals who he thought of as his friends hated Bonapartism, that he did still within - with a part of himself - want Britain to be defeated in the Napoleonic wars, and could even have stood to see a French invasion, a Napoleon invasion of England. And I think that has to count against him because it becomes a cranky, lonely, ridiculous position after, certainly after 1805 after the Battle of Trafalgar, where it's obviously not going to be possible for the French to use a fleet to land an army in England. And so it's just quixotic to hope for this.

CONAN: And you've quoted him as saying...

HITCHENS: He carries on, you know, saying he hopes it'll happen and he thinks that this Nelson, Admiral Nelson business has all been a bit overblown by the press.

CONAN: Yes, and that... (Laughing) Overblown by the press - he should talk, as a great overblower in the press himself.

HITCHENS: Well, one of the great founders of modern political journalism. Yes, a hero to us all in that respect.

CONAN: In that respect. We're talking - let's see if we can get another caller on the line and why don't we go to, this is Matt(ph), Matt with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

MATT: Hi, Mr. Hitchens. I'm a big fan.

HITCHENS: Thank you.

MATT: And I wanted to mention something about - that Paine had argued, I think it was in "The Age of Reason." He said that in the book of Matthew, when Jesus was crucified, that all the dead rose up out of their graves and marched through the city of Jerusalem. And when I first read this, I was an evangelical Christian. And he said, this couldn't be because no one outside of Matthew actually documents this. And that kind of thing had never occurred to me.

And it was one of the very first voices that I had ever heard that made me seriously question that belief system. Well, last week, an evangelical news source had mentioned your name along Sam Harris' as well as Richard Dawkins' as the new atheism that's threatening Christianity.

And I know that you point out that Paine was a deist, more accurately than an atheist, who was trying to save God from his adherents, as you say, but at the same time, I can't help but wonder, is there anything really new about this new atheism at all that people are accusing you of being a part of? And, you know, is it possible that - are you just carrying on the tradition of Tom Paine? And I guess that that's what I wanted to ask, and I can take my question off the air.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks, Matt.

HITCHENS: Well, yes in the sense that one wants to keep alive the criticism of biblical literalism that Paine was one of the first to start, and you still meet people that are shocked to hear that nonsense from the book of Matthew. I had a debate with a Presbyterian minister - senior guy, recently. I said, would you - do you believe that? Because it seems to cheapen the idea of resurrection, among other things.

If it's true that everyone could do it, what's so special - why does it prove that someone else doing it makes them the son of God? Pretty simple point, I would have thought. And he said, well, as a historian, he didn't believe that it has really happened; but as a Christian, he did. Well, this is the sort of thing that you get. One of my objections to religion is it makes intelligent people say stupid things.

HITCHENS: it's very hard to ignore the evidence of a design, that there is an order in nature, there's something that suggests a possible authorship. They also used to wonder, you know, how come the fossils are so high up on the mountainside? How come the seashells are found at the top of the hills, how did that happen? See, they didn't know. Darwin wasn't going to be born till 1819 or was it 1809? I sometimes get this wrong.

Well, I'll just tell you this, if you want to look it up, the exact same day as Abraham Lincoln, Darwin's - it's 1809. They're both born on the same day. I think Darwin is the greatest emancipator. With Darwin and Einstein, now we have so much better evidence about the origins of our species and of the cosmos that we can dispense with a lot of religious assumptions that they couldn't.

CONAN: We'll continue our conversation with Christopher Hitchens about "Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man.'" Also coming up, how the government's biggest terrorism financing case ended in mistrial and acquittal.

Don't go away. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now, we're talking with Christopher Hitchens about his new book, "Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man,'" part of a series of books that we've been talking about on Books that Changed the World from the Atlantic Monthly press. And Christopher Hitchens, I wanted to ask you, you talked about that moment when Thomas Paine - that revolutionary moment, the one you sort of detected yourself maybe in 1968 - I think it was Hunter Thompson who wrote about being able to see the high-water mark of that moment which turned out to be illusory in, I think, it was in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Anyway...

HITCHENS: It was, yes.

CONAN: ...do you think that Thomas Paine - could anyone today have that sort of influence?

