Declaration of the Rights of Man

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© Bob Denton 2014

Most significantly in August 1789 the National Constituent Assembly issued its Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, to outline how France should proceed for the future. The Declaration was the first step in the National Constituent Assembly’s plan to create a new constitution.

Intriguingly the two main authors of the Declaration were nobles – Lafayette and Mirabeau. Lafayette and Mirabeau did not work well at a personal level as they held strongly opposing views on quite how the constitution should look. This creative conflict may have proven beneficial because despite some significant downsides the French Huguenot 19th century historian, Jules Michelet, was moved several generations later to call the Declaration ‘a credo of the new age’.

The document drew upon the concepts advanced by Enlightenment thinkers, upon the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and upon the more recent thinking that had gone in to the US Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the US Bill of Rights of that year.

The American influence was applied when the early drafts were being prepared by Lafayette (Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette). He often consulted his friend, the American founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Lafayette had met him while a general during the American Revolutionary War. During the drafting period Jefferson was serving as a diplomat in France.

Honoré Mirabeau (Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau) was the other key architect of the document. At the time he was a disgraced ex-nobleman but managed to be selected to represent Aix within the Third Estate section of the Estates-General. There his strong and enthusiastic oratorical style brought him to the forefront of the Assembly. He openly proposed a more liberal approach based loosely upon the British constitutional monarchy, which he had studied extensively. Though when he died in 1791 from a heart disease (some claimed from poisoning) it was learned he had been paid by the King and the Austrians to pursue his approach.

The Jacobin Club – originally called the Club Breton this was a secret society formed at Versailles by the representatives of Brittany, it was soon joined by other deputies.

When the Assembly moved to Paris it met at a Dominican convent in rue St Jacques, which in Latin is Jacobus, hence its subsequent name. Mirabeau was a member and membership was extended outside of the Assembly deputies. Many were invited to attend for example the Duc d’Orléans, Louis Philippe, did so – he would much later become king of France! Somewhat predictably they supported the monarchy, all the way until it was dissolved.

Jacques-Pierre Brissot’s Girondins held the majority in the Club but progressively Maximilien de Robespierre’s group gained ascendancy. First literally, in that within the National Assembly they occupied the highest seats and so became known as La Montagne (The Mountain). The Girondists were below them, in the so-called ‘Manège’ (Carousel), independents occupied the lowest seats in the hall, the Plain.

Lafayette was a leading critic of the Club who called for it to be suppressed or disbanded.

A draft containing seventeen articles was presented and approved on 27th August 1789. A longer version was created in 1793 but this never achieved adoption.

The Declaration defined that men are born and remain free and equal in rights. It opined that the ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of these rights were the cause of most societal ills and the substance of poor government. So it set out to list the natural rights for all men (yes, only men!) both individually and collectively in terms of liberty, property and lifestyle.

It defined that there should be free communication of ideas and opinions, individuals must be allowed to speak, write and go into print with freedom- including religious views. On property it defined that ownership was a sacred right that could not be taken away unless for public necessity.

It declared that a government should enshrine these rights and protect them within its political systems and processes. Laws could only forbid actions that would harm society, no individual could be forced to do anything that was not defined in law. All would be deemed innocent until legally declared guilty. No person would be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except with a judicial order.

These points encapsulated Rousseau’s individualism, social contract and general will; this latter meant that the state must represent the general will of its citizens.

Montesquieu’s separation of powers were also included. It defined that sovereignty was held by the nation and no individual or organisation could assume any authority without the agreement of the nation. 

It added that a necessary tax would be levied on all according to their means to maintain public military forces that would protect these rights. Any public servant would be held to account for his work within the administration.

Eye of Providence – In one of its early representations the Declaration, it is depicted with the Eye of Providence above its text. The all-seeing eye of God sitting within a pyramid symbol, the very same device appears on the US $1 bill and the US Great Seal.

In history this was the Eye of Horus from Egyptian mythology. During the Renaissance it became a symbol of the Christian Trinity.

But this usage appears to be publicising the links of the Revolution to Freemasonry. It led to claims of occult interference in the Revolution.  It certainly was prevalent among the thinkers of the time, for example Voltaire was inducted in to Freemasonry just before his death by Benjamin Franklin!

However they seemed determined to distinguish between those with property who the Enlightenment thinkers had opined would be more likely to be rational and make informed decisions. These ‘active’ citizens were defined as male, French, over 25 years old, paying taxes on at least three days’ work per week and that could not in any manner be considered as servants.

This would provide rights to less than 15% of the total 29m population, some 4.3m of them. What they termed as ‘passive’ citizens who would not be able to vote or hold office. These passives of course included women, children, slaves and foreigners. The Assembly also decided that workers’ associations would not be permitted.

Slavery in France – It is unclear how the drafters rationalised their ‘men are born and remain free’ while defining that slaves and servants were passive citizens. Slavery would be abolished in France in 1794, though reintroduced by Napoleon eight years later. The business of slave trading was banned by France in 1812 and the practice banned completely in 1835.

The significance of the Declaration of Rights is perhaps best underlined by how similar its first article is to the first article in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued in December 1948. Except that by post WWII the ‘men’ in the 1789 article had been replaced by ‘human beings’.

Though it was not without its opponents. François-Noël Babeuf, known as Grachus Babeuf, was active politically at this time. He railed against the concepts of private property, inheritance and the feudal system in his newspaper, Le tribun du people (the tribune of the people). His views have been defined as proto-anarchist, proto-socialist and proto-communist. (More on him later)

The Assembly did reach an agreement on 4th August 1789 to abolish feudalism, at a stroke disbanding the pre-existing structures, often termed as the Ancien Régime.

The side-lining of workers also prompted a reaction. The term sans-culottes, without culottes, was adopted by many workers to stress their working class, they wore pantalons, trousers, rather than the ‘rich and effete’ silk knee-breeches. The reality was that the leading sans-culottes were not so much manual labourers and more often drawn from artisans, craftsmen, retailers, entrepreneurs…

The lines having been drawn, the sans-culottes looked at each new decision emerging from the Assembly expecting to be ever more marginalised and more disadvantaged. It was clearly a case of the poor working class versus the rich and propertied.

The assignat – from 1789-1796 the National Assembly issued a bond which progressively became a paper currency. The French government was essentially bankrupt and this new currency was secured by the seizure of revenue-generating church properties from 1789 onwards.

The currency unit was the livre. These confiscated properties were called biens nationaux (national goods) and successfully underwrote the assignat – it was accepted by overseas creditors too.

However there was not sufficient control and the currency at issue soon exceeded the value of the confiscated properties which led to hyper-inflation.


Olympe de Gouges, a female playwright and activist, issued her Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791 and urged for more debate on gender equality.

Forward to Women’s March – Back to The Great Fear
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014