Liberty Through The Ages – Declaration of the Rights of Man

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

– Thomas Jefferson


“Liberty Through the Ages”

A tree without roots will not stand in the storm. In an effort to re-ignite the embers, and bring forth brushfires of liberty in the hearts and minds of our countrymen, “Liberty Through The Ages” brings stories and history to our people, that they may understand the long physical and philosophical struggle to achieve freedom in America, and also those it inspired.


Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier


Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789

Approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789

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, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

Articles:

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.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for 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.

7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.

8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.

9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.

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.

12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.

13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.

14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.

15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.

16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.

17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789 (French: Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789), set by France’s National Constituent Assembly in 1789, is a human civil rightsdocument from the French Revolution.[1]

The Declaration was drafted by General Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, and Honoré Mirabeau.[2]

Influenced by the doctrine of “natural right“, the rights of man are held to be universal: valid at all times and in every place, pertaining to human nature itself. It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law. It is included in the beginning of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth Republic (1958) and is still current. Inspired by the Enlightenment philosophers, the Declaration was a core statement of the values of the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedomand democracy in Europe and worldwide.[3]

The Declaration, together with Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the United States Bill of Rights, inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[4]

The content of the document emerged largely from the ideals of the Enlightenment.[5] The key drafts were prepared by Lafayette, working at times with his close friend Thomas Jefferson.[6][7]

In August 1789, Honoré Mirabeau played a central role in conceptualizing and drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.[8]

The last article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted on 27 August 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly, during the period of the French Revolution, as the first step toward writing a constitution for France. Inspired by the Enlightenment, the original version of the Declaration was discussed by the representatives on the basis of a 24 article draft proposed by the sixth bureau[clarify],[9][10]led by Jérôme Champion de Cicé. The draft was later modified during the debates. A second and lengthier declaration, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793, was written in 1793 but never formally adopted.[11]

Philosophical and Theoretical Context

The concepts in the Declaration come from the philosophical and political duties of the Enlightenment, such as individualism, the social contract as theorized by the Genevan philosopher Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by the Baron de Montesquieu. As can be seen in the texts, the French declaration was heavily influenced by the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and principles of human rights as was the U.S. Declaration of Independence which preceded it (4 July 1776).

According to a legal textbook published in 2007, the declaration is in the spirit of “secular natural law”, which does not base itself on religious doctrine or authority, in contrast with traditional natural law theory, which does.[12]

The declaration defines a single set of individual and collective rights for all men. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, these rights are held to be universal and valid in all times and places. For example, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.”[13] They have certain natural rights to property, to liberty, and to life. According to this theory, the role of government is to recognize and secure these rights. Furthermore, government should be carried on by elected representatives.[12]

At the time of writing, the rights contained in the declaration were only awarded to men. Furthermore, the declaration was a statement of vision rather than reality. The declaration was not deeply rooted in either the practice of the West or even France at the time. The declaration emerged in the late 18th century out of war and revolution. It encountered opposition as democracy and individual rights were frequently regarded as synonymous with anarchy and subversion. The declaration embodies ideals and aspirations towards which France pledged to struggle in the future.[14]

Substance

The Declaration is introduced by a preamble describing the fundamental characteristics of the rights which are qualified as being “natural, unalienable and sacred” and consisting of “simple and incontestable principles” on which citizens could base their demands. In the second article, “the natural and imprescriptible rights of man” are defined as “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression“. It called for the destruction of aristocratic privileges by proclaiming an end to feudalism and to exemptions from taxation, freedom and equal rights for all “Men”, and access to public office based on talent. The monarchy was restricted, and all citizens were to have the right to take part in the legislative process. Freedom of speech and press were declared, and arbitrary arrests outlawed.[15]

The Declaration also asserted the principles of popular sovereignty, in contrast to the divine right of kings that characterized the French monarchy, and social equality among citizens, “All the citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents,” eliminating the special rights of the nobility and clergy.[16]

Active and Passive Citizenship

While the French Revolution provided rights to a larger portion of the population, there remained a distinction between those who obtained the political rights in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and those who did not. Those who were deemed to hold these political rights were called active citizens. Active citizenship was granted to men who were French, at least 25 years old, paid taxes equal to three days work, and could not be defined as servants (Thouret).[17]This meant that at the time of the Declaration only male property owners held these rights.[18] The deputies in the National Assembly believed that only those who held tangible interests in the nation could make informed political decisions.[19] This distinction directly affects articles 6, 12, 14, and 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as each of these rights is related to the right to vote and to participate actively in the government. With the decree of 29 October 1789, the term active citizen became embedded in French politics.[20]

