10 days and 13 years separate two 18th Century July events that have become national holidays commemorating the American and the French Revolutions. Both resulted in major legal texts recognizing human rights.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia adopts the American Declaration of Independence, which rejected British rule and layed out the principles of basic rights for the American people. A Committee of Five, which included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, had tasked Jefferson with producing the first draft.
Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789
On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, the medieval fortress which, as a jail, had become a symbol of the royal arbitrary power. It was used by the French Kings to emprison a number of free thinkers, who would be sent there for having printed, expressed or advocated liberal ideas. If the King so decided, anyone could be sent to prison on the basis of a lettre de cachet, the executive order that did not need the validation of a court. Although on July 14 only seven people were still held prisoners, the storming of the Bastille is considered as one of the critical events that marked the beginninng of the French Revolution.
Much has been written about the links between the American and the French July events. On both sides of the Atlantic, a number of individuals have played a role in, or been eye-witness to, two of the most determining episodes in the history of human rights. As it happens, the same individuals have been involved to some degree in the two events.
One year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and elected George Washington to be its Commander-in-chief. Washington had been nominated by John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts.
Developments in America were closely followed in France. Beaumarchais is allowed to found a commercial enterprise which provided the American rebels with weapons, and necessary supplies. The Marquis de La Fayette chooses to serve in the Continental Army, and although he has received strict orders from the French King not to leave France, he sails for America and lands in Georgetown, South Carolina, in June 1777. He offers to serve without pay and two month later becomes an aide to George Washington, is wounded at the battle of Brandywine, and continues fighting in the Revolutionary War for two years.
From left, John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and the Treaty of Paris
Having made a number of friends in America, back in France, La Fayette settles at the Hôtel de La Fayette, rue de Bourbon, which becomes the headquarters of Americans in Paris. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and his wife Sarah, and John and Abigail Adams, became frequent guests, visiting once a week. John Jay, who had served for one year as President of the Continental Congress until 1779 just before taking an assignment to Spain, in 1782, is sent to Paris along with Franklin and Adams. As ministers plenipotentiary, the three men were to negotiate to end the American Revolutionary War. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris is signed, which formally brought peace between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the United States of America. When Thomas Jefferson replaced John Jay in Paris, he worked with La Fayette to facilitate trade agreements between the two countries.
In 1788, La Fayette is appointed to the Assembly of Notables that was to advise Louis XVI on the financial crisis which had been partially initiated by the cost of the intervention in the American Revolution. La Fayette protests against proposals to raise taxes, and recommends calling for a meeting of the Estates General, which will bring together the three French social classes: the nobility, the clergy and the commoners.
Just as George Washington becomes the first United States President under the Constitution, and takes the oath of office on April 30, 1789, in France, the Estates General are getting ready to meet. They first meet at the beginning of May 1789, with the Third Estate (Tiers Etat) having been awarded double representation. Voting however will be by Estate, and not by head. The Third Estate refuses and starts meeting separately. On 17 June, they declare themselves as the National Assembly; gradually members of the clergy and the nobility - among which La Fayette - join them. Work then starts on a constitution and a declaration of the rights of man, and on 11 July, La Fayette presents his own draft of the Declaration. The draft borrows heavily from the American Declaration of Independence. It is not retained.
On 15 July, following the storming of the Bastille, La Fayette is appointed Commander in Chief of the National Guard of France and orders the Bastille demolition.
Model of the Bastille
Symbolically, La Fayette sends to George Washington the key to the west portal of the Bastille on March 17, 1790, and writes: Give me leave, my dear General to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I had ordered its demolition,- with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide - de - Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch. The key is still on display at Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.
In letters to friends, Thomas Jefferson, then Minister to France, has provided his analysis of the events that led to the French Revolution. In a January 8, 1789 letter addressed to a Dr. Price, he writes: The court was well disposed towards the people, not from principles of justice or love to them; but they want money. No more can be had from the people. They are squeezed to the last drop. The clergy and nobles, by their privileges and influence, have kept their property in a great measure untaxed hitherto. They then remain to be squeezed, and no agent is powerful enough for this but the people. The court therefore must ally itself with the people.
Marquis de La Fayette
On May 10, 1789, Jefferson shares the following concern with George Washington: I am in great pain for the Marquis de La Fayette. His principles, you know, are clearly with the people; but having been elected for the Noblesse of Auvergne, they have laid him under express instructions, to vote for the decisions by orders, and not persons… I have not hesitated to press on him to burn his instructions, and follow his conscience as the only sure clue, which will eternally guide a man clear of all doubts and inconsistencies. If he cannot effect a conciliatory plan, he will surely take his stand manfully at once, with the Tiers Etat.
To John Jay - who preceded him as Minister to France and as American Secretary of Foreign Affairs - Jefferson writes in June: This day ([June] the 25th) forty-eight of the Nobles have joined the Tiers. Among these, is the Duke d’Orleans. The Marquis de La Fayette could not be of the number, being restrained by his instructions. He is writing to his constituents, to change his instructions or to accept his resignation.
On July 11, the future American President writes to the author of Common Sense and The Rights of man, Thomas Paine: The National Assembly then (for this is the name they take), having shown through every stage of these transactions a coolness, wisdom, and resolution to set fire to the four corners of the kingdom and to perish with it themselves, rather than to relinquish an iota from their plan of a total change of government, are now in complete and undisputed possession of the sovereignty. The executive and aristocracy are at their feet; the mass of the nation, the mass of the clergy, and the army are with them; they have prostrated the old government, and are now beginning to build one from the foundation. A committee, charged with the arrangement of their business, gave in, two days ago, the following order of proceedings.
1. Every government should have for its only end, the preservation of the rights of man; whence it follows, that to recall constantly the government to the end proposed, the constitution should begin by a declaration of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man…
- Thomas Jefferson
His account for July 14 is again addressed to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay. Jefferson recalls the events of the preceding days, including Finance Minister Necker’s dismissal which, together with the gathering of foreign troops, led to the insurrection of the people of Paris. He describes the efforts of the Paris Bourgeoisie to arm itself for the preservation of order in the city… On the 14th, they sent one of their members (Monsieur de Corny, whom we knew in America) to the Hotel des Invalides, to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, or he found there, a great mob. The Governor of the Invalides came out, and represented the impossibility of his delivering arms… Monsieur de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launai, Governor of the Bastille. They found a great collection of people already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet. The deputation prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor, and in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed four people of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired; the people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of the fortification, defended by one hundred men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges, and had never been taken. How they got in, has, as yet, been impossible to discover. Those who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories, as to destroy the credit of them all. They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners, and such of ther garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the Greve (the place of public execution), cut off their heads, and sent them through the city in triumph to the Palais Royal…
Jefferson later describes the reaction of the aristocracy and of the King who the next day went about eleven o’clock, accompanied only by his brothers, to the States General, and there read to them a speech, in which he asked for their interposition to re-establish order… He returned to the chateau a foot, accompanied by the States. They sent off a deputation, the Marquis de La Fayette at their head, to quiet Paris. He had the same morning, been named Commandant-in-Chief of the Milice Bourgeoise…
The National Assembly becomes the National Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a constitution. On August 4, 1789 the new Assembly officially abolishes feudalism, and in the course of a few hours, in a meeting that runs into the early morning hours, members of the nobility and the clergy surrender many of their special privileges. The Viscount de Noailles, who has served under La Fayette in the American Revolutionary War is the first to speak.
Work continued throughout the month of August on the drafting of the proposed declaration of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man… A number of drafts, including La Fayette’s, were considered and reviewed. Finally, on 26 August 1789, that the Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.