Chapter 19: Declaration of the Rights of Man

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Meaning and significance of Declaration — Modelled on Declaration of Independence — Its defects — Its influence — “Preamble to the Constitution” — Defiance of feudalism

A few days after the taking of the Bastille the Constitution Committee of the National Assembly met to discuss the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” The idea of issuing such a declaration, suggested by the famous Declaration of Independence of the United States, was perfectly right. Since a revolution was in course of accomplishment, a complete change in the relations between the various ranks of society would result from it, it was well to state its general principles before this change was expressed in the form of a Constitution. By this means the mass of the people would be shown how the revolutionary minorities conceived the revolution, and for what new principles they were calling the people to struggle.

It would not be fine phrases merely; it would be a brief summary of the future that it was proposed to conquer; and under the solemn form of a declaration of rights, made by an people, this summary would be invested with the significance of a national oath. Proclaimed in a few words, the principles that they were going to put into practice would kindle the people's courage. It is always ideas that govern the world, and great ideas presented in a virile form have ways taken hold of the minds of men. In fact the young North American republicans, at the time when they were intending to conquer their independence, had issued just such declarations, and ever since, the Declaration of Independence of the United States had become the charter, one might almost say the Decalogue, of the young North American nation.[86]

Consequently, as soon as the Assembly nominated (on July 9) a committee for the preparatory work of the Constitution, it was found necessary to draw up a Declaration of the Rights, of Man, and the work was begun after July 14. The committee took for their model the Declaration of Independence of the United States, which had already become famous, since 1776, as a statement of democratic belief.[87] Unfortunately the defects in it were also copied; that is to say, like the American Constitutionalists assembled in the Congress of Philadelphia, the National Assembly kept out of its declaration all allusions to the economic relations between citizens; it confined itself to affirming the equality of all before the law, the right of the nation to give itself whatever government it wished, and the constitutional liberties of the individual. As to property, the French Declaration took care to affirm its “inviolable and sacred” character and it added that “nobody could be deprived his property if it were not that public necessity, legally established, clearly exacted it, and under the condition of a just and previous indemnity.” This was to repudiate the right of the peasants to the land and to the abolition of the exactions of feudal origin.

The middle classes put forth in this way their liberal programme of equality before the law in judicial matters and of government controlled by the nation and existing only by its will. And, as in all minimum programmes, this signified implicitly that the nation must not go further; it must not touch upon the rights of property established by feudalism and despotic royalty.

It is probable that during the discussions raised by the drawing-up of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, some ideas of a social and equalising character were brought forward. But they must have been set aside. In any case we find no trace of them in the Declaration of 1789.[88] Sieyés' proposal that “if men are not equal in means, that is in riches, intellect, and strength, &c., it does not follow that they may not be equal in rights.”[89] — even this idea, so modest in its claim, is not to be found in the Declaration of the Assembly. Instead of the foregoing words of Sieyés, the first article of the Declaration was conceived in these terms: “Men are born and live free and equal under the laws. Social distinctions may be established only on grounds of common utility”; which allows that social distinctions might be established by law in the interest of the community, and, by means of that fiction, opens the door to all inequalities.

Altogether, when reading to-day the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” we are tempted to ask if this declaration had really the influence over the minds of the period which historians attribute to it. It is evident that Article 1, which affirms the equality of rights for all men; Article 6, which says that the law should be “the same for all,” and that “all the citizens have a right to co-operate, either personally or through their representatives, in its formation”; Article 10, by virtue of which “no one should be molested for his opinions, provided that their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law”; and finally, Article 2 which declares that the public force was “instituted for the advantage of all — not for the special use of those to whom it is entrusted “— these affirmations, made in the midst of society wherein feudal subjection still existed, and while the Royal family still considered itself the owner of France, worked a complete revolution in the minds of men.

But it is also certain that the Declaration of 1789 would have never had the influence it exercised later on in the course of the nineteenth century if the Revolution had stopped short a the limits of this profession of middle-class liberalism. Luckily the Revolution went much further. And when, two years later, in September 1791, the National Assembly drew up the Constitution, it added to the Declaration of the Rights of Man a “Preamble to the Constitution,” which contained already these words: “The National Assembly . . . abolishes irrevocably the institutions that are hurtful to liberty and the equality of rights.” And further, “There no longer exists either nobility, or peerage, or hereditary distinctions, or distinctions of orders, or feudal system, or patrimonial courts of justice, nor are there any titles, denominations and prerogatives which were derived from them, nor any order of chivalry, nor any such corporations which required proofs of nobility for entering them, or decorations which supposed distinctions of birth, nor any other superiority except that of the public functionaries in the exercise of their functions. There are no longer any guilds, nor corporations of professions, arts and crafts [the middle-class ideal of the State Omnipotent appears in these two paragraphs]. The law does not recognise any longer either religious vows or any other pledge which be contrary to natural laws and to the Constitution.”

When we think that this defiance was flung to a still plunged in the gloom of all-powerful royalty and subjection, we understand why the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, often confounded with the Preamble of the Constitution which followed it, inspired the people during the wars of the Republic and became later on the watchword of progress for every nation in Europe during the nineteenth century. But it must not be forgotten that it was not the Assembly, nor even the middle classes of 1789 who expressed their desires in this, Preamble. It was the popular revolution which was forcing them bit by bit to recognise the rights of the people and to break with feudalism — at the cost of what sacrifices we shall see presently.