Source Collection: The Enlightenment and Human Rights

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When the French revolutionaries drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in August 1789, they aimed to topple the institutions surrounding hereditary monarchy and establish new ones based on the principles of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement gathering steam in the eighteenth century. The goal of the Enlightenment's proponents was to apply the methods learned from the scientific revolution to the problems of society. Further, its advocates committed themselves to "reason" and "liberty." Knowledge, its followers believed, could only come from the careful study of actual conditions and the application of an individual's reason, not from religious inspiration or traditional beliefs. Liberty meant freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom from unreasonable government (torture, censorship, and so on). Enlightenment writers, such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, influenced ordinary readers, politicians, and even heads of state all over the Western world. Kings and queens consulted them, government ministers joined their cause, and in the British North American colonies, American revolutionaries put some of their ideas into practice in the Declaration of Independence and the new Constitution of the United States.

This source collection includes an informational essay and 42 primary sources.


If the guillotine is the most striking negative image of the French Revolution, then the most positive is surely the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, one of the founding documents in the human rights tradition.

The lasting importance of the Declaration of Rights is immediately evident: just compare the first article from August 1789 with the first article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations after World War II, on 10 December 1948. They are very similar, though the UN document refers to "human beings" in place of "men." (Did "men" mean women too in 1789? As we shall see, this was far from clear.)

When the French revolutionaries drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in August 1789, they aimed to topple the institutions surrounding hereditary monarchy and establish new ones based on the principles of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement gathering steam in the eighteenth century. The goal of the Enlightenment's proponents was to apply the methods learned from the scientific revolution to the problems of society. Further, its advocates committed themselves to "reason" and "liberty." Knowledge, its followers believed, could only come from the careful study of actual conditions and the application of an individual's reason, not from religious inspiration or traditional beliefs. Liberty meant freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom from unreasonable government (torture, censorship, and so on). Enlightenment writers, such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, influenced ordinary readers, politicians, and even heads of state all over the Western world. Kings and queens consulted them, government ministers joined their cause, and in the British North American colonies, American revolutionaries put some of their ideas into practice in the Declaration of Independence and the new Constitution of the United States.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 brought together two streams of thought: one springing from the Anglo-American tradition of legal and constitutional guarantees of individual liberties, the other from the Enlightenment's belief that reason should guide all human affairs. Enlightenment writers praised the legal and constitutional guarantees established by the English and the Americans, but they wanted to see them applied everywhere. The French revolutionaries therefore wrote a Declaration of Rights that they hoped would serve as a model in every corner of the world. Reason rather than tradition would be its justification. As a result, "France" or "French" never appears in the articles of the declaration itself, only in its preamble.

The Anglo-American tradition of legal guarantees of rights dates back to the Magna Carta, or "Great Charter," of 1215. In it King John of England guaranteed certain liberties to the free men of his kingdom. In 1628 the English Parliament drew up a Petition of Right restating the "rights and liberties of the subjects." Charles I agreed to it, and the rights were further extended in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. John Locke's writings on the nature of government in the late 1600s gave a more universal and theoretical caste to the idea of the rights of freeborn Englishmen, suggesting that such rights belonged not just to the English, but to all property-owning adult males.

Until Locke, the English tradition of rights had been just that, English. The various English parliamentary documents on rights had been specifically limited to freeborn Englishmen. They made no larger claims. The Enlightenment helped broaden the claims, and its effects can be seen in the American offshoots of the English parliamentary tradition of rights. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence of 1776 claimed that "inalienable" rights were the foundation of all government, and he justified American resistance to English rule in these terms. Jefferson's "declaration" is especially important because it argued that rights had only to be "declared" to be effective. The same belief in the self-evidence of rights can be seen in George Mason's draft of the Bill of Rights for Virginia's state constitution. The similarities to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen are not hard to find, for both the Virginia Bill of Rights and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence had an immediate influence on the French declaration.

Enlightenment writers had paved the way for the reception of these ideas on the European continent and helped transform English rights into more universally applicable ones. They complained that in France these rights were being violated by despotic, absurd, superstitious, and fanatical institutions. Voltaire, in particular, held out English religious toleration as a model. In their criticism, Montesquieu and Rousseau moved beyond existing institutions, proposing new principles of government based on reason and comparative study.

Beginning in the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and intensifying thereafter, writers both within and outside France began strongly decrying the despotism of the French monarchy. In 1721, Montesquieu, a nobleman and judge, published an anonymous novel, The Persian Letters, in which he used fictional letters between visiting Persians to lampoon French customs, particularly those of the recently deceased Louis XIV. Voltaire held French practices up against those in England, China, and elsewhere and found cause to ridicule French "fanaticism" in religion.

These and other criticisms paved the way for a more theoretical consideration of government in general. One of the most influential works of this nature was Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws (1748), which developed a comparative political analysis of the conditions most favorable to liberty. The American Founding Fathers studied this work closely. Rousseau, in his Social Contract of 1762, took the ideas of Montesquieu and also Locke a step further; he argued that all government rested on a social contract (not on divine right, not the Bible, not tradition of any kind) in which "the assembled people" (democracy) determined everything. For him, "the person of the meanest citizen is as sacred and inviolable as that of the first magistrate"; in other words, Rousseau insisted on complete equality (between men).

