The Beginnings of Revolution


Once they had agreed on the necessity of drafting a declaration of rights, the deputies of the National Assembly still faced the daunting task of composing one that a majority could accept. The debate raised several questions: should the declaration be short and limited to general principles or should it rather include a long explanation of the significance of each article; should the declaration include a list of duties or only rights; and what precisely were “the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man”? After several days of debate and voting, the deputies decided to suspend their deliberations on the declaration, having agreed on seventeen articles. These laid out a new vision of government, in which protection of natural rights replaced the will of the King as the justification for authority. Many of the reforms favored by Enlightenment writers appeared in the declaration: freedom of religion, freedom of the press, no taxation without representation, elimination of excessive punishments, and various safeguards against arbitrary administration

The representatives of the French people, constituted as a National Assembly, and considering that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortunes and governmental corruption, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man: so that by being constantly present to all the members of the social body this declaration may always remind them of their rights and duties; so that by being liable at every moment to comparison with the aim of any and all political institutions the acts of the legislative and executive powers may be the more fully respected; and so that by being founded henceforward on simple and incontestable principles the demands of the citizens may always tend toward maintaining the constitution and the general welfare.

In consequence, the National Assembly recognizes and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and the citizen:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.

2. The purpose 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 rests essentially in the nation. No body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from the nation.

4. Liberty consists in the ability to do whatever does not harm another; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no other limits than those which assure to other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by the law.

5. The law only has the right to prohibit those actions which are injurious to society. No hindrance should be put in the way of anything not prohibited by the law, nor may any one be forced to do what the law does not require.

6. The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to take part, in person or by their representatives, in its formation. It must be the same for everyone whether it protects or penalizes. All citizens being equal in its eyes are equally admissible to all public dignities, offices, and employments, according to their ability, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.

7. No man may be indicted, arrested, or detained except in cases determined by the law and according to the forms which it has prescribed. Those who seek, expedite, execute, or cause to be executed arbitrary orders should be punished; but citizens summoned or seized by virtue of the law should obey instantly, and render themselves guilty by resistance.

8. Only strictly and obviously necessary punishments may be established by the law, and no one may be punished except by virtue of a law established and promulgated before the time of the offense, and legally applied.

9. Every man being presumed innocent until judged guilty, if it is deemed indispensable to arrest him, all rigor unnecessary to securing his person should be severely repressed by the law.

10. No one should be disturbed for his opinions, even in religion, provided that their manifestation does not trouble public order as established by law.

11. The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may therefore speak, write, and print freely, if he accepts his own responsibility for any abuse of this liberty in the cases set by the law.

12. The safeguard of the rights of man and the citizen requires public powers. These powers are therefore instituted for the advantage of all, and not for the private benefit of those to whom they are entrusted.

13. For maintenance of public authority and for expenses of administration, common taxation is indispensable. It should be apportioned equally among all the citizens according to their capacity to pay.

14. All citizens have the right, by themselves or through their representatives, to have demonstrated to them the necessity of public taxes, to consent to them freely, to follow the use made of the proceeds, and to determine the means of apportionment, assessment, and collection, and the duration of them.

15. Society has the right to hold accountable every public agent of the administration.

16. Any society in which the guarantee of rights is not assured or the separation of powers not settled has no constitution.

17. Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one may be deprived of it except when public necessity, certified by law, obviously requires it, and on the condition of a just compensation in advance.

Source: The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 77­79.

The Beginnings of Revolution

When the Bastille, a great medieval prison at the eastern end of Paris, fell to angry crowds on July 14, 1789, a shock wave spread throughout Europe. This event, immediately perceived as a revolutionary act, amazed contemporaries. Throughout France and even the Western world, this news came as a stunning revelation. Part of the reason that the revolution surprised eighteenth-century men and women was the relative stability of France and its monarchy over centuries. Even though the political system had been in a state of change, it had maintained a monarchy and orderly transitions of power for centuries. To be certain, tensions had been building for months, even years, but this event crystallized the belief that a people could demand its rights and be successful. Furthermore, even if before July 14 careful observers might have noted that revolutionary events had already transpired and have predicted an emotion-filled upheaval, such observers would have only recently arrived at such a view.

Furthermore, contemporaries would have also been impressed by the location of the revolution, for France was arguably the most important nation in the Western world. Its population of 26 million dwarfed the nine million of England, its main geopolitical competitor. Russia rivaled France’s population, but economically there was no comparison. Although the North American colonies had preceded the French in revolution, some discounted this uprising because they saw the Americans simply as a captive people overthrowing an oppressor. For others who understood the innovations as revolutionary, America remained a special place whose particular circumstances were unlikely to be copied by a more established country. Although the American experience ignited excitement, it could not rival seeing powerful France being turned upside down.

If contemporaries experienced the French Revolution as a shock, and at first a pleasant one, historians have spent the last two centuries looking for deeper roots for it. How could such a cataclysm occur? Such a large event must have resulted from important long-range factors or “forces.” Yet others see accidental factors, or, in some cases, even conspiracies. And even in explaining such an event, historians have to grapple with its comparative aspects. In searching for causes and circumstances, one must select a combination of factors that explain why the Revolution occurred in France and not elsewhere.

In the multimedia clip here, we attempt to combine insights from those who argue long term developments with those who emphasize contingencies — accidents or unforeseen events. We also endeavor to construct a theory which specifies why France, all but alone in Europe, experienced an eighteenth-century revolution. But scholars, politicians, and mere interested parties from the very first debated the causes of the Revolution. We urge you to dig deeper into the French Revolution to come to your own understanding of these occurrences which, though beginning in France, have since changed the entire world.