If the guillotine is the most striking negative image of the French Revolution, then the most positive is surely the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, one of the founding documents in the human rights tradition.

The lasting importance of the Declaration of Rights is immediately evident: just compare the first article from August 1789 with the first article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations after World War II, on 10 December 1948. They are very similar, though the UN document refers to "human beings" in place of "men." (Did "men" mean women too in 1789? As we shall see, this was far from clear.)

When the French revolutionaries drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in August 1789, they aimed to topple the institutions surrounding hereditary monarchy and establish new ones based on the principles of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement gathering steam in the eighteenth century. The goal of the Enlightenment's proponents was to apply the methods learned from the scientific revolution to the problems of society. Further, its advocates committed themselves to "reason" and "liberty." Knowledge, its followers believed, could only come from the careful study of actual conditions and the application of an individual's reason, not from religious inspiration or traditional beliefs. Liberty meant freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom from unreasonable government (torture, censorship, and so on). Enlightenment writers, such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, influenced ordinary readers, politicians, and even heads of state all over the Western world. Kings and queens consulted them, government ministers joined their cause, and in the British North American colonies, American revolutionaries put some of their ideas into practice in the Declaration of Independence and the new Constitution of the United States.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 brought together two streams of thought: one springing from the Anglo-American tradition of legal and constitutional guarantees of individual liberties, the other from the Enlightenment's belief that reason should guide all human affairs. Enlightenment writers praised the legal and constitutional guarantees established by the English and the Americans, but they wanted to see them applied everywhere. The French revolutionaries therefore wrote a Declaration of Rights that they hoped would serve as a model in every corner of the world. Reason rather than tradition would be its justification. As a result, "France" or "French" never appears in the articles of the declaration itself, only in its preamble.

The Anglo-American tradition of legal guarantees of rights dates back to the Magna Carta, or "Great Charter," of 1215. In it King John of England guaranteed certain liberties to the free men of his kingdom. In 1628 the English Parliament drew up a Petition of Right restating the "rights and liberties of the subjects." Charles I agreed to it, and the rights were further extended in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. John Locke's writings on the nature of government in the late 1600s gave a more universal and theoretical caste to the idea of the rights of freeborn Englishmen, suggesting that such rights belonged not just to the English, but to all property-owning adult males.

Until Locke, the English tradition of rights had been just that, English. The various English parliamentary documents on rights had been specifically limited to freeborn Englishmen. They made no larger claims. The Enlightenment helped broaden the claims, and its effects can be seen in the American offshoots of the English parliamentary tradition of rights. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence of 1776 claimed that "inalienable" rights were the foundation of all government, and he justified American resistance to English rule in these terms. Jefferson's "declaration" is especially important because it argued that rights had only to be "declared" to be effective. The same belief in the self-evidence of rights can be seen in George Mason's draft of the Bill of Rights for Virginia's state constitution. The similarities to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen are not hard to find, for both the Virginia Bill of Rights and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence had an immediate influence on the French declaration.








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