How did the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen reflect Enlightenment ideas?

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) reflected Enlightenment ideas and ideals in a number of ways. It was declared by the National Assembly of France in the first year of the French Revolution.

The first connection was geographic. Even though the Enlightenment was an international movement, its heart...

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) reflected Enlightenment ideas and ideals in a number of ways. It was declared by the National Assembly of France in the first year of the French Revolution.

The first connection was geographic. Even though the Enlightenment was an international movement, its heart was French. Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia was the most famous product of the Enlightenment in France.

Second, the Enlightenment was against Christianity's dominance, and that was shown in the Declaration: "No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law."

Freedom of thought and expression was also a major goal of the Enlightenment, and this is evident in the Declaration: "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man." Indeed, the importance of mankind's "natural rights" was a key component of Enlightenment thought.

Although the Declaration put forth many laudable pronouncements, the French Revolution is more often remembered today for its excesses: the Reign of Terror, the widespread use of the guillotine, and Napoleon's rise to power.

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man represents one of the cornerstone documents to come out of the French Revolution. If we look at the Ancien Regime that preceded it, we would see a government and political system founded on privilege and inequality. Absolutist France was organized as a vast network of special relationships with the Crown, tying the monarchy together with the Nobility (of which there were multiple facets), with the Church, with the various subgroups making up the Third Estate, with the various provinces and cities, and so on. Each of these different groups had their own particular rights and privileges. This was the system which the French Revolution overthrew.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, by contrast, envisioned a society by which all people were equal under the law. This is enshrined right at the beginning with Article 1, which reads:

Men are born free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

This is followed by Article 2, which states that the purpose of all "political association" is the protection of Natural Rights (a view which dovetails with the arguments put forward by John Locke as well as in the Declaration of Independence), and defines those Rights as "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." In these claims (and throughout the various articles which make up the Declaration of the Rights of Man) we see an indictment against Absolutist France, and a new vision of politics and society which has been shaped by the principles of the Enlightenment.

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man asserts certain rights that are universal and inherent to being human. It describes them as "unalienable," as does the American Declaration of Independence, but it further calls them the "natural and imprescriptible rights of man, and specifies that they are "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." While not all Enlightenment thinkers would have agreed that universal rights were part of the human condition, they certainly were asserted by many, including Voltaire and Diderot.

The Declaration also claims that the only proper and legitimate government is founded on a contract between the people, and that its limits are therefore defined by those people. It asserts the right of revolution (unsurprisingly, since it was the product of a revolution) against governments that persistently abuse the liberties of the people. These ideas are often associated with the political writings of John Locke, who was enormously influential on Enlightenment philosophes. Statements like "law is the expression of the general will" in the Declaration of the Rights of Man are strongly influenced by the radical Enlightenment thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and many fundamental concepts such as religious freedom, due process, and separation of government powers were also supported by Enlightenment thinkers.

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