Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The Birth of the French Republic
By: National Assembly of France
Date: August 26, 1789
Source: National Assembly of France
About the Author: The National Assembly of France formed on June 17, 1789 when the Estates General decided to change its name as revolutionary sentiments spread. The Assembly is responsible for stating France's revolutionary principles in the Declaration of Man and Citizen as well as writing the first French constitution in 1791.
In June 1789, King Louis XVI responded to widespread anger in France by proposing a charter of rights to the Estates General. Although he granted freedom of the press along with some measure of equality to the citizens, he preserved many of the feudal rights of his nobles. The king offered far too little, far too late. Within days, he was forced to recognize the authority of the National Assembly. For the majority of representatives in the Assembly, the Revolution meant a guarantee of citizens's rights, freedoms, and equality before the law. On August 4, 1789, the Assembly decreed the abolition of the feudal regime by freeing the few remaining serfs and eliminating all special privileges given to the nobility in matters of taxation. It also mandated equality of opportunity in access to official posts. Enlightenment principles were beginning to become law.
On August 26, 1789, the Assembly further emphasized its support of the Enlightenment ideals by passing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The French were inspired to issue a document by a draft of a bill of rights that Thomas Jefferson offered to the Assembly. Jefferson, the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, served as U.S. ambassador to France in 1789. The French Declaration closely resembles the American one. Both granted freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and power to the people rather than a sovereign. The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen reflects French thought by further mandating equality of taxation and equality before the law.
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 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.
The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen does much more than simply state the obligations of French citizens. It struck at the divine right of kings, severing the nation from a past based on religion. It is a document of the Age of Reason. The Declaration ended the thousand-year-old mystique of monarchy by demoting the king to the mere executive of the people's will. He was no longer God's choice to rule and a representative of the divine. Instead, the king was a leader who had failed his people. Accordingly, the people's revolt was justified since resistance to oppression is a natural right of men.
The most enduring legacy of the Declaration lies in its assertion that citizens are equal before the law. In 1789, this assertion only applied to men. Revolutionary women such as Olympe de Gouges, author of the 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, unsuccessfully sought to extend rights to women. Only in the twentieth century would French men and women gain equal rights and protections. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings with respect to gender, the Declaration made it possible for all French citizens to eventually receive equal status. It dismantled the hereditary distinctions and privileges that had formed the center of monarchical society. The nature of sovereignty, the class structure of society, and the face of justice had been transformed forever in France.
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Van Kley, Dale, ed. The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.