The “Declaration of the Rights of Man” seems determined to eliminate societal and governmental abuses. The declaration begins, “…believing that the ignorance…of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and the corruption of governments…” (Declaration 1). This quote highlights the tension between French citizens at the time. Turmoil is evident, as the National Assembly attributes its declaration to ending harmful interactions between members of society. King Louis XVI’s lavish lifestyle (Hannigan), despite France’s bankruptcy (Andress, Burley), supports this notion. The king’s excessive spending during economic struggle demonstrated his ignorance of France’s poverty, neglect for other citizens, or contempt for the poor. As such, Louis’ negligence produced hunger (Hannigan), poverty (Hannigan, Andress, Burley), and France’s corrupt, tyrannical government (Hannigan, Paine, Swann). It therefore seems the French wanted to prevent tyrannical rule by rendering ignorance, neglect, and contempt obsolete (given the atrocities attributed to these traits during Louis’ reign (Hannigan, Paine, Swann)) (Paine).
In addition to preventing governmental abuses, the National Assembly outlawed abuse by and for all citizens. The declaration continues, “…the French people… have determined to set forth in…declaration the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man…” (Declaration 1). This indicates that past French legislation neglected human rights, thus the National Assembly sought to defend such liberties. The Frenchmen writing this declaration realized the harms of abuse, because they’d historically endured despotism (Paine, Andress). The despotic King Louis unjustly imposed heavy taxes upon peasants (often for luxurious personal pleasures) (Hannigan) and allegedly ordered troops to fire on the citizens in 1789, as conflict escalated (Hannigan). The National Assembly prevented such actions from recurring in writing, “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the…rights of man…liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” (Declaration 1) and “All citizens have a right to decide…as to the necessity of public contribution…to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion…and the duration of the taxes.” (Declaration 2).
The former proposition impeded oppression and personal security violations, while the latter allowed people to dictate the terms of their own taxation. These mandates were likely in response to Louis’ aforementioned violation of such rights. Louis taxed unreasonably, without consent or justification, and oppressed/threatened those who refused to meet his demands (Hannigan). All considered, it seems the French declaration strongly opposed unjustified taxation, neglect of basic liberties, and unwarranted threats to individual security; perhaps due to Louis’ despotic abuses.
Comparison to American Values:
French values and policies outlined in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” emulate those of the U.S. constitution, possibly because both documents bear enlightenment influence (Hannigan). For example, these bills both preserve freedom of speech and the press. The French declaration notes, “The free communication of ideas…is…precious…Every citizen may…speak, write, and print with freedom.” (Declaration 2), while the U.S. constitution outlines, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” (Baltzell). This indicates that both societies revered the free flow of ideas, and thus empowered their governments to preserve this freedom. Since previous Catholic leaderships often silenced innovative thinkers (i.e. Copernicus, Galileo) (Hannigan), one expects said regard for open discussion and action, such that man’s best ideas can benefit society.
A second similarity between the two documents is the separation of powers. The “Declaration of the Rights of Man” reads, “A society in which the observance of law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.” (Declaration 2). The U.S. constitution outlines the distinct powers of the states, legislative branch, judicial branch, and executive branch of government in depth (Baltzell), which limits/separates power in all cases. These efforts to divide power suggest that each nation dreaded the prospect of another absolute monarch (such as King Louis (Hannigan, Paine, Swann)), and thus ensured that no individual/group grew too powerful. Separation of powers provides necessary limitation to rulers, because any one sect may check any others’ power, preventing tyranny.
The U.S. and French also sought to eliminate nepotism. The French detailed, “…All citizens…are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions…according to their abilities…” (Declaration 1), while the Americans proposed, “…The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President…” (Baltzell). The two social systems thus based societal power transfers on competence, rather than blood. This indicates that both nations preferred meritocracy to the nepotism that brought Louis to power (Hannigan). Both societies thus ensured social mobility based on individual competence, rather than blood relations. In conclusion, the French and United States evidently legislated many similar (enlightenment) values and policy ideas in the late 1700s.
Andress, David. “The FRENCH REVOLUTION a Complete History? (Cover Story).” History Today, vol. 66, no. 2, Feb. 2016, p. 20. EBSCOhost, lib1.lib.sunysuffolk.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=112342822&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Baltzell, George W. “Constitution of the United States – We the People.” Constitution for the United States – We the People, constitutionus.com/.
Burley, Peter. “A Bankrupt Régime.” [“pre-Revolution years”]. History Today, vol. 34, Jan. 1984, pp. 36-42. EBSCOhost, lib1.lib.sunysuffolk.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hus&AN=503124986&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Declaration. “Declaration of the Rights of Man-1789”. Class handout. 2018. SCCC Classroom
Hannigan, Professor. History 102 lecture. On the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, King Louis, and the French Revolution. 2018. Ammerman Campus Classroom. Suffolk County Community College
Paine, Thomas. “The Rights of Man.” Rights of Man, 8/1/2017, p. 1. EBSCOhost, lib1.lib.sunysuffolk.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pwh&AN=21212325&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Swann, Julian. Provincial Power and Absolute Monarchy : The Estates General of Burgundy, 1661–1790. Cambridge University Press, 2003. New Studies in European History. EBSCOhost, lib1.lib.sunysuffolk.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=120603&site=eds-live&scope=site.