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The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen
National Assembly of France

In the summer of 1789 the French Revolution became more popular and more violent, with the storming of the Bastille in July and the Great Fear in the countryside in July and August. The representatives of the National Assembly hastened to establish a new order in France, including the drafting of a constitution and the abolition of feudalism. One of the first efforts at consolidating the gains of the summer of 1789 was the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This declaration is one of the fundamental statements of human rights in the Western Hemisphere. Its early draft had been the work of the Marquise de Lafayette (1757-1834), a veteran of the American Revolution, admirer of George Washington (Lafayette named a son after the first American president), liberal noble, and commander of the newly formed National Guard. Lafayette was surely affected by his American connections and used the American model (Thomas Jefferson read and commented on Lafayette's early drafts.) Based on the natural law philosophy of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, in its preamble and seventeen articles, enumerates those natural rights (liberty, property, security) that all people have, locates sovereignty in the nation, and outlines how those rights and sovereignty are to be expressed. As one reads this document, one should bear in mind the historiographic debate on the origins of the French Revolution. The older, Marxist interpretation maintains that the Revolution resulted from class conflict between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, exacerbated by capitalist changes in the economy of France and the economic difficulties facing the laboring classes. The newer, revisionist interpretation argues that the roots of the Revolution are to be found in the transformation (indeed creation) of a new political culture that resulted from the Enlightenment. Despite this debate, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was, and remains, a profound statement on human rights.

Questions to Consider
  • How is the philosophy of natural law manifested in the Declaration?

  • How does the Declaration define liberty, sovereignty, and law?

  • Which of the seventeen articles relate to personal liberty and freedom? How do these articles protect the individual from the loss of his or her personal liberty and political rights?

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected; and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

Article 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. 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.

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its formation. 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.

7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.

8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.

9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law.

10. 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.

11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the 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.

12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.

13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.

14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.

15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.

16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.

17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.


Source: James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History (Boston: Ginn, 1904), 2:409-411.