Although the most democratic of the Enlightenment writers, Rousseau said relatively little about rights. In fact, one of the most enduring criticisms of his work is that he failed to guarantee individual rights under the social contract. The community apparently took precedence over the individual in Rousseau's view. Other Enlightenment writers stepped into this gap. Voltaire made his reputation defending those who had been persecuted for their religious opinions. As yet, however, there was more talk about rights in general than about specific rights. Writers often referred to rights as if everyone knew what they meant, but in fact many ambiguities remained: Should Protestants or Jews have the same rights as Catholics in France? Should poor men have the same rights as property owners? Should women enjoy the same rights as men?

Despite the strong efforts of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church to ban the works of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, their influence soon spread, even to the highest echelons of the state that originally opposed them. Other monarchs in Europe eagerly sought the friendship and advice of Enlightenment writers, and it was only a matter of time before leading French bureaucrats also took up their ideas. Among the most striking cases was that of Turgot, one of the chief ministers of Louis XVI. His memorandum to the King of 1775 shows that talk of rights had permeated the highest levels of government.

Before the Revolution broke out in 1789, most discussion of rights in France focused on the plight of religious minorities. After years of criticism and discussion, the French crown granted certain civil rights to Protestants in 1787, but not political ones. Once civil rights had been granted to Protestants, it was perhaps inevitable that the question of Jewish rights would be raised. But the French monarchy did not offer any reforms in the status of Jews.

A particularly contentious issue in the 1780s was that of slavery. A powerful current of antislavery opinion was welling up in England, France, and the new United States, abetted in part by the influential anti-slavery tracts of a French Catholic clergyman, Abbé Raynal. Raynal denounced slavery along with most European commerce with the colonies. His work had great impact in the British North American colonies as well as in Europe.

Writers, philosophers, and clerics had long debated the question of a woman's role in society, but this discussion did little to inspire government action before 1789, or to prompt the formation of clubs or societies concerned with improving the status of women. Enlightenment writers interested in the subject focused on the education of women, rather than on their civil or political rights. Most people in France, men and women alike, believed that a woman's place was in the home, not in the public sphere. This widely held view helps explain the absence of organized women's groups in France before the outbreak of the Revolution. Once the King convoked the Estates-General in 1789, however, women took the opportunity to submit their own petitions, thereby helping place their own concerns on the revolutionary agenda.

As the notion of rights spread, it became increasingly radical. When King Louis XVI called the Estates-General to meet in 1789, he inadvertently released a torrent of complaints about the future of the country in the form of pamphlets. One of the most influential of these pamphlets was written by a clergyman, Abbé Sieyès. In "What Is the Third Estate?", he offered a fundamentally new vision of French society in which position would be determined by usefulness, not birth. In short, he attacked the concept of a hereditary nobility. Sieyès's pamphlet helped clear the way for the views that would be expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

Before the revolutionaries could establish the Declaration of Rights as the fount of governing authority, however, they had to tear down the ancient edifice. They did not immediately abolish monarchy itself; instead they tried to put it on a different foundation of constitutionalism. But they did abolish the old system of special privileges. In one long session (throughout the night of 4 August 1789), the deputies to the new National Assembly voluntarily renounced the privileges of their towns, provinces, and various social groups. Nobles, clergy, judges, and even ordinary taxpayers lost whatever special standing they had gained over the centuries. From now on, everyone was to be identical before the law. This concept of equality became one of the cardinal principles of the new declaration, passed only three weeks later.

The declaration gave birth to the famous revolutionary triad: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In all images of the time, these principles were represented by female figures—but that did not mean women were about to gain equal access to the rights the triad embodied. The declaration said nothing about women, or about religious minorities, or men who did not own property, or slaves. Not surprisingly, the moment the declaration passed, the status of all these groups became the subject of heated debate.

The first issue taken up was the question of property qualifications for full citizenship. The National Assembly instituted property qualifications only to rescind them in 1792 and reinstitute them after 1795. When the question of religious minorities came up, the assembly readily agreed to grant full rights to Protestants but hesitated to do so for Jews. Jews petitioned for full rights and finally gained them on 27 September 1791.

The question of slavery was more complicated still, if only because a large proportion of French commerce depended on the colonies, whose agrarian economy rested heavily on that institution. In the French colonies, mulattos and free blacks had begun agitating for rights, but any such move was fiercely resisted by white planters, who feared it would undermine the entire slave system. The National Assembly tried to take a middle course, still supporting the slave system but granting rights to certain free blacks and mulattos (in May 1791). Some deputies wanted to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself. When a massive slave revolt broke out in the largest French colony, Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti; see Chapter 8), the deputies rescinded the rights of free blacks and mulattos, only to reinstitute them a few months later (March 1792). The assembly originally tried to suppress the slave revolt, but rather than lose the colony altogether when the slaves threatened to ally with Great Britain and Spain, the National Convention, on 4 February 1794, finally abolished slavery in all the colonies. It would be reestablished under Napoleon in 1802.

