Enlightenment writers had paved the way for the reception of these ideas on the European continent and helped transform English rights into more universally applicable ones. They complained that in France these rights were being violated by despotic, absurd, superstitious, and fanatical institutions. Voltaire, in particular, held out English religious toleration as a model. In their criticism, Montesquieu and Rousseau moved beyond existing institutions, proposing new principles of government based on reason and comparative study.

Beginning in the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and intensifying thereafter, writers both within and outside France began strongly decrying the despotism of the French monarchy. In 1721, Montesquieu, a nobleman and judge, published an anonymous novel, The Persian Letters, in which he used fictional letters between visiting Persians to lampoon French customs, particularly those of the recently deceased Louis XIV. Voltaire held French practices up against those in England, China, and elsewhere and found cause to ridicule French "fanaticism" in religion.

These and other criticisms paved the way for a more theoretical consideration of government in general. One of the most influential works of this nature was Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws (1748), which developed a comparative political analysis of the conditions most favorable to liberty. The American Founding Fathers studied this work closely. Rousseau, in his Social Contract of 1762, took the ideas of Montesquieu and also Locke a step further; he argued that all government rested on a social contract (not on divine right, not the Bible, not tradition of any kind) in which "the assembled people" (democracy) determined everything. For him, "the person of the meanest citizen is as sacred and inviolable as that of the first magistrate"; in other words, Rousseau insisted on complete equality (between men).

Although the most democratic of the Enlightenment writers, Rousseau said relatively little about rights. In fact, one of the most enduring criticisms of his work is that he failed to guarantee individual rights under the social contract. The community apparently took precedence over the individual in Rousseau's view. Other Enlightenment writers stepped into this gap. Voltaire made his reputation defending those who had been persecuted for their religious opinions. As yet, however, there was more talk about rights in general than about specific rights. Writers often referred to rights as if everyone knew what they meant, but in fact many ambiguities remained: Should Protestants or Jews have the same rights as Catholics in France? Should poor men have the same rights as property owners? Should women enjoy the same rights as men?

Despite the strong efforts of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church to ban the works of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, their influence soon spread, even to the highest echelons of the state that originally opposed them. Other monarchs in Europe eagerly sought the friendship and advice of Enlightenment writers, and it was only a matter of time before leading French bureaucrats also took up their ideas. Among the most striking cases was that of Turgot, one of the chief ministers of Louis XVI. His memorandum to the King of 1775 shows that talk of rights had permeated the highest levels of government.

Before the Revolution broke out in 1789, most discussion of rights in France focused on the plight of religious minorities. After years of criticism and discussion, the French crown granted certain civil rights to Protestants in 1787, but not political ones. Once civil rights had been granted to Protestants, it was perhaps inevitable that the question of Jewish rights would be raised. But the French monarchy did not offer any reforms in the status of Jews.

A particularly contentious issue in the 1780s was that of slavery. A powerful current of antislavery opinion was welling up in England, France, and the new United States, abetted in part by the influential anti-slavery tracts of a French Catholic clergyman, Abbé Raynal. Raynal denounced slavery along with most European commerce with the colonies. His work had great impact in the British North American colonies as well as in Europe.










1 2 3 4