Known to the French as Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen de 1789, the Declaration was a small, sometimes violent step of the French Revolution, but a giant step in the legal history of mankind.

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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, unalienable, 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.

1789 Declaration of the Rights of ManTherefore 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:

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

II. 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.

III. 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.

IV. 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.

V. 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.

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

VII. 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.

VIII. 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.

IX. 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.

X. 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.

XI. 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.

XII. 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.

XIII. 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.

XIV. 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.

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

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

XVII. 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.

 


Passed by the National Assembly of France on August 26, 1789, the French were greatly impressed with the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 which shouted civil rights and equality.

But the French conceived of their civil rights document in the most violent and bloody of upheavals.

Circa 1789, the King Louis XVI had not yet been completely subdued and was actively but secretely agitating for an attack by neighbouring nations; an attack which would return to him absolute power. Already, his treasury was empty and to make matters worse, the financial lifeline of taxation upon the peasants (the church and the nobles were exempt) was jeopardized.

When word leaked of the king's treasonous machinations against their hard-fought National Assembly, Parisiens frantically looked for weapons to arm themselves, fearing foreign armies on the doorsteps of France.

One young lawyer, Camillle Desmoulins gave a spontaneous speech calling the citizens to take up arms and defend themselves. Excited, the mob marauded and began to pin blue and red ribbons on their clothing. They were mustered by the well-known general Marquis de Lafayette, who called his new army the National Guard. They stormed the old prison, la Bastille and cut off the head of the chief jailor, and stuck it to a pike.

When Louis XVI heard of this, he was horrified. To that moment, he had felt reasonably secure in his palace at Versailles. He promptly ordered any foreign regiments to leave France but it was too late; as word of the Bastille spread, open revolution broke out throughout France. The holdings of the nobles were ransacked and many of their family members wwere murdered. Records of debts owed to the nobles by the peasants were hunted down and burned. Many of the nobles began to leave the country.

Be careful what you ask for - the National Assembly now had an open and violent revoution to contain.

Led by Maximilien Robespierre, Emmanuel Sieyès and Georges Danton, amongst many others, and necessity being the eternal mother of invention, the National Assembly of France opted to simply end feudalism in France - to make everyone equal before the law. One by one, the members of the National Assembly, including some nobles and members of the clergy, probably motivated by stories that were coming in from their constituencies, rose to concede that their exemption from taxation had to go as did all of their former privileges.

It was Lafayette who proposed the concept of a Declaration and subsequently took on the role of drafter. His first draft was read aloud to the Assembly on July 11, 1789.

In this, he did not hesitate to call upon his good friend in Paris, the United States Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, well practiced at this type of civil right document having helped author the US Declaration of Independence. Indeed, in the final hours of debate, Jefferson's home saw visitors come and go as differences of opinion as to the final content of the Declration were hammered out with the help of his suggestions and advice.

Sièyes also had a tremedous influence on the Declaration as did the first drafts of the just-proposed American Bill of Rights. But Sièyes, in particular, though, insisted on a made-in-France document, especially since the Americans were able to start from scratch. The French had to roughly dismantle an entrenched nobility and class structure.

The Assembly debated the proposed articles for weeks and rejected many proposals including some avant garde provisions guaranteeing employment and direct relief of the poor. By the time August 26th rolled along, the government needed to move its parliament on to other matters. It called for a vote on the 17 articles debated so far and all were unanimously approved.

The Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen was law. Much like the Twelve Tables of 450 BC had been to young Romans, the Déclaration became necessary reading for all young French school children:

The full version is some 17 articles long and still has force of law in France to the extent that it has not been amended by subsequent constitutional statutes.

Ironically, in 1793 to 1794, as the French turned against themselves in an oppressive government sponsored campaign aptly called the terror (la Terreur), the substance of the Déclaration was routinely ignored as thousands were summarily executed by kangaroo courts.

Even the original Declaration was tweaked in 1793 and again in 1795 but the essentials remained.

So powerful was such a law and such a threat to monarchy and the then-powerful church, that when it was translated by Spanish Antonio Nariño in 1794, the Inquisition Courts of the King of Spain, Charles IV, gave him a 10-year jail sentence.

But there was no denying the attraction of the Déclaration to the common man. As Adrien Duport had said during debate in the French Assembly, the intent had been:

"... a declaration of rights for all men, all times and all countries."

Circa 2009, rare is the modern democracy without such a statement of basic civil rights.

REFERENCES:

 The Law Museum  Duhaime's Timetable of World Legal History  The Law's Hall of Fame