Once the French Revolution got under way, it sparked the first explicit feminist movement in history. Members of both sexes were now arguing that women should enjoy the same rights as men, but they were definitely in the minority. The prevailing view was still that women were fundamentally different from men and should confine themselves to domestic concerns. Nevertheless, a small number of women set up their own clubs and, though they hesitated to ask for the vote and other political rights, they insisted that women should be educated to be good republicans and should participate in the Revolution as much as possible, whether by ferreting out counterrevolutionaries, watching the marketplaces for infractions against the new price controls, making bandages for the war effort, or even on some rare occasions arming themselves to go to the front. In response to the upsurge in female political activity, the National Convention officially banned all women's political clubs on 29–30 October 1793. Although women continued to be denied political rights, they had acquired more civil rights than ever before. New laws established divorce for the first time and gave women equal access to it; other laws insisted that girls have the same inheritance rights as boys when families passed on their property.

After all the debates, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen remained open to modification as the Revolution changed course. In 1793 the National Convention offered a new constitution, which included a modified Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The new declaration repeated many of the provisions of the first one but added an emphasis on social welfare (Article 21: "Society owes maintenance to unfortunate citizens"). Although the new constitution never went into effect (it was shelved while the country was at war), it and the declaration reflected a growing tension that would henceforth accompany the discussion of rights. Many questions remained to be answered: Should these rights be simple guarantees of legal freedom and equality, or should they encompass more ambitious prospects of social improvement and amelioration? Did rights apply just to legal and political activities, or did they also extend to the social and economic sphere of life? Did people have a right to help form their government?

In 1795 the National Convention wrote yet another constitution, and this one actually did go into effect. The deputies also prepared a Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen, thereby responding to a current of opinion that had already gathered some strength during the 1789 discussions. Should a declaration of rights not be accompanied by a declaration of duties? The duties listed here have a modern resonance: they include what we would call "family values," a defense of property, and a call to military service. Still, the declaration of duties made quite clear that both rights and duties pertained only to men.

Primary Sources

French Constitution, Rights of Man and Citizen

This image of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen includes a fascinating mix of symbols. By arranging the articles on tablets, the artist clearly meant to associate this document with Moses’ Ten Commandments. Such a link could establish the French revolutionaries’ handiwork as equivalent to that of God. Reinforcing this is the all–seeing eye located at the top of the tableau. However, this is not the God of biblical revelation but of the Masonic order, which espoused a deistic vision of a benevolent creator and founder of general laws. This deity was not a worker of miracles. Thus the Declaration results from the actions of humankind, who enjoy the beneficence of the generous deity.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 26 August 1789

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Once they had agreed on the necessity of drafting a declaration of rights, the deputies of the National Assembly still faced the daunting task of composing one that a majority could accept. The debate raised several questions: should the declaration be short and limited to general principles or should it rather include a long explanation of the significance of each article; should the declaration include a list of duties or only rights; and what precisely were "the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man"? After several days of debate and voting, the deputies decided to suspend their deliberations on the declaration, having agreed on seventeen articles. These laid out a new vision of government, in which protection of natural rights replaced the will of the King as the justification for authority. Many of the reforms favored by Enlightenment writers appeared in the declaration: freedom of religion, freedom of the press, no taxation without representation, elimination of excessive punishments, and various safeguards against arbitrary administration.

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To contemporaries who subscribed to the Enlightenment principles, preceding the French Revolution, the term "reason" was to be contrasted to superstition. Even though Christians, too, believed in reason, they also wanted to make room for the possibility of God’s intervention, particularly in miracles. Such exceptions seemed to Enlightenment adherents to conflict with reason, which they argued demanded evidence to substantiate claims. To this day scholars still dispute whether enlightened thinkers’ faith in reason was so encompassing that it acted as a belief not all that different from religiosity.


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In this spectacularly vivid rendition of Liberty, she holds the Phrygian cap of freed slaves on a pike. That, combined with her colorful pants, suggests aggressive liberty. Yet the scrolls in her right hand also underscore the role of legislation in defining her purview. Further, simply the use of a female figure balanced some of the aggressive pose.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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The years following World War II marked a key shift in international policy related to human rights. Few, however, connect the history of human rights to the children's rights movement. By the early 20th century, urbanization and industrialization led many reformers to focus on child welfare and on children's rights as separate from those of adults. Several years later, Congress responded by creating the U.S. Children's Bureau, the first federal agency in the world mandated to focus solely on the interests of a nation's youngest citizens. The United Nations, influenced by the exposure of Nazi war crimes and the world-wide refugee problem and drawing upon earlier debates over rights, including those of children, ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on December 10, 1948. Eleven years later, in November 1959, the U.N. adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. This source is a part of the Children and Human Rights (20th c.) teaching module.