The concept of passive citizens was created to encompass those populations that had been excluded from political rights in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Because of the requirements set down for active citizens, the vote was granted to approximately 4.3 million Frenchmen[20] out of a population of around 29 million.[21] These omitted groups included women, slaves, children, and foreigners. As these measures were voted upon by the General Assembly, they limited the rights of certain groups of citizens while implementing the democratic process of the new French Republic (1792–1804).[19] This legislation, passed in 1789, was amended by the creators of the Constitution of the Year III in order to eliminate the label of active citizen.[22] The power to vote was then, however, to be granted solely to substantial property owners.[22]

Tensions arose between active and passive citizens throughout the Revolution. This happened when passive citizens started to call for more rights, or when they openly refused to listen to the ideals set forth by active citizens. This cartoon clearly demonstrates the difference that existed between the active and passive citizens along with the tensions associated with such differences.[23] In the cartoon, a passive citizen is holding a spade and a wealthy landowning active citizen is ordering the passive citizens to go to work. The act appears condescending to the passive citizen and it revisits the reasons why the French Revolution began in the first place.

Women, in particular, were strong passive citizens who played a significant role in the Revolution. Olympe de Gouges penned her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791 and drew attention to the need for gender equality.[24] By supporting the ideals of the French Revolution and wishing to expand them to women, she represented herself as a revolutionary citizen. Madame Roland also established herself as an influential figure throughout the Revolution. She saw women of the French Revolution as holding three roles; “inciting revolutionary action, formulating policy, and informing others of revolutionary events.”[25] By working with men, as opposed to working separate from men, she may have been able to further the fight of revolutionary women. As players in the French Revolution, women occupied a significant role in the civic sphere by forming social movements and participating in popular clubs, allowing them societal influence, despite their lack of direct political influence.[26]

Women’s Rights

The Declaration recognized many rights as belonging to citizens (who could only be male). This was despite the fact that after The March on Versailles on 5 October 1789, women presented the Women’s Petition to the National Assembly in which they proposed a decree giving women equal rights.[27] In 1790, Nicolas de Condorcet and Etta Palm d’Aeldersunsuccessfully called on the National Assembly to extend civil and political rights to women.[28] Condorcet declared that “he who votes against the right of another, whatever the religion, color, or sex of that other, has henceforth abjured his own”.[29] The French Revolution did not lead to a recognition of women’s rights and this prompted Olympe de Gouges to publish the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in September 1791.[30]

The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen is modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and is ironic in formulation and exposes the failure of the French Revolution, which had been devoted to equality. It states that:

“This revolution will only take effect when all women become fully aware of their deplorable condition, and of the rights, they have lost in society”.

The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen follows the seventeen articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen point for point and has been described by Camille Naish as “almost a parody… of the original document”. The first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaims that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.” The first article of Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen replied: “Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions may only be based on common utility”.

De Gouges also draws attention to the fact that under French law women were fully punishable, yet denied equal rights, declaring “Women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum”.[31]

Slavery

The declaration did not revoke the institution of slavery, as lobbied for by Jacques-Pierre Brissot’s Les Amis des Noirs and defended by the group of colonial planters called the Club Massiac because they met at the Hôtel Massiac.[32] Despite the lack of explicit mention of slavery in the Declaration, slave uprisings in Saint-Domingue in the Haitian Revolution were inspired by it, as discussed in C. L. R. James‘ history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.[33]

Deplorable conditions for the thousands of slaves in Saint-Domingue, the most profitable slave colony in the world, led to the uprisings which would be known as the first successful slave revolt in the New World. Free persons of color were part of the first wave of revolt, but later former slaves took control. In 1794 the Convention dominated by the Jacobins abolished slavery, including in the colonies of Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe. However, Napoleon reinstated it in 1802 and attempted to regain control of Saint-Domingue by sending in thousands of troops. After suffering the losses of two-thirds of the men, many to yellow fever, the French withdrew from Saint-Domingue in 1803. Napoleon gave up on North America and agreed to the Louisiana Purchase by the United States. In 1804, the leaders of Saint-Domingue declared it as an independent state, the Republic of Haiti, the second republic of the New World.

Legacy

The Declaration has also influenced and inspired rights-based liberal democracythroughout the world. It was translated as soon as 1793–1794 by Colombian Antonio Nariño, who published it despite the Inquisition. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for doing so. In 2003, the document was listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.

According to the preamble of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic (adopted on 4 October 1958, and the current constitution), the principles set forth in the Declaration have constitutional value. Many laws and regulations have been canceled because they did not comply with those principles as interpreted by the Conseil Constitutionnel(“Constitutional Council of France”) or by the Conseil d’État (“Council of State”).

  • Taxation legislation or practices that seem to make some unwarranted difference between citizens are struck down as unconstitutional.
  • Suggestions of positive discrimination on ethnic grounds are rejected because they infringe on the principle of equality, since they would establish categories of people that would, by birth, enjoy greater rights.

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