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French Revolution
French Revolution

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2.5 Declaration of the Rights of Man

On 26 August 1789, the Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as the preamble to a constitution drawn up in 1791. (The Declaration also prefaced the later constitutions of 1793 and 1795.)

Click to view Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Exercise 3

Now read this document (above). How far do you see in it the influence of the Enlightenment? What was revolutionary about it?


The principles contained in the Declaration and described there as ‘simple and incontrovertible’ were familiar to the deputies from the Encyclopédie (and also from the American Revolution). They derived from the Enlightenment and were invoked in the petitions (cahiers de doléances), the lists of grievances which the delegates had drawn up for the meeting of the Estates-General. What made them revolutionary was that for the first time in European history they were formally incorporated and proclaimed in a document of state, which declared that the ‘purpose of all political institutions’ was to guarantee the citizens’ ‘natural rights’ (civil rights or human rights, as we call them now). These rights were declared to be inalienable: that is, citizens could not divest themselves of them (for example, by selling them) or be deprived of them by subsequent legislation. They were to be entrenched in the constitution.

Article 1 reaffirmed the principle of equality: ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in … rights; social distinctions can only be based on public utility’ (as opposed to noble birth or status). The rights of man included freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, freedom of opinion and speech, the right to a voice in the levying of taxes, the right to own property, equality before the law, and (as we have seen) equality of opportunity in access to government posts.

There was one crucial limitation: the rights of man did not apply to women. The (male) revolutionaries were largely hostile to the cause of women's suffrage, though women took part in some of the events of the Revolution and their cause was championed by such distinguished writers as Condorcet (1743–94), one of the younger philosophes of the Enlightenment. In 1793 women were to be expressly excluded from the rights of citizens. The feminist Olympe de Gouges, author of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), was to fall victim to the Terror in 1793.

Also revolutionary in the European context was the assertion in the Declaration that sovereignty resided with the nation, not with the king (a claim made in the Encyclopédie, as we have seen, and vindicated in the American Revolution). In October 1789, absolute monarchy was formally abolished and replaced by constitutional monarchy. The Assembly decreed that Louis XVI was ‘by the grace of God and the constitutional law of the State, King of the French’ (emphasis added).

Click to view The Decree on the abolition of nobility.

Exercise 4

Now read the decree on the abolition of nobility (above), June 1790 . Do you notice any similarity with What is the Third Estate? by Sieyès?


The decree implements precisely what Sieyès and his fellow deputies of the Third Estate demanded: the outright abolition of the nobility as a separate social order. Henceforth everyone is simply a ‘French citizen’ without distinction of titles or armorial insignia. In tone the decree echoes Sieyes's uncompromising egalitarian hostility towards noble privilege.