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The Magna Carta

King John of England granted the Magna Carta ("the great charter") on 15 June 1215. Leading nobles had demanded confirmation of their liberties and had threatened war if their demands were not met. The King agreed not to confiscate his subjects’ lands unfairly, not to raise taxes without consent, not to imprison a subject without due process and not to employ foreign mercenaries. The Great Charter quickly became the cornerstone of English constitutional government.

The Petition of Right

In 1628, the position of Charles I of England had gone from bad to worse. Rash enterprises, lavish and illegal expenditure, and broken promises of better government had almost ruptured relations between the monarch and his subjects. The King offered to grant a "Confirmation of the Great Charter," such as had often been issued and then disregarded by former monarchs. The Commons refused this offer, and under the leadership of Sir Edward Coke, the members drew up and passed the Petition of Right. Charles made repeated attempts to avoid ratifying it in a legal manner. He was finally compelled to give his assent in due form.

The Bill of Rights, 1689

In response to policies that threatened to restore Catholicism in England, Parliament deposed King James II and called William of Orange from the Dutch Republic and his wife Mary, who was James’s Protestant daughter, to replace him. William and Mary agreed to the Bill of Rights presented to them by Parliament, thereby acknowledging that their power came from the legislature rather than from any concept of the "divine right of kings." The Bill of Rights confirmed traditional English liberties, especially the power of Parliament to make laws and consent to taxation. It also confirmed and guaranteed freedom of speech and denied the legitimacy of cruel and unusual punishments. The Bill of Rights quickly took its place as a foundation of English constitutionalism and exercised great influence in the British North American colonies during their war for independence.

John Locke, "Of Political or Civil Society"

John Locke (1632–1704) wrote his Second Treatise of Government early in the 1680s and published it in 1690. In it Locke proposed a social contract theory of government and argued against the idea of "divine right," which held that rulers had a legitimate claim on their office because they were God’s emissaries on earth. Locke believed that government derived from an agreement between men to give up life in the state of nature in favor of life in a political or civil society. They set up political society in order to guarantee their natural rights: life, liberty, and estate (or property). Locke’s emphasis on a social contract that protected natural rights shaped the views of the American revolutionaries. This excerpt is from Two Treatises on Civil Government, Second Treatise, Chapter VII.

Declaration of Independence, 1776

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), was deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment. He spent many years in Paris and was just as much at home among European intellectuals as he was on his plantation in Virginia. Although a slaveholder, Jefferson wrote eloquently about freedom for the colonists. Even though it was not an official part of the U.S. Constitution, promulgated years later, the Declaration of Independence captures many of the chief ideals of the American revolutionaries and demonstrates the depth of their belief in "unalienable rights."

Virginia’s Declaration of Rights (1776)

The Declaration of Rights drafted in 1776 by George Mason for the state constitution of Virginia influenced both Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It clearly states that rights are "the basis and foundation of government." The Virginia Declaration of Rights also influenced the drafting of the Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution as the first ten amendments.

Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters (1721)

Charles–Louis de Sécondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755), was born into a family of noble judges near Bordeaux. He published The Persian Letters anonymously because he feared that his criticisms of the recently deceased Louis XIV might get him into trouble with government officials. The novel made him an overnight sensation. He sold his position as a judge and devoted himself to travel and writing. In The Persian Letters, he uses a fictional correspondence between two Persians to reflect on the meaning of government and social customs. He paid great attention to the treatment of women and the place of wives in society.

Voltaire, "On the Church of England"

Voltaire was the pen name of François–Marie Arouet (1694–1778), an Enlightenment writer known for his plays and histories and his acerbic criticism of the French Catholic Church. Although Voltaire eventually became a kind of cultural icon celebrated even by kings and ministers, he often faced harassment and persecution for his views in his early days. In Letters on England of 1733, Voltaire holds up English toleration of dissident Protestant sects as a model for the French (even though the English did not extend the same toleration to Catholics) that was republished in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764. Despite his more positive inclinations, Voltaire’s hostility to religion inclined him to critical digs as well.

Voltaire, Selections from the Philosophical Dictionary

Voltaire was the pen name of François–Marie Arouet (1694–1778), an Enlightenment writer known for his plays and histories and his acerbic criticism of the French Catholic Church. This set of selections is from his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764. They demonstrate his range of reading, including travel literature about China, but the main target remains religious bigotry and fanaticism, Voltaire’s chief targets throughout his life.

Transportation of Voltaire to the French Panthéon, 8 July 1792

Although Voltaire’s contribution to the Revolution has been much debated, the revolutionaries themselves had absolutely no doubt of his significance. After 1789 he was much in vogue, in that his plays were often performed and other artists lionized him in various ways. One of the highlights of this glorification was the transfer of his remains (he had died in 1778) from the countryside to the Panthéon in Paris, where heroes of the Revolution were to be interred. This ceremony, which celebrated the noted anti–cleric, was part of the revolutionary campaign against the traditional Catholic Church.

