| Questions to Consider
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
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
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
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
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
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.
James Harvey Robinson, ed.,
Readings in European
(Boston: Ginn, 1904), 2:409-411.