The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen) is a fundamental document of the French Revolution, defining the individual and collective rights of all the estates of the realm as universal. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, the rights of Man are universal: valid at all times and in every place, pertaining to human nature itself. Although it establishes fundamental rights for French citizens and all men without exception, it addresses neither the status of women nor slavery; despite that, it is a precursor document to international human rights instruments.
The 1788 Declaration defines a single set of individual and collective rights for all Estates of the realm. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, these rights are held to be universal and valid in all times and places. For example, "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. The Declaration also asserted the principles of popular sovereignty, in contrast to the divine right of kings that characterized the French monarchy, and social equality among citizens, "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," eliminating the special rights of the nobility and clergy.
While it set forth fundamental rights, not only for French citizens but for "all men without exception," it did not make any statement about the status of women, nor did it explicitly address slavery (which was soon outlawed under the French First Republic). The Declaration is considered to be a precursor to modern international human rights instruments.
The concepts in the declaration come from the philosophical and political principles of the Age of Enlightenment, such as individualism, the social contract as theorized by the English philosopher John Locke and developed by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the separation of powers espoused by the Baron de Montesquieu. As can be seen in the texts, the French declaration is heavily influenced by the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, and by Enlightenment principles of human rights contained in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776), of which the delegates were fully aware. It might also be noted that Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was at the time in France as a U.S. diplomat, and was in correspondence with members of the French National Constituent Assembly.
"(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.
(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."
Again, this strikingly contrasts with the pre-revolutionary division of French society in three estates (the clergy, the aristocracy, and the rest of the populace, known as the Third Estate), where the first two estates had special rights. Specifically, it contradicts the idea of people being born into a nobility or other special class of the population, and enjoying (or being deprived of) special rights for this reason.
All citizens are to be guaranteed the rights of "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression". The Declaration 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 this equality of rights and to forbid "only actions harmful to the society".
Before the adoption of the declaration those of the laboring class which had made up the Third Estate during the Old Regime had few rights, if any. Only the First and Second Estates enjoyed the luxuries of a just society. The adoption of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen gave the lower class a new identity. They were no longer a group that could be trampled on by the upper classes; they had their individual rights and the ability to be active French citizens. Now the former Third Estate was welcome to fair judicial hearings and appropriate due process.
During the Old Regime the laboring class was unfairly represented because their representatives were concerned only with personal agendas and not the desires of those they were meant to represent. Article XII of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen states “The guarantee of the rights of man and citizen requires a public force; this force then is instituted for the advantage of all and not for the personal benefit of those to whom it is entrusted.” This article guarantees the protection of the people’s rights and also guarantees that, unlike in the Old Regime, people in positions of power will not abuse their positions for personal gains. Such a promise shows notable improvement in the conditions for French citizens since the fall of the Old Regime.
The declaration then goes on to address another primary concern of the working class citizens, taxes. The Old Regime tax policy made it so that the Church and the nobility were excused from taxation. Only the Third Estate was required to pay a tax to the government. Often this tax was so steep that those who were forced to pay it could not even afford it. Article XIII of the declaration abolishes the idea of Old Regime taxation and introduces a new, more equal approach to taxes: “A general tax is indispensable for the maintenance of the public force and for the expenses of administration; it ought to be equally apportioned among all citizens according to their means.” This new tax policy greatly benefited the working class because not only did it split up taxation among all French citizens, it also assured the less fortunate that their taxes would not be too high. Instead they would be taxed according to their financial situation.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen offered working men basic liberties that they were previously denied, eliminated the threat of corrupt and self-serving positions of power at any level, and gave them their individual rights and no longer treated the lower class workers as a mob that could be oppressed and controlled.
The Declaration puts forward several provisions similar to those in the United States Constitution (1787) and the United States Bill of Rights (1789, and adopted after the Declaration). Like the U.S. Constitution, it discusses the need to provide for the common defense and states some broad principles of taxation, especially equality before taxation (a striking difference from the pre-revolutionary era, when 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 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, known as parlements, made ample use of torture to extract confessions, and gave few rights to the defense — therefore, it would have been very likely that one would have been convicted and sentenced, if one had been suspected.
It provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and a slightly weaker guarantee of freedom of religion — "provided that [...the] manifestation [...of their 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 individualistic, not addressing freedom of assembly or liberty of association. These principles did acquire a constitutional value, from the provisions of the Constitution of the French Fourth Republic, under which, unlike at the time of the Revolution, they were understood to extend to women and various ethnic groups.
Sometime after The March on Versailles on 5 October 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 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.
Many of the principles in the 1789 declaration have far-reaching implications nowadays:
The declaration has also influenced and inspired rights-based liberal democracy throughout the world. It was translated as soon as 1793-94 by Colombian Antonio Nariño, who published it despite the Inquisition and was imprisoned ten years for it. In 2003, the document was listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.