10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789

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The Spread of Human Rights

In August of 1789, France’s National Constituent Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The document, comprised of 17 articles encapsulating the Enlightenment principles that inspired the French Revolution, was a landmark charter of basic human rights and liberties. It enshrined the concept that the individual should be safeguarded from arbitrary state action, and would serve as the preamble to the French Constitution of 1791 and subsequent constitutions. The Declaration revolutionized the relationship between citizen and state – or at least the understanding of what that relationship should be.

The Declaration drew from the doctrine of “natural right” – inalienable rights that exist independent of the laws and customs of any government or culture – to hold that the rights of man are universal. Drawing from the same Enlightenment sources as the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration held that all men have a natural right to life, liberty, and property. The purpose of government was the uphold and protect those rights.

The substance of the Declaration’s text was akin to a mixture of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The French document’s core, captured in Article 1, was that “all men are born and remain free and equal in rights“. Other articles set forth equality before the law; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from arrest without due process; and the right to participate in legislation, directly or indirectly.

However, a major difference between the French Declaration and the American Bill of Rights was the lack of practical guarantees. The French document, unlike the American one, was not associated with a constitutional structure, with an enforcement mechanism to give it teeth and ensure that its provisions were carried out. In practice, the French Declaration was aspirational – a statement of vision, rather than a reflection of realities on the ground. Its principles were not deeply rooted in French culture, society, or politics. Indeed, there was widespread resistance to the very concepts of individual rights and democracy, which many equated with anarchy. Nonetheless, the Declaration set out the ideals that France, and all Western democracies, pledged themselves to achieve.

Along with Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the American Bill of Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a milestone in human rights. It played a major role in the development of democracy and liberty in Europe and around the world. In 1948, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights drew heavily from, and was modeled upon, the French Revolution’s Declaration.

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