Montesquieu, "The Spirit of the Laws"

In The Spirit of the Laws published in 1748, Montesquieu took a less playful tone. Rather than lampooning French customs as he did in The Persian Letters, he offered a wide–ranging comparative analysis of governmental institutions. He argued that the type of government varied depending on circumstances. This idea might not seem very radical today, but in the eighteenth century it implied that the governments of the time need not be permanent. Like Locke, Montesquieu argued that government was not modeled on the authority of fathers in their families. Instead, the best government was the one that best accorded with the nature of the people in question.

Rousseau’s The Social Contract

Jean–Jacques Rousseau was the maverick of the Enlightenment. Born a Protestant in Geneva in 1712 (d. 1778), he had to support himself as a music copyist. Unlike Voltaire and Montesquieu, both of whom came from rich families, Rousseau faced poverty nearly all his life. He wrote on an astounding variety of topics, including a best–selling novel (Julie or the New Heloïse, 1761), a major tract on education (Émile, 1762), and the work selected here, The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau believed that life in society was essentially corrupting, but that men (it is not clear whether women figured in the social contract) could achieve true morality by joining in the social contract and living under laws that they themselves made. Rousseau’s concept of the "general will" can be, and has been, interpreted as simultaneously providing the origins of democracy and of totalitarianism. This ambiguity emerges in the fact that the general will requires no support from history, tradition, or custom (such as monarchy), but it also "is always right"; that is, there are no checks on its power.

Turgot, "Memorandum on Local Government" (1775)

In 1774, on the accession of Louis XVI, Anne–Robert–Jacques Turgot was named Controller–General of Finances. In this position, he also became responsible for administrative policies relating to taxation, the economy, and local government. With his recent experience as an intendant in mind, Turgot directed his secretary (the economist, Pierre–Samuel Dupont de Nemours) to draft a long memorandum diagnosing the problems of provincial administration and outlining the plans for national regeneration that the controller general intended to submit to the King. Although this Mémoire sur les Municipalitiés was written in 1775, Turgot fell from power before it could be presented to Louis XVI . However, its arguments exercised a powerful influence on administrative thinking in the remaining years of the old regime.

Edict of Toleration, November 1787

Calvinists had a long and tumultuous history in France. They first gained the right to worship according to their creed in 1598 when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes to end the wars of religion between Catholics and Calvinists. Louis XIV revoked that edict in 1685 and initiated a massive campaign to forcibly convert all of the Calvinists in France. For more than a century, public worship by Calvinists remained illegal, though many worshiped in private and some became leading merchants or businessmen in their local communities. Finally in 1787, Louis XVI’s government proposed a new edict of toleration (the decision became official in January 1788). It granted Calvinists civil rights, including the right to practice their religion, but no political rights. Although the reference to non–Catholics might seem to promise a broader toleration including other groups as well, the edict applied only to Calvinists, for Jewish and Lutheran communities were not covered here. The preamble to the edict, with its evasive and tormented logic, shows the many pressures felt by the government as it tried to navigate between the demands of a powerful Catholic Church and a long–oppressed minority that had the support of many influential writers and jurists.

Zalkind–Hourwitz, Vindication of the Jews (1789)

In 1789, 40,000 Jews lived in France, most of them in the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. In some respects, they were better treated than Calvinists under the laws of the monarchy; Jews could legally practice their religion, though their other activities were severely restricted. They had no civil or political rights, except the right to be judged by their own separate courts, and they faced pervasive local prejudice. The major Jewish communities—in the city of Bordeaux in the southwest and the regions of Alsace and Lorraine in the east—essentially constituted separate "nations" within the French nation (and nations separate from each other since their status differed in many ways). In 1787 and 1788 the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of the city of Metz in eastern France set up an essay competition on the question, "Are there means for making the Jews happier and more useful in France?" Its 2,000 Jews gave Metz the single largest Jewish population in the east. Among the three winners declared in 1788 was Zalkind–Hourwitz (1738–1812), a Polish Jew. His pamphlet rapidly earned him a reputation in reformist circles, even though by today’s standard its language seems moderate, if not excessively apologetic. The excerpt here represents what might be called the "assimilationist" position, that is, that granting rights to the Jews would make them more like the rest of the French. At times, the author’s own arguments sound anti–Semitic to our ears because in his concern to counter all the usual stereotypes about the Jews, he repeats many of them and gives them a kind of credit. As a follower of the Enlightenment, Zalkind–Hourwitz disliked the extensive powers exercised by Jewish leaders over their communities, and he even held out the possibility of encouraging conversion to Christianity. The inclusion of such a suggestion and the defensive tone of the recommendations for improvement highlight the many difficulties and prejudices faced by the Jews.

