The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was written in 1789 by the National Assembly in France during the French Revolution. This document was intended to give the people of France certain unalienable and natural rights. These individual liberties were intended to give all people power in the...
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was written in 1789 by the National Assembly in France during the French Revolution. This document was intended to give the people of France certain unalienable and natural rights. These individual liberties were intended to give all people power in the political system, which was previously dominated by a corrupt system of Estates. To explain the reason why the people of France believed that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was needed, let me provide some information about the political landscape prior to the French Revolution.
France was divided into three major classes called the Estates. The First Estate consisted of the clergy (the Church). The First Estate made up only .5% of the population, yet it had a huge amount of power! The Second Estate consisted of the nobles. Only about 1.5% of the population were nobles, and most of these people had well-respected jobs and did not have to pay taxes. The Third Estate consisted of everyone else in France. 98% of the population in France belonged to the Third Estate, so there were many different types of people in this class. The top part of the Third Estate was the bourgeoisie (middle class). People in the bourgeoise typically had well-paying jobs such as doctor, lawyer, merchant, and so on. The poorer people in the Third Estate were either peasants or city workers, were not well respected, were underpaid, and had poor living conditions. The Third Estate had the burden of paying all of the taxes in France, while the First and Second Estates enjoyed life tax-free. The majority of the people, who belonged to the Third Estate, found this extremely unfair! They also did not have any political power. When it came to voting, each Estate got one vote each; 98% of the population only had one vote to represent them! More often than not, the First and Second Estate would vote together and would win the vote in a two-to-one majority over the Third Estate. This is, in a nutshell, why the people demanded individual rights and freedoms through the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
The Enlightenment was a period of time where people began questioning authority and ideas that they had previously known to be true. Enlightenment thinkers used logic and reason to challenge the status quo. These thinkers created many works of literature that spread throughout Europe and therefore spread their ideas. John Locke's major Enlightenment ideals were that the people in society must consent to authority (government), the government should protect citizens' natural rights, and individuals should be treated equally under the law. All three of these ideals were included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Article 1 of the Declaration reads, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good." This article definitely reflects the ideals of John Locke. Locke's ideas can also be seen in Article 2 of the Declaration, which states, "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."
Another Enlightenment Thinker, Montesquieu, spread ideas about the separation of powers in government so that one group could not be more powerful than another and so that all people were represented equally. This idea is a focal point in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as seen in Article 6, which states, "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 virtues and talents."
One more Enlightenment ideal that is seen in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is Voltaire's idea of free speech. This is seen in Article 11 of the document, which states, "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious 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."