After the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789, ushering in the period of conflict historians call the French Revolution, the governing bodies of France faced a difficult situation. The common call for freedom and equality echoed the growing favor of Enlightenment ideals, forcing the French monarchy and nobility to reconsider the moral justification for their privileged position in government and society. Drawing on the success of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, Enlightened thinkers, such as the Marquis of Lafayette and the Abbé Sieyès, drafted a declaration that directly outlined the unalienable rights of every French citizen. The rights of citizenship were at the forefront of the political debate and social conflict. In fact, a small but extraordinarily signficiant change to the title of the king—from the King of France to the King of the French—irreversibly codified the value and role of the French people. The declaration was adopted as a preamble to the country's new constitution in 1791 and highlighted the delicate balance between struct between freedom and law during the early stages of the conflict.
The influence of the declaration's sentiment was long lasting, functioning as a manifesto of humanistic ideals. The declarations legal influence, however, was short-lived. Whereas the declaration proclaimed the value and consequential nature of the French citizen, the constitution that is prefaced distinguished between an "active citizen," who held a legitimate claim to the rights within the declaration, and a "passive citizen," who did not. For most, the rubric used to distinguish between these two categories resembled too closely the outmoded social system. An active citizen was a male of a certain age that could demonstrate heriditary claim to France (either through blood or birth) and was of a certain economic standing. Everyone else fell into the latter category. The hypocrisy of the first constitution resulted in the drafting of a second constitution in 1793. Along with this new document, the Declaration was revised by a comission, including philosophers and politicians such as Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just and Marie-Jean Hérault de Séchelles. The revision was a significant departure from the Declaration's original claims. Rather than a focus on rights and responsibilities, including the limited role of government in protecting unalienable rights granted to individuals by Divine inheritance, the document focused on social equality and justice, declaring the role of government to be the granter (instead of God) and guarantor (not the protector) of the equality of status through social and legal rights. Although the revision and its new constutution failed to gain favor politically, the declaration offers modern readers a glimpse into the changing negotiations between freedom and law during the period.
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:
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 French people, convinced that forgetfulness and contempts of the natural rights of man are the sole causes of the miseries of the world, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration these sacred and inalienable rights, in order that all the citizens, being able to compare unceasingly the acts of the government with the aim of every social institution, may never allow themselves to be oppressed and debased by tyranny; and in order that the people may always have before their eyes the foundations of their liberty and their welfare, the magistrate the rule of his duties, the legislator the purpose of his commission.
In consequence, it proclaims in the presence of the supreme being the following declaration of the rights of man and citizen.
1. The aim of society is the common welfare. Government is instituted in order to guarantee to man the enjoyment of his natural and imprescriptible rights.
2. These rights are equality, liberty, security, and property.
3. All men are equal by nature and before the law.
4. Law is the free and solemn expression of the general will; it is the same for all, whether it protects or punishes; it can command only what is just and useful to society; it can forbid only what is injurious to it.
5. All citizens are equally eligible to public employments. Free peoples know no other grounds for preference in their elections than virtue and talent.
6. Liberty is the power that belongs to man to do whatever is not injurious to the rights of others; it has nature for its principle, justice for its rule, law for its defense; its moral limit is in this maxim: Do not do to another that which you do not wish should be done to you.
7. The right to express one's thoughts and opinions by means of the press or in any other manner, the right to assemble peaceably, the free pursuit of religion, cannot be forbidden.
The necessity of enunciating these rights supposes either the presence or the fresh recollection of despotism.
8. Security consists in the protection afforded by society to each of its members for the preservation of his person, his rights, and his property.
9. The law ought to protect public and personal liberty against the oppression of those who govern.
10. No one ought to be accused, arrested, or detained except in the cases determined by law and according to the forms that it has prescribed. Any citizen summoned or seized by the authority of the law, ought to obey immediately; he makes himself guilty by resistance.
11. Any act done against man outside of the cases and without the forms that the law determines is arbitrary and tyrannical; the one against whom it may be intended to be executed by violence has the right to repel it by force.
12. Those who may incite, expedite, subscribe to, execute or cause to be executed arbitrary legal instruments are guilty and ought to be punished.
13. Every man being presumed innocent until he has been pronounced guilty, if it is thought indispensable to arrest him, all severity that may not be necessary to secure his person ought to be strictly repressed by law.
14. No one ought to be tried and punished except after having been heard or legally summoned, and except in virtue of a law promulgated prior to the offense. The law which would punish offenses committed before it existed would be a tyranny: the retroactive effect given to the law would be a crime.
15. The law ought to impose only penalties that are strictly and obviously necessary: the punishments ought to be proportionate to the offense and useful to society.
16. The right of property is that which belongs to every citizen to enjoy, and to dispose at his pleasure of his goods, income, and of the fruits of his labor and his skill.
17. No kind of labor, tillage, or commerce can be forbidden to the skill of the citizens.
18. Every man can contract his services and his time, but he cannot sell himself nor be sold: his person is not an alienable property. The law knows of no such thing as the status of servant; there can exist only a contract for services and compensation between the man who works and the one who employs him.
19. No one can be deprived of the least portion of his property without his consent, unless a legally established public necessity requires it, and upon condition of a just and prior compensation.
20. No tax can be imposed except for the general advantage. All citizens have the right to participate in the establishment of taxes, to watch over the employment of them, and to cause an account of them to be rendered.
21. Public relief is a sacred debt. Society owes maintenance to unfortunate citizens, either procuring work for them or in providing the means of existence for those who are unable to labor.
22. Education is needed by all. Society ought to favor with all its power the advancement of the public reason and to put education at the door of every citizen.
23. The social guarantee consists in the action of all to secure to each the enjoyment and the maintenance of his rights: this guarantee rests upon the national sovereignty.
24. It cannot exist if the limits of public functions are not clearly determined by law and if the responsibility of all the functionaries is not secured.
25. The sovereignty resides in the people; it is one and indivisible, imprescriptible, and inalienable.
26. No portion of the people can exercise the power of the entire people, but each section of the sovereign, in assembly, ought to enjoy the right to express its will with entire freedom.
27. Let any person who may usurp the sovereignty be instantly put to death by free men.
28. A people has always the right to review, to reform, and to alter its constitution. One generation cannot subject to its law the future generations.
29. Each citizen has an equal right to participate in the formation of the law and in the selection of his mandatories or his agents.
30. Public functions are necessarily temporary; they cannot be considered as distinctions or rewards, but as duties.
31. The offenses of the representatives of the people and of its agents ought never to go unpunished. No one has the right to claim for himself more inviolability than other citizens.
32. The right to present petitions to the depositories of the public authority cannot in any case be forbidden, suspended, nor limited.
33. Resistance to oppression is the consequence of the other rights of man.
34. There is oppression against the social body when a single one of its members is oppressed: there is oppression against each member when the social body is oppressed.
35. When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.
- Compare and contrast the various rights granted within these two documents. What are the underlying arguments or claims being made?
- How do these two documents differ in their understanding of the source of social or civic rights?
- What are some of the rights in these lists that you agree or disagree with? Why?