Antislavery Agitation: Abbé Raynal, Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies (1770)

Abbé Guillaume–Thomas Raynal (1711–96), known by his clerical title [abbé refers to ecclesiastical training], first published his multivolume history of European colonization anonymously in French in 1770. Today many sections of it seem almost quaint and hopelessly detailed, for Raynal and his collaborators (among them Diderot) gathered every imaginable fact to support their scathing indictment of European rapaciousness. As the English man of letters and diarist Horace Walpole commented, "It tells one everything in the world," from the story of the tea and coffee trades to naval battles and to the history of Greek and Roman slavery. In its time, the book startled and shocked, and its indignant denunciation of colonization set off a firestorm of controversy. The French crown immediately prohibited its sale on the grounds that it contained "propositions that are impudent, dangerous, rash, and contrary to good morals and the principles of religion." The government ordered Raynal into exile, and an assembly of the French clergy condemned him as "one of the most seditious writers among modern unbelievers." Thanks to its notoriety, the book soon became a best–seller. In all, twenty approved editions and fifty pirated ones appeared by the time of Raynal’s death in 1796. The work gained as much fame in the New World as in the Old; American colonists read it as a defense of the rights of man, and the book was soon translated into English. Slaveowners must have shuddered, however, when they read the passages below for Raynal not only condemns the slave trade and the practice of slavery but also predicts a future uprising of the slaves against their masters.

Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King (1 January 1789)

Little is known about women’s grievances or feelings in the months leading up to the meeting of the Estates–General in November 1789. They did not have the right to meet as a group, draft grievances, or vote (except in isolated individual instances) in the preparatory elections. Nevertheless, some women did put their thoughts to paper, and though little evidence exists about the circumstances or the identities of those involved, the few documents offering their views bear witness to their concerns in this time of ferment. In this document working women addressed the King in respectful terms and carefully insisted that they did not wish to overturn men’s authority; they simply wanted the education and enlightenment that would make them better workers, better wives, and better mothers. The petitioners expressed their deep apprehensions about prostitution and the fear that they would be confused with them; like prostitutes, working women did not stay at home but necessarily entered the public sphere to make their livings. Most of all, however, the women wanted to be heard; they saw the opening created by the convocation of the Estates–General and hoped to make their own claims for inclusion in the promised reforms.

Sieyès, "What Is the Third Estate?" (1789)

Emmanuel–Joseph Sieyès was born at Fréjus, 3 May 1748. He was educated at a Jesuit school, became a licentiate of the canon law, and was appointed vicar–general by the bishop of Chartres. He first came into prominence with the publication of his pamphlet, "Qu’est ce que le tiers état?" In 1789, he was elected delegate to the Estates–General from Paris, and in the preliminary struggle for organization was made spokesman of the Third Estate. The policy indicated in his pamphlet was one actually carried out in the conservative period of the Revolution. As the Revolution progressed, Sieyès dropped out of sight and had the good fortune to escape death. When asked, at a later period, what he had done during the Terror, he summed up his whole experience in the words: "I existed." In 1795, he again came forward and was appointed member of a commission to draft a new constitution. His views did not obtain prominence in the constitution of 1795, and he refused to accept a position in the directory of the new government. Sieyès took part with Napoleon in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire and was made one of the provisional consuls with Napoleon and Ducos. Later on he was made a count of the empire and given extensive estates as a reward for his services to France. This marks Sieyès’s final retirement from public life. He fled to Brussels on the second return of the Bourbons, returned after the revolution of 1830, and died in Paris on 20 June 1836.

Decree of the National Assembly Abolishing the Feudal System, 11 August 1789

The abolition of the feudal system, which took place during the famous night session of 4–5 August 1789, was precipitated by the reading of a report on the misery and disturbances in the provinces. The voting was carried in a fervor of enthusiasm and excitement that made some later revision necessary. The decree given here was drawn up during the following days and contains some alterations and important amplifications of the original provisions as passed in the early morning of August 5th.

National Assembly Relinquishes All Privileges

This image, part of a series produced to show the most important events of the Revolution, focuses on 4 and 5 August 1789, when the system of privileges came to an end. This legal structure, characteristic of the old regime, guaranteed different rights for different people. Most obviously, nobles had advantages over commoners, but the system was a far more general phenomenon that encompassed guilds, cities, and regions. Almost, everyone participated in this system, but grievances were most obviously directed against the nobility. In destroying privilege, the National Assembly meant to set up a new system, in which every individual was equal before the law. This source is a part of the Legacies of the Revolution source collection.


At the beginning of the French Revolution, the term "equality" meant an end to the legal differences that had characterized the Old Regime. For example, all individuals would be subject to the same regimen of taxation. Over the course of the decade, however, the Revolution radicalized, and equality expanded to encompass an end to many other sorts of differences, particularly economic ones. Although equality is here represented as a woman, the revolutionaries were capable of using males, particularly Hercules. But this powerful symbol frightened many, especially from the educated elite, and the female "Equality" seemed far less terrifying.


Using a woman to represent "Fraternity" seems ironic at best, although theoretically the term might mean the community of humanity. In actuality, when the revolutionaries considered "community," they certainly thought of men far more than women. The period saw women take advantage of opportunities presented to them, but outright champions of this kind of inclusive community were few. What might the revolutionaries have meant, then, by their reliance on the female form? One might hypothesize that in a revolution that feared the bold action of crowds, construing fraternity in this fashion softened and lessened such concerns.

Thouret, "Report on the Basis of Political Eligibility" (29 September 1789)

Jacques–Guillaume Thouret (1746–94), a lawyer from Rouen, spoke for the Constitutional Committee of the National Assembly that included, among others, Sieyès and Rabaut Saint–Etienne. His report formed the basis for the subsequent legislation on qualifications for voting and officeholding.