HITCHENS: No, I think probably not. I'm not very well braced for the question, but I know I want to say no. I think it's because all the problems that we now have are so much more complex. I mean, he had - Thomas Paine did have a fairly simple point to make, which is that monarchy was a self-evidently absurd way of governing people. It was ridiculous and laughable as well as unjust and unfair, that it would in fact fall, that there were intelligent ways of replacing it and expanding the democratic and republican alternative. Now, we can't say that we live in a blissful dawn like that, as Wordsworth once phrased it. We can't, but we can at least be proud of some of our ancestors.

CONAN: Indeed. And it's interesting in your comparison of him and, of course, the argument that he was having with Edmund Burke. Burke comes off as being a man of another time, Paine comes off as a modern man.

HITCHENS: That's very much so. I mean, for Burke, the - as, oddly enough, in some ways, for Jefferson - the natural order of mankind is agricultural, is rural.

CONAN: Yes, yeoman farmers.

HITCHENS: Agrarian, as Jefferson would have preferred to say, yes. That that's what keeps people in harmony with one another and with the land, with nature; prevents the alienation and dissipation that comes from urban life. I mean, you know, if you have urban life, the next thing that'll happen is you'll have paper money, and then where will you be? People will be doing it in the street and frightening the horses.

There'll be no morals. There'll be no - nothing will be sacred. So that really is what one could call a reactionary opinion. And I think Paine looked forward to modernism. He looked forward to free trade relations. He was very much in favor of free enterprise and against feudalism; that's why a lot of people like Reagan have always admired him.

CONAN: Yes. A very great fan of Adam Smith's, a contemporary.

HITCHENS: Yes, yes. Absolutely. And looked forward to the expansion of trade relations to South America and thought all this would be a way of unfettering ancient and backward societies, and very much looked forward - this is highly important - as did Jefferson, to the idea of America being an empire for liberty; a superpower that would outlast all the other empires and would put fear into the empires of the old world with an empire of its own.

CONAN: Did Paine weigh in on Abigail Adams' request to her husband that the men writing their new code of laws remember the ladies?

HITCHENS: I can't say that he was terrifically good on this, nor Jefferson either. Well, Jefferson actually was rather indifferent to that call. Paine - I can't find very much in his work that bodies forth the idea of feminism. When American feminism starts, at the Seneca Falls conference and elsewhere, when it does begin to declare itself, often they use Paine-ite rhetoric to make their case. But he didn't really especially want to include them. And I think I mentioned earlier, his own relations with the gentle sex were always rather distraught, for reasons that we don't know anything about.

CONAN: I recognize that religion was problematic for Paine, but I see elements of a spiritual life. There is a need to speak to the human spirit to create the type of revolutionary changes Paine advocated. Is this seen in Paine's work? I think the Quaker origins would bring this aspect into his thoughts.

HITCHENS: Well, yes, I think he did have a feeling for the spiritual, I mean, in the sense, he didn't despise those who were religious. He seems to have, a couple of times, said that he himself had some hope of a hereafter. That's very ambivalent in how he writes. But as I say, he's writing in a time when a lot of this is very opaque even to the most educated people.

CONAN: And a final e-mail question, this from Susan(ph). Is it true that Thomas Paine was never buried? Bertrand Russell wrote about this in "Why I Am Not a Christian."

HITCHENS: Well, I think - he certainly was buried. He was buried at New Rochelle in New York. But he was unburied. He was dug up and his body was scattered for relics in a very disgusting way. And there was a trade in bits of Thomas Paine just as there used to be the trade that he most abominated in...

CONAN: In the bits of saints.

HITCHENS: Chunks of saint or other human remains, which went on under the patronage of a very odd man, a pseudo-radical called William Cobbett, for a very long time. So we don't - it would be very difficult now to reassemble Mr. Paine, but I don't think he would particularly mind about that, because the idea of fetishizing anything would have been repulsive to him.

CONAN: Christopher Hitchens, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

HITCHENS: Very good of you to ask me.

CONAN: Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor to the Vanity Fair. His book "Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man,'" part of the series on Books that Changed the World. You can read an excerpt from Hitchens' book on our website at npr.org/talk. And you could find a link to "Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man'" on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation

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