The Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789

The Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789

The Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789
The Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790),

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826),

Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834)

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, also known as the French Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, is a foundational charter of human rights that contains the ideals that inspired the French Revolution. Its 17 provisions, enacted by France’s National Assembly between August 20 and August 26, 1789, served as the prologue to the Constitution of 1791. The preambles of the Constitutions of 1793 (renamed simply Declaration of the Rights of Man) and 1795 (renamed simply Declaration of the Rights of Man) were similar papers (retitled Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the Citizen).

The Declaration’s central concept was that “all men are born free and equal in rights” (Article 1), which were defined as the rights to liberty, private property, personal inviolability, and resistance to oppression (Article 2). All people were to be treated equally before the law and had the right to directly or indirectly participate in legislation (Article 6); no one was to be detained without a legal order (Article 7). Within the boundaries of public “order” and “law,” freedom of religion (Article 10) and freedom of expression (Article 11) were protected. The text reflected the interests of the elites who drafted it: property was declared an inviolable right that could only be removed by the state if an indemnity was provided (Article 17); offices and positions were made available to all people (Article 6).

The Declaration drew on prominent philosophers of the French Enlightenment, including Montesquieu, who advocated for the separation of powers, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote on general will, or the idea that the state reflects the general will of the people. The concept that the person must be protected from arbitrary police or judicial action was foreseen by 18th-century parlements and thinkers like Voltaire. The physiocrats, for example, were French jurists and economists who insisted on the inviolability of private property. Foreign documents such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) in North America and the manifestos of the Dutch Patriot movement in the 1780s influenced the authors of the Declaration. The French Declaration, on the other hand, went beyond these models in terms of scope and claim to be based on universally applicable principles that are fundamental to man.

On the other side, the Declaration might be read as a rebuke to the monarchical system that existed prior to the Revolution. The former regime’s system of privileges was to be replaced with equality before the law. To prevent abuses by the monarch or his administration, judicial processes were insisted upon, such as the lettre de cachet, a secret message from the king that was frequently used to provide brief notice of incarceration.

Despite the Declaration’s restricted goals, its ideas (particularly Article 1) may be rationally extended to include political and even social democracy. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen became known as “the creed of the new era,” according to 19th-century historian Jules Michelet.

SEE ALSO:

The U.S. Constitution (1787);

The Bill of Rights (1791);

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Sources:

The Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)

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