The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
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The Independent Culture
Thomas Paine's Rights of Man is one of those books people refer to, or cite as a historic event, but rarely read. I picked it up in 1996, when I was still a Washington correspondent, seeking merely to pluck out the odd quotation. But, like the man who walks in on a movie he didn't mean to see, I stayed to the end.

It turns out to be a cracking read. Plenty of Paine's contemporaries regarded him as the greatest political writer who ever lived, and a session with the Rights of Man soon shows why. By turns, it's playful and aggressive, detailed and rhetorical. Officially a response to Edmund Burke's critique of the French Revolution, it soon emerges as the model polemic: clear, accessible and breathlessly persuasive.

Take his riff on the absurdity of titles. "France has not levelled; it has exalted. It has put down the dwarf to set up the man. Through all the vocabulary of a Adam, there is not such an animal as a Duke or Count." No wonder Rights of Man won rave reviews and became an instant bestseller: costing just sixpence, it sold hundreds of thousands within weeks. For any first-time writer of polemic, that's quite an inspiration.

But what seduced me were the ideas. Two centuries ago, Paine saw the world so clearly, his analysis remains not just relevant, but almost shockingly urgent for today. He wrote as an admirer of America's sense of possibility. He contrasted that with the hereditary principle still operating in his home country. He may have been writing in 1791, but his words still rang horribly true as I read them in the Washington of the late 1990s.

Most striking, though, was the can-do optimism which runs through Rights of Man, just as keenly as it must have done through the new America which had stolen Paine's heart. His core belief was that each generation had the power to remake the world anew, not to be weighed down by the inheritance of the past. In a beautiful sentence, he declared, "Government is for the living, not the dead."

So here was a Briton, thrilled by America, full of dreams for his own country. I knew what I had to do: Paine's polemic, written in the dusk of the 18th century, inspired me to make a stab of my own - aimed at the dawn of the 21st.

Jonathan Freedland's 'Bring Home the Revolution' is published by Fourth Estate