Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The French Revolution or the Reign of Terror has been one of the world’s bloodiest and influential revolutions in history, reshaping international and regional politics as it is seen today. Born out of discontent towards the monarchy and lack of rights, the Reign of Terror took many lives in the process and questioned the capability of the monarchy to lead the country. French citizens were left in disarray with the lack of system and the necessity of having a government that would respect the rights and liberties of the people were becoming crucial given the state France is after the massive revolts. The result of this collective desire for freedom, liberty and brotherhood had led to the creation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. The creation of the Declaration not only provided the values fought by the French Revolutionists, but had also introduced the concept of liberty and democracy around the globe for all citizens.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen or the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen has been created as a first step to revising the French government, serving as the constitution that would be adopted by the replacement government after the removal of the monarchy through the French Revolution. The French Revolution, according to Haine (2000) was caused greatly by the economic depression of 1770 and absolute feudalism under the monarchy of Louis XVI, who accumulated quite a high amount of debt due to the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. Louis XVI had tried to control the French finances in 1777; however, the expenditure was too great and the debit they once had amongst the financiers of the monarchy had already become nobles, allowing them to stop Louis XVI from requesting the claims through the Chamber of Justice. Slowly, the monarchy had lost control over the Parlement of Paris and triggered a massive upheaval around the country because of the lingering capacity of the nobility to overturn the will of each Estate. A Third Estate was proposed to establish the cahiers de doleances (grievances) from representatives from various groups while trusting the monarchy and his reforms. However, this did not help the economy as wages continue to decrease, and unemployment was common around the country. The monarchy remained insensitive to the issues of the public as the three estates were restricted to the royal resolution despite granting the wishes of the Third Estate. Outrage broke when Swiss controller General Jacques Necker was removed by Louis XVI, getting the public to go under arms to end their bondage to the monarchy. They stormed Bastille, the location of the monarchy’s royal prison and fortress on July 14, 1789 with 80,000 people breaking the 100 feet towers of the known fortress. The fall of Bastille had triggered the revision of the French administration to the National Assembly, and it had also triggered the “la Terreur”, political events that were called by peasants against their seigneurs and managers to claim the lands they believe is theirs. Fearing that the land would be destroyed completely by the peasants, the National Assembly abolished French Feudalism on August 4, 1789 alongside other ancient regime practices such as the Church tithe (religious contributions of almost tenth part of one’s salary, also known as a tax) and the venal offices collecting money from the people .
While the National Assembly had been working overtime to try to introduce reform and respond to the abuses committed by the Ancien Regime, the idea of creating France’s constitution had been brought forward to the National Assembly by Marquis de Lafayette Gilbert du Motier. Lafayette, according to Neely (2008), came from a French aristocratic family in Chavaniac, France and had been known greatly for being the leader of National Guard of France on July 15, 1789. He had also taken part in the American Revolution under the command of George Washington, making him enamored over American principles and vigor in calling for independence. He first introduced the draft of his ideal Declaration of Independence to the National Assembly on July 1789, which had been debated upon by the National Assembly for the next couple of months. Lafayette’s proposal had been supported by Jean-Paul Rabaut de Saint-Etienne, who called for a constitution similar to the Americans as it was a means for recovery, and Mathieu duc de Montmorency-Laval, who fought in the American Revolution and saw the Americans as a model for independence around the world,. For the others, they saw that the declaration is dangerous considering the Abstract rights it contained, as well as the compromises that would be required to sustain the constitution. On July 27, the Constitutional Committee established by the Assembly had recommended the inclusion of the declaration at the head of the constitution in a short and simple manner in order to ensure that amendments can be done. Around August 4, several decrees regarding the declaration of duties were established to revise the draft proposed by Lafayette before it was accepted on August 26, 1789 .
