Burke, following Aristotle, argued that individuals differed in their capacities, which is why any attempt to level would never succeed. Paine, on the contrary, attributed the very large numbers of illiterate people in the ‘old’ world to bad governments.
In total contrast to Burke, he championed the cause of universal suffrage, representative government, the rule of law, and a sympathetic attitude to the poor. He denounced the hereditary system, whether in the name of monarchy or aristocracy, for a “hereditary governor is as ridiculous as an hereditary author”.
Unlike Burke, Paine, following Locke, justified government as an outcome of a social contract between the people themselves. He was critical of the British constitution for being unwritten, making it unhelpful as a reference point. Its precedents were all arbitrary contrary to reason and common sense:
Burke and Paine were representative symbols of the conservative and radical responses to the French Revolution. It was noteworthy that both of them championed the American cause, but were on opposite sides with regard to the French experiment.
Their basic disagreements could be understood in light of their support to the American cause. For Burke, “Taxation without representation” violated traditional English rights and liberties and that the English were on the wrong side of history, because they violated their own well-establishedpr-actices.
For demanding redressal, the Americans did not base their arguments, like the French did, on a notion of natural rights. Paine, on the other hand, found that the British action in America was a violation of universal reason and natural rights. He rejected hierarchical authority, and asserted that “setting up and putting down kings and governments is the natural right of citizens”.
He regarded aristocrats as a class of unproductive idlers and parasites, who lived off the surplus and the exploitation of the industrious classes. As such, in a rational, reconstructed society they would not be missed at all. The striking similarity between a radical Paine, a liberal John Stuart Mill and a socialist Claude Henri Comte de Rouvroy Saint Simon is too clear to be missed.
Early Liberal Feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay Sawbridge criticised Burke and regarded the French Revolution as something new and unique, spreading the message of an enlightened spirit. Wollstonecraft echoing many contemporaries of her time, in her reply to Burke, pointed out the apparent contradictions of a liberal Burke supporting the American cause, and the conservative Burke opposing Jacobinism.
His praise of hereditary rights and tradition and his emphatic stress on the conservation of existing political relations indicated a lack of reason and a predominance of sentiment, leading to social stagnation, hindering the progressive and dynamic nature of socio-political life.
She accused him of championing the maintenance of unequal property, and if necessary, of despotism and tyranny, for property not only restricted liberty by creating inequalities, but also undermined sociability. Among unequals according to Wollstonecraft there could be no friendship and mutual respect.
Wollstonecraft, unlike Burke saw the Church as fundamentally corrupt, having, secured vast property from the poor and the ignorant. With the help of David Hume’s History of England, she tried to show that English laws were product of contingencies rather than the wisdom of the ages.
She insisted that only those institutions, which could withstand the scrutiny of reason and were in accordance with natural rights and God’s justice, deserved respect and obedience. Furthermore, she assailed Burke for defending a ‘gothic affability’ more appropriate for a feudal age, than the burgeoning commercial age marked for its ‘liberal civility’.
Rejecting Burke’s theory of prescriptive rights, Wollstonecraft contended that human beings by birth were rational creatures with certain inherited rights, especially equal rights to liberty compatible with that of others.
She criticised Burke’s views on women as a “symbol of man’s need for a feminine ideal, not woman for herself. Wollstonecraft, like Paine, portrayed Burke as d brilliant but misguided voice of the past.
Though Paine’s criticism of Burke was more effective and well-known, as was evident from his famous phrase that Burke “pitted the plumage but forgot the dying bird”, it was Wollstonecraft who advocated a more radical stance than Paine for ameliorating the plight of the poor. Paine did not have any plan for social levelling other than taxing the rich and insisting that the appalling conditions of the poor must be improved, but he failed to offer any economic solution to the problem.
On the other hand, Wollstonecraft suggested the adoption of economic means for improving the condition of the poor by dividing estates into small farms and endorsed plans for the working class, which could lead to their betterment. Wollstonecraft was the first to lay stress on the equal rights and status for women by pointing to the incompleteness of the natural rights doctrine, which understood the individual, to be a male and left out the female.
Another refutation came from James Mackintosh’s Vindiciae Gallicae in 1791. In it he insisted that Burke had trampled upon the ideals of Whiggism and aligned himself instead with Tory superstition and chivalry. In opposition to Paine, Mackintosh invoked the ideals of 1688 in explaining the events in France. He supported the Revolution, for it attempted to make France a commercial society.