Robespierre, "Speech Denouncing the New Conditions of Eligibility," 22 October 1789

Few deputies opposed the property requirements for voting and holding office. One of the few who did, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94), a lawyer from Arras in northern France, made a reputation for himself as a determined and devoted defender of "the people," that is, for the most democratic possible interpretation [still, however, excluding women] of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and of the constitution under deliberation. In the debate about the status of Jews, for instance, Robespierre insisted on their right to citizenship. In the debate about property requirements, Robespierre invoked the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen as justification for his position.

It’ll Be Okay

Popular during the early years of the French Revolution, this song’s lively tune and repetitive chorus expressed revolutionaries’ hopefulness about the future. Singers manipulated its malleable lyrics to address a broad range of topical issues.

Clermont–Tonnerre, "Speech on Religious Minorities and Questionable Professions" (23 December 1789)

On 21 December 1789, a deputy raised the question of the status of non–Catholics under the new regime; his intervention started a long debate that quickly expanded to cover Jews, actors, and executioners, all of them excluded from various rights before 1789. Jews enjoyed certain rights within their own religious communities but were largely excluded from broader political and civil rights and in fact faced great restrictions on their choice of occupation, ability to own property, and the like. Actors and executioners both exercised professions that were considered "infamous"; actors took someone else’s role on the stage and were reputed to be immoral in their behavior, and executioners killed people, an act considered murder under other circumstances. As a consequence, neither actors nor executioners could vote or hold local offices before 1789, and they were often shunned. This first debate shows that declaring "the rights of man" raised as many questions as it answered. Once the question of Protestants had been raised, other excluded groups soon came up, beginning with actors. Since Brunet de Latuque had proposed a law covering "non–Catholics," it was inevitable that someone would ask if this included the Jews, who were also non–Catholics but whom many deputies regarded as another nation altogether. Count Stanislas–Marie–Adélaide de Clermont–Tonnerre (1757–92) gave a long speech on the subject. A deputy from the nobility of Paris and generally aligned with the liberal nobles, Clermont–Tonnerre argued for an inclusive interpretation of the declaration of rights, but he rejected any separate or different legal status for Jewish communities. In his view, citizens were citizens as individuals, not as members of different social or ethnic groups.

Abbé Maury, "Speech," 23 December 1789

Although he himself came from a family that had been forced to convert from Calvinism to Catholicism by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Abbé Jean–Siffrein Maury (1746–1817) made his reputation as a spokesman for the interests of the Catholic Church, the monarchy’s authority, and the established social hierarchy. Here he attacks Clermont–Tonnerre’s propositions and recapitulates many of the common prejudices of the time.

"Petition of the Jews of Paris, Alsace and Lorraine to the National Assembly" (28 January 1790)

When the Jews of Paris and the eastern provinces presented their case to the National Assembly, they leaned heavily on the precedent of granting full rights to the Protestants and on the language of human rights philosophy. They insisted that the Jews should be treated no differently from anyone else and refuted one by one all the customary prejudicial arguments used against the Jews, such as their reliance on making loans with interest (usury). Their petition shows the power of the language of rights; "All men of whatever religion . . . should all equally have the title and the rights of citizen." Despite the pleas of the Jews, the assembly held off on granting them full political rights until September 1791.

"Admission of Jews to Rights of Citizenship," 27 September 1791

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After several tumultuous discussions about the Jewish communities still excluded from political rights, the National Assembly finally voted to regularize the situation of all the different Jewish communities on 27 September 1791. Adrien–Jean–François Duport (1759–98), a deputy of the nobility of Paris, proposed the motion. The deputies shouted down those who attempted to speak against it, and it quickly passed. A subsequent amendment indicated that swearing the civic oath implied a renunciation of previous Jewish privileges, that is, the right to an autonomous community ruled by its own members according to its own customs. The law required Jews to be individuals just like everyone else in France.

Motion Made by Vincent Ogé the Younger to the Assembly of Colonists, 1789

Vincent Ogé presented the views of his fellow mulatto property owners to a meeting of the white planter delegates who had come to Paris from Saint Domingue, the largest and wealthiest French colony. Ogé came to Paris to press mulatto claims for full civil and political rights. This document shows the complexity of the racial and hence political situation in the colonies; the mulattos wanted to align themselves with the white planters, because like them they held property and slaves. But the white planters resisted any such coalition for they feared that such an alliance might encourage the slaves to demand changes in their status. When the slaves of Saint Domingue began their revolution in August 1791, the mulattos and free blacks took varying and sometimes contradictory positions, some supporting the whites, some taking the side of the slaves, some trying to maintain an independent position. By then Ogé himself had died, executed for leading a mulatto rebellion in the fall of 1790.

