Declaring Rights

Some thoughts on human rights and political rights as I prepare for my HIST 423 French Revolution and Napoleon discussions this week on the constitutional guarantees debated and passed by the National Assembly in August and September 1789….

Consider the first three articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (26 August 1789), here in a translation by historian Lynn Hunt:

1. Men are born free and remain equal in rights. Social distinctions can be based only on common utility.

2. The purpose 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.

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from the nation. …

The concepts of freedom, equality, rights, political association, and sovereignty enunciated here seem very far indeed from those experienced in modern “democratic” societies.  In some ways rights have greatly expanded (note the male gendering of rights in this document), but other revolutionary concepts of rights have been discarded.  Are social distinctions really based on “common utility” today?  What is the status of the “public” in modern “democracies”?  Would modern political parties fit with revolutionaries notions of “political association”?  Do modern notions of popular sovereignty agree with the revolutionary concepts of sovereignty and authority?

Certainly, we would not want to return to eighteenth-century conceptions of human and political rights.  But, in this time of revolutions in the Arab world and popular demonstrations in Wisconsin, reconsidering the French Revolution’s debates over constitutional guarantees is useful.  After all, the French Revolution’s formulation of rights has influenced modern human rights (including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights) more than the American Bill of Rights.

An online version of the full text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is available at the Center for History and the New Media’s site on Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

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