Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

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The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (French: La Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen) is one of the fundamental documents of the French Revolution. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, it promulgates a set of individual rights and collective rights which are defined as universal: they are supposed to be valid in all times and places, pertaining to human nature itself. The last article of the Declaration was adopted August 26, 1789,[1] by the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée nationale constituante) as the first step toward writing a constitution. Along with the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it is considered to be a major precursor to international human rights instruments.

While it set forth fundamental rights for all men without exception, the Declaration of the Rights of Man did not make any statement about the status of women, nor did it explicitly address slavery. Also, although the declaration avowed that it was created "under the auspices of the Supreme Being," it holds back from the affirmation of its US counterpart, which proclaims that human rights are endowed by God, rather than the state.

The principles set forth in the declaration are of constitutional value in present-day French law and may be used to oppose legislation or other government activities.

Basic character

First Article – Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common utility.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was intended as part of a transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Among its drafters was the Marquis de Lafayette. Many of the principles laid down in the declaration directly oppose the institutions and usages of the ancien régime of pre-revolutionary France. France soon became a republic, but this document remained fundamental.

The rights set forth in the declaration come from the philosophical and political principles of the Age of Enlightenment, such as individualism, the social contract as theorized by Thomas Hobbes of England and adopted to the French by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by the baron de Montesquieu. As can be seen by comparing the texts, the French declaration is heavily influenced by the concept of human rights contained in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) of which the delegates were fully aware.[2] Moreover, the declaration was checked by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, then the U.S. ambassador in Paris, before its acceptance. Lafayette and some other main actors of the French Revolution had already fought in the U.S. War of Independence.

A major difference in the two documents is that the French declaration makes no mention of God as the source of human rights, while the U.S. declaration affirms that human rights are derived from the "Creator" and that the role of the government is to protect these God-given rights.

Effects of the declaration

This statement of principles contained in the declaration provided the kernel of a much more radical re-ordering of society than had yet taken place.

(From Article VI) – All the citizens, being equal in [the eyes of the law], are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.

This commitment to equality strikingly contrasts with the pre-revolutionary division of French society in three estates—the clergy, the aristocracy, and the common people (known as the Third Estate)—where the first two estates had special rights. Specifically, it contradicts the idea of people being born into noble or other special class, and enjoying (or being deprived of) certain rights for this reason.

The declaration provides that citizens are to be guaranteed the rights of "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." It argues that the need for law derives from the fact that "...the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights." Thus, the declaration sees law as an "expression of the general will," intended to promote an equality of rights and to forbid "only actions harmful to the society."

A mere six weeks after the storming of the Bastille and barely three weeks after the abolition of feudalism, the declaration put forward a doctrine of popular sovereignty and equal opportunity:

(From Article III) – The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it

This contrasts with the pre-revolutionary situation in France, where the political doctrine of the monarchy found the source of law in the divine right of kings.

The declaration also put forward several provisions similar to those in the United States Constitution (1787) and the United States Bill of Rights (1789). Like the U.S. Constitution, it discusses the need to provide for the common defense and states some broad principles of taxation which overturned the tax standards of the pre-revolutionary era, in which the Church and the nobility were exempted from most taxes. It also specifies a public right to an accounting from public agents as to how they have discharged the public trust.

The declaration also prohibits ex post facto application of criminal law and proclaims the presumption of innocence, prohibiting undue duress to the suspect. In pre-revolutionary France, while technically one was considered guilty only after having been sentenced by the appropriate authorities, the royal courts made ample use of torture to extract confessions and gave few rights to the defense. In most cases, it was very likely that one would be convicted and sentenced, once suspected.

The declaration also provides for freedom of speech and of the press, but a relatively weak guarantee of freedom of religion—"provided that [...the] manifestation [of religious opinions] does not trouble the public order established by the law." It asserts the rights of property, while reserving a public right of eminent domain:

"(From Article XVII) - Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of private usage, if it is not when the public necessity, legally noted, evidently requires it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity [that is, compensation].

The declaration is largely addressed to the rights of individuals, not addressing freedom of assembly, freedom of association, or the right to strike. However, these principles did eventually acquire a constitutional value, from the provisions of the Constitution of the French Fourth Republic, under which, unlike at the time of the Revolution, these were specifically understood to extend to women and blacks.

Those left out of the Declaration

The declaration, as originally understood, recognized most rights as only belonging to males and did not give rights to women or abolish slavery. It has also been criticized for its weakness—compared to the U.S. Bill of Rights—with regard to freedom of religion and association.

Sometime after The March on Versailles on October 5, 1789, the women of France presented the Women's Petition to the National Assembly in which they proposed a decree giving women equality. The Declaration's failure to include women was also objected to by Olympe de Gouges in her 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. Women were finally given these rights with the adoption of the 1946 Constitution of the French Fourth Republic.

Similarly, despite the lack of explicit mention of slavery in the Declaration, the slave revolt on Saint-Domingue that became the Haitian Revolution took inspiration from its words, as discussed in C.L.R. James' history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.

On the other hand, the declaration's adversarial attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church as the Second Estate resulted in a permanent traditional of secularism, sometimes taking the extreme form of persecution both of the formerly established Church and religious minorities deemed by the state to conflict with "public order."

Effect today

According to the preamble of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic (adopted on October 4, 1958, and the current constitution as of 2005), the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Rights of Man have constitutional value. Many laws and regulations enacted by the state have been overturned because they did not comply with those principles as interpreted by the Constitutional Council of France or the Conseil d'État ("Council of State").

Many of the principles in the 1789 declaration have far-reaching implications nowadays:

  • Taxation legislation or practices that seem to make some unwarranted difference between citizens are struck down as unconstitutional.
  • Suggestions of positive discrimination on ethnic grounds are rejected because they infringe on the principle of equality, since they would establish categories of people that would, by birth, enjoy greater rights.
  • Laws deemed discriminatory toward religions have also been struck down, although France's record on this score remains a subject of international criticism.[3]

The declaration has also influenced and inspired rights-based liberal democracy throughout the world.

Text of the Declaration

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. 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:


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 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.

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 entrusted.

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.

Compare to other bills of rights

See also

  • Moral universalism
  • Politics of France
  • Natural law and natural rights
  • Universality (these rights are universal, i.e. valid in all times and places, or claim to be)


  1. Some sources say August 27 because the debate was not officially closed.
  2. The American Declaration was in part based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights developed by George Mason in June 1776, themselves based on the 1689 English Bill of Rights, published a full century before the French version. Few French were vividly aware of these precedents.
  3. Index of Anti-Cult Laws and Laïcité in France Center for Studies on New Religions, Torino, Italy Retrieved April 30, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Church, William Farr. The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution. Problems in European civilization. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, 1973. ISBN 978-0669820249
  • Collins, Irene. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen 1789 and 1793. Liverpool: Department of History, University of Liverpool, 1985. ISBN 978-0947608057
  • Dunn, Susan. Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999. ISBN 978-0571199006
  • Grayling, A. C. Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World. New York: Walker & Co, 2007. ISBN 978-0802716361
  • Jellinek, Georg. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens: A Contribution to Modern Constitutional History. Westport, Conn: Hyperion Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0883559345
  • Steiner, Henry and Alston, Philip. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, 2000. ISBN 978-0198298496



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