The rights of man

On 26 August 1789, the French National Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article 1 proclaims:

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

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Thirteen years earlier, on 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia had proclaimed the Declaration of Independence, the second paragraph of which famously states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Both texts recognize the principles of equality and rights with which men are endowed. Both texts recognize these principles and rights for men.  Both texts are recognized as landmarks in the history of human rights.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence

The influence of the American text on the French Declaration has been much debated. Some will argue that the French text owes everything to its American predecessor, citing as ample evidence the very presence in Paris in 1789 of Jefferson - the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. They will also mention the friendship between Jefferson and La Fayette, recalling that La Fayette submitted a draft of the French Declaration. To this, others respond that the American Declaration was itself inspired by the writings of European philosophers, primarily the French-speaking ones, such as Rousseau and Voltaire.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, in 1902, a famous controversy opposed Georg Jellinek, a Heidelberg professor of public law, to Émile Boutmy, a professor of political science in Paris.  To Jellinek’s argument that the roots of both texts originated in a teutonic concept of individual liberty, Boutmy responded that the French idea of liberty was different from either the American or the Teutonic ones, which were more concerned with ensuring that rulers had less power over those they governed.

It has also been argued that the Americans of 1776 were fighting for their freedom and independence from a foreign power, while  the French of 1789 were building a new society, based on the recognition of rights, which they wanted to be applied universally, to citizens of all nations.

Ideas of freedom, and the texts that expressed them have had many authors, and many sources, not just one.

Only a couple of weeks before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, on 12 June 1776, the Virginia Constitutional Convention adopts the Virginia Bill of Rights. Its principal author, George Mason based his text on the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Like the two other declarations, Article 1 recognizes that men are free and entitled to rights.

1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Jefferson, himself a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress, is familiar with Mason’s text, and is obviously influenced by the Virginia Declaration, which will serve as the basis for the 1789 American Bill of Rights. Happiness is definitely a Virginian pursuit.

Common Sense, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Common Sense, Independence Hall, Philadelphia

With Common Sense published in January 1776, the English Thomas Paine argued vehemently for independence from British rule. The pamphlet was extremely influential in inspiring the colonists to fight for their independence.

In 1791, the same Thomas Paine publishes The Rights of Man, a response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. Before him, another English radical, Thomas Spence used the expression rights of man in a lecture. As early as 1775, Spence was advocating the end of aristocracy and landlords, for land to be publicly owned by democratic parishes, and for universal suffrage. Freedom and rights were definitely in the minds of many 18th century thinkers.

Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen, 1789

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789

Suggested on 9 July 1789, the principle of drafting a declaration of the natural and imprescriptible rights of men is adopted by the Constitution Drafting Committee. It is on 27 July, that the final title is retained, based on a proposal of Champion de Cicé, Archbishop of Bordeaux.

More than twenty drafts are considered, including the one presented by the marquis de La Fayette, as well as a proposal by Abbé Sieyès. On 12 August, a proposal to convene a drafting committee is retained. The Committee of Five is comprised of Claude Redon, Jean-Nicolas Desmeuniers (Bishop of Langres), Antoine Garaby de La Luzerne, the marquis de Mirabeau and François-Denis Tronchet. The Committee of Five’s draft is rejected in favour of yet another proposal, known as the Sixth Bureau draft, which becomes the working draft that is discussed in plenary. This draft is heavily modified during the final discussion that lasts from 20 to 26 August  when the Declaration is finally adopted.

Both the American and the French declarations therefore reflect not the genius of a single man, but the collective wisdom of many, all working together for the benefit of their nation.


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