Declaration of the Rights of Man - 1789
The French Revolution began in 1789 as a protest on two levels: street actions, such as the storming of the Bastille, and a political movement by representatives of the Third Estate who walked out of the Estates-General to form the National Assembly. These educated middle-class political representatives wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as a statement of principles for a new French government. In this document, the word distinction means social differences, such as the difference between peasants and nobles, which was based on birth. Nobles and clergy had privileges that the middle class and peasants did not share. Those privileges, and the amount of wealth and power held by nobles and clergy, were a major cause of the revolution. For this reason, the French Revolution was quite different from the US (American) Revolution, since the 13 British colonies did not have the system of nobility, clergy, and privileges. In France, a liberal revolution — which would change only political rights without changing social customs and land ownership — did not satisfy peasants and poor townspeople, who wanted the wealth and land of nobles, clergy, and wealthy people to be distributed more fairly. Historians distinguish between a liberal, or political, revolution in the United States and a radical, or social, revolution at certain points (such as the Reign of Terror) in France. Which rights are similar to those set forth in the US Constitution? Which rights are different?
National Assembly: the name taken by the representatives who were writing a constitution for France
calamities: disasters, problems
unalienable rights: rights that cannot be taken away from someone
social distinctions: the writers meant the privileges of nobles
imprescriptible: not able to be lost or taken away; very similar to unalienable
principle of all sovereignty: the origin of power
nation: in this case not a country, but the people
those which assure … the enjoyment: limits that protect other peoples’ rights
distinction: another reference to noble titles and privileges
manifestation: what they do to practice their religion
The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is a central document of the French Revolution, and despite the dizzying changes of government and law and Napoleon’s rule as an emperor, many of the rights written here survived to be permanent. Students will notice the similarity of some rights to the US Bill of Rights, because of their common inspiration from the Enlightenment. Those similarities are free speech and free press, freedom of religion, limits to the power of government, and protection of personal rights. But this French document makes wider claims for social justice and change, such as the removal of social “distinctions,” such as privileges for nobility and clergy, and the closer association of the people with the “nation.” The ideals and events of the French Revolution helped give birth to the nation-state and nationalism.
The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man…
1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents. ...
10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.
11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.