FOUNDATION: Unit II. What Are Human Rights and Where Do They Come From? 9 of 15

The French Revolution and
the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen


Storming of the Bastille

The French Revolution

A series of events similar to the American Revolution resulted in the codification of moral rights into the laws of France. The French Revolution broke out in 1789 as a result of the rise of Enlightenment ideals and because of the peoples’ resentment of:

  • royal absolutism,
  • the system of noble privilege enjoyed by the upper class, and
  • an unfair and unequal system of taxation.

Louis XVI of France

Like the American colonists, the French people felt their rulers were treating them unfairly. Certain rights and freedoms were only enjoyed by the nobility and aristocracy. When King Louis XVI went too far in his unfair treatment of his subjects, citizens of Paris moved into open rebellion and began executing members of the nobility. The National Assembly (the French Legislature) abolished the system of noble privilege and moved toward a constitutional monarchy (a representative form of monarchy).

Maximilien Robespierre

Unfortunately, one of the leaders of the French Revolution who rose to power briefly became a despot in his own right. Maximilien Robespierre, a popular lawyer and member of the National Assembly, aligned with radical revolutionaries. He became so powerful he in effect led France from 1793 to 1794. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Robespierre was ruthless in his efforts to bring about an “ideal” society, creating a state religion, revoking rights to property and legal defense, and executing nobles and revolutionaries alike as “enemies of the Revolution”. In defending the Revolution, he created a government as tyrannical as the monarchy. Robespierre’s leadership, and the Reign of Terror he created, ended in 1794, when he was arrested, tried, and guillotined.

The Rights of Man and the Citizen

By Alonzo Chappel
Marquis de Lafayette

Looking to the US Declaration of Independence as a model, the National Assembly drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789, even though the revolution was far from over.

The French Declaration, drafted by Marquis de Lafayette, was intended as part of a transition from absolute monarchical rule to a form of constitutional or representative government. Like the American Declaration, the French Declaration also appealed to Enlightenment principles such as popular sovereignty, equal rights, and equal opportunity.

The French Declaration also encompassed many of the insights of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his important book, The Social Contract, which argues that the law should be an expression of the “general will” that is intended to promote equality of rights and to forbid “only actions harmful to the society”. Rousseau lived during the time of the Enlightenment, but his arguments did not rely on rationality and peaceful persuasion. His mystical general will could lead to a tyranny of the majority.

The French Declaration was not itself considered to be law, but its principles nevertheless formed the basis of subsequent French constitutional law, which emphasizes Liberal principles such as the presumption of innocence, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to property.

What are some of the differences between the leaders of the American Revolution and the leaders of the French Revolution? Why did the US have a peaceful transition, when France didn’t?

Both Robespierre and Lafayette were influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Why did they respond so differently?

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Social Contract