By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
On August 26, 1789, the French Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was truly a remarkable document. Although inspired by The Declaration of Independence, it contained more principles than that document; it was drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette, who was impressed by the document written by his good friend Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was in Paris as our ambassador during this time.
The Declaration was a statement of democratic principles grounded in the philosophical and political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The document proclaimed the Assembly’s commitment to replace the ancien régime (meaning the king and the way the county had been governed for centuries) based on equal opportunity, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty and representative government.
Here, in its entirety is Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen:
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:
Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.
A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.
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.
For months after this declaration, the Assembly members debated fundamental questions about the shape and expanse of France’s new political landscape. Would the clergy owe allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church or the French government? And probably most importantly, how much authority would the king retain? The Assembly adopted France’s first written constitution on September 3, 1791, which was basically a compromise proposed by more moderate voices in the Assembly, establishing a constitutional monarchy. The more radical elements in the Assembly were not happy, namely Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton; they wanted a more republican form of government and a trial for Louis XVI.
In April 1792, the newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, because it believed that French nobles leaving the country were building counterrevolutionary alliances. In Paris, the political crisis took a much more radical turn when a group of insurgents attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king on August 10, 1792. The following month, amid a wave of violence in which Parisian insurrectionists massacred hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries and the Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic. On January 21, 1793, it sent King Louis XVI, condemned to death for high treason and crimes against the state, to the guillotine; his wife Marie-Antoinette suffered the same fate nine months later.
1793 saw the Revolution’s most violent and turbulent phase. In June 1793, the Jacobin party seized control of the National Convention from the more moderate Girondin party and instituted a series of radical measures, including the establishment of a new calendar and the eradication of Christianity!! They also unleashed the bloody Reign of Terror (“la Terreur”); for 10 months suspected enemies of the revolution (the Jacobins) were guillotined by the thousands. Many of the killings were carried out under orders from Robespierre until his own execution on July 28, 1794. His death marked the beginning of the more moderate phase in which the French people revolted against the Reign of Terror’s excesses.
On August 22, 1795, the National Convention, composed largely of those assembly members who had survived the Reign of Terror, approved a new constitution that created France’s first bicameral (two houses) legislature. Executive power would lie in the hands of a five-member Directory (“Directoire”) appointed by parliament. Royalists and Jacobins protested the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army, which was now being led by a young (and successful) Napoleon Bonaparte.
By the late 1790s, the government relied almost entirely on the military to maintain authority and had ceded much of their power to the generals in the field. On November 9, 1799, frustrated with the Directory leadership, Bonaparte staged a coup d’état, abolishing the Directory and appointing himself France’s “first consul;” soon to become Emperor of France, and then Europe.