The Abolition of Negro Slavery or Means for Ameliorating Their Lot, 1789

The passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, explicitly cited in this pamphlet, did not go unnoticed by those who favored abolition of the slave trade and eventual emancipation of the slaves. Yet even the most determined adversaries of slavery worried about the consequences of immediate abolition, especially for the French economy. As a result, advocates of abolition put forward a variety of proposals for gradual emancipation and restructuring of the colonial economies. Their proposals gained little support in the National Assembly, where the planters in the colonies had many supporters.

Decree of the National Convention of 4 February 1794, Abolishing Slavery in all the Colonies

News traveled slowly from the colonies back to France, and the first word of the emancipations in Saint Domingue aroused suspicion if not outright hostility in the National Convention. Many of the original members of the Society of the Friends of Blacks, such as Lafayette, Brissot, and Condorcet, had either fled the country or gone to their deaths at the guillotine for opposing the faction now dominant in the National Convention, led by Robespierre. Three delegates—a free black, a white, and a mulatto—from Saint Domingue explained the situation to the National Convention on 4 February 1794. Their report provoked spontaneous enthusiasm, and the deputies promptly voted to abolish slavery in all the colonies. Their decree helped win over the rebellious slaves to the side of the French against the British and Spanish.

Condorcet, "On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship," July 1790

Condorcet took the question of political rights to its logical conclusions. He argued that if rights were indeed universal, as the doctrine of natural rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen both seemed to imply, then they must apply to all adults. Condorcet consequently argued in favor of granting political rights to Protestants and Jews and advocated the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself. He went further than any other leading revolutionary spokesman, however, when he insisted that women, too, should gain political rights. His newspaper article to that effect caused a sensation and stimulated those of like mind to publish articles of their own. But the campaign was relatively short–lived and ultimately unsuccessful; the prejudice against granting political rights to women would prove the most difficult to uproot.

Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman (September 1791)

Marie Gouze (1748–93) was a self–educated butcher’s daughter from the south of France who, under the name Olympe de Gouges, wrote pamphlets and plays on a variety of issues, including slavery, which she attacked as being founded on greed and blind prejudice. In this pamphlet she provides a declaration of the rights of women to parallel the one for men, thus criticizing the deputies for having forgotten women. She addressed the pamphlet to the Queen, Marie Antoinette, though she also warned the Queen that she must work for the Revolution or risk destroying the monarchy altogether. In her postscript she denounced the customary treatment of women as objects easily abandoned. She appended to the declaration a sample form for a marriage contract that called for communal sharing of property. De Gouges went to the guillotine in 1793, condemned as a counterrevolutionary and denounced as an "unnatural" woman.

Discussion of Women’s Political Clubs and Their Suppression, 29–30 October 1793

On 29 October 1793, a group of women appeared in the National Convention to complain that female militants had tried to force them to wear the red cap of liberty as a sign of their adherence to the Revolution, but they also presented a petition demanding the suppression of the women’s club behind these actions. Their appearance provided the occasion for a discussion of women’s political activity more generally. Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine (1755–94) gave a speech denouncing both the agitation about dress and the women’s clubs. Fabre, a well–known poet and playwright, took an active role in the dechristianization movement that was getting under way in the fall of 1793. He went to the guillotine in April 1794, supposedly for financial fraud but really for opposing Robespierre’s policies. (Robespierre distrusted the dechristianization movement) The National Convention immediately passed a decree reaffirming liberty of dress but put off to the next day consideration of the clubs. On 30 October 1793, Jean–Baptiste Amar (1755–1816) spoke for the Committee of Public Security and proposed a decree suppressing all women’s political clubs, which passed with virtually no discussion. He outlined the government’s official policy on women: women’s proper place was in the home, not in politics. Broad agreement about the role of women did not prevent internal dissension among the men. Amar himself denounced Fabre a few months later and then joined the opposition to Robespierre in July 1794, which ended in Robespierre’s own execution. The club at issue in the October debate was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, founded in May 1793 to agitate for firmer measures against the country’s enemies. The club supported the establishment of companies of amazons, armed to fight internal enemies, but it did not advance specifically feminist demands such as the demand for the right to vote. Nonetheless, the deputies found any organized women’s political activity threatening and forbade it henceforth.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen from the Constitution of the Year I (1793)

The National Convention drew up this new declaration of rights to attach to the republican constitution of 1793. The constitution was ratified in a referendum, but never put into operation. It was suspended for the duration of the war and then replaced by a new constitution in 1795. Note the contrast with the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; this one places more emphasis on welfare and public assistance (see article 21).

Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen, Constitution of the Year III (1795)

After the fall of Robespierre and the dismantling of the Terror, the National Convention drafted yet another republican constitution. The new constitution was also approved in a referendum and put into effect 26 October 1795. It remained until Napoleon came to power in November 1799. Note that this declaration links duties with rights. It also drops the references to welfare and public assistance and emphasizes family obligations (Art. 4 among duties) for the first time. This declaration also makes clear that "men" refers to males only.


From LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, https://revolution.chnm.org/exhibits/show/liberty--equality--fraternity/enlightenment-and-human-rights

How to Cite This Source

"Source Collection: The Enlightenment and Human Rights," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/source-collection-enlightenment-and-human-rights [accessed June 13, 2024]