Looking at the contents and nature of the Declaration, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen has been greatly inspired by the American Revolution against the English monarchy and the establishment of the Declaration of Independence, which re-established American rights and freedoms. The revolution in the New World, according to Kieforth and Munro (2004), was a compelling subject for the French people and became a new religion as far as how they see the Founding Fathers – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson – and the Declaration of Independence. Condorcet, a known philosopher in the period, remarked that America’s release from the English reasserted the importance of sacred rights (humanity) which has been long forgotten, reiterating the need for a “beacon” for humanity. Jefferson, who was America’s minister in Paris at the period, sent a letter to Washington and expressed that France “has been awakened by our [American] revolution, they feel their strength; they are enlightened’. French newspaper Mercure de France cemented the French position on America was that America was now the new model for the human race. Marquis de Lafayette had mostly been assisted by Jefferson for the first draft of the Declaration, which Lafayette filed in the French National Assembly on August 26, 1789. Since Lafayette loved the Declaration of Independence, he had Jefferson checked the manuscript as early as January 1789 to develop the idea for French use. Both Lafayette and Jefferson met continuously in private to discuss ideas for the constitution and the Charter of Rights that would fit the French context. Jefferson had gladly assisted Lafayette by recommending a representative body that would be supported by the king and establish rules and standards for taxes and laws. He had also recommended an independent judiciary and as far as the Bill of Rights is concerned; Jefferson discussed the possible principles and guided on how the Declaration can introduce freedom easily and improved legal process for all .
The Declaration, upon its introduction to the Assembly, had been heavily criticized for its Americanized feel given that it was based to the American Declaration of Independence. Regardless, according to ( Put In-text citation and year for the West article), it had guaranteed French independence and liberties the monarchy had long withheld to the people. The Declaration has 17 parts, which experts have cited to be a compromise with the monarchy and nobility. This can be seen in the first article of the Declaration “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be based only on public utility”. It had also added “natural and imprescriptible rights of man are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression”. The Declaration had also defined law as the collective will of the people, enabling all citizens to participate in the formation of the law. The declaration had also proposed the creation of the separation of powers, equal justice, and freedom of speech, equal taxation and sovereignty to ensure that there is a uniform system within institutions of the government. Individual rights were now ensured through the Declaration, removing the system imposed under the Ancien Regime as it now allows the people to rally or assemble peacefully if they have grievances against the government The universality feel of the Declaration towards the rights of all men was appealing to the National Assembly, showing the current state of France and its history. It had also declared that sovereignty is held by the nation rather than just by the absolute monarch. Similar to Jefferson’s proposal, the Declaration included a two-house legislature that would divide the National Assembly to represent all constituents and open it to the public. Religion had also been guaranteed under the Declaration, ensuring that the Catholic Church is separated from the constitution and allow other religions to be practiced by the people. (Note to Client: You can cite the West paper here as it is the summary of the articles included in the Declaration. Include page number).
While there were complaints regarding the content and scope of the Declaration, according to Cole and Symes (2014), the Declaration had been considered by many historians and experts alike as the pinnacle of understanding of human rights and inspired the French people to fight for the right as “citizens of the nation” rather than just being subjects. The first article alone incites “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, promising that the French people would now be their own entity and can determine the course of their government. With Louis XVI denying the Declaration from the National Assembly, it had ignited the Bread Riots on September 29, 1789 and marched towards Versailles to get the king to approve the decrees of the National Assembly. Reform had also been the main priority of the National Assembly, improving political, economic, social, religious and civil reform within the country. The creed listed in the Declaration had also inspired the likes of Olympe de Gouges to write a similar Declaration in 1791 entitled “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” as the original did not include the rights of women, inciting the beginning of the feminist thought. The second version of the Declaration had rallied women across France to fight for equality and suffrage, aiding in the protest against the crown. Later on, the declaration had enabled the deputies within the National Assembly to attach the declaration within the Constitution of 1791 .
The French Revolution had, in more ways than one, established the importance of allowing the people to decide upon their laws and leaders by removing the monarchy; it had also introduced the concept of human rights and a well-represented government. While it was heavily influenced by the Americans, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen clearly indicated that all citizens must be given freedom and rights for the future of the country. They must also be given the choice to fight against oppression, announce their grievances, and replace the government they believe is corrupted and not well-represented. The application of the declaration despite the monarchy’s complaints regarding such decree not only allowed the revision of the French political, economic and social arena, but it has proven the importance of rights, not just for men but also for women. Although the Revolution had been marred by deaths and controversies, the introduction of the Declaration had introduced the modernization and change of the French government and their active goal to protect human rights for all.
Cole, Joshua, and Carol Symes. 2014. Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture. London: W. W. Norton & Company.
Haine, W. Scott. 2000. The History of France. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Klieforth, Alexander Leslie, and Robert John Munro. 2004. The Scottish Invention of America, Democracy and Human Rights: A History of Liberty and Freedom from the Ancient Celts to the New Millennium. Lanham: University Press of America.
Neely, Sylvia. 2008. A Concise History of the French Revolution. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.