Saturday, April 7, 2012

French Revolution & The Declaration of the Rights of Man

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The French Revolution is a turning point in history, where the traditional social and political structures gave way to new forces and ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. France provided crucial assistance in the American Revolution that launched the United States as an independent republic. Many French officers who served in the American Revolution arrived home exhilarated by the ideals of liberty and equality that they saw in the New World. The Revolution had helped to foster the idea of human rights in France and would lead to the creation of a modern republic.

In the 1760’s France lost the Seven Years War to Britain and subsequently its valuable North American lands and markets. The royal financial mismanagement and self �indulgences only worsened the situation. King Louis XV wasted enormous sums of money on costly wars, personal luxuries and a corrupt and extravagant administration. He failed to affect the tax reforms and other measures necessary to replenish the treasury. Louis XV managed to alienate a majority of the French people and made them distrust the monarchy.

The lack of confidence in the government served to heighten the social and political unrest in the nation. France’s old political-social order, the ancien r�gime was rigid, class oriented and unjust. Their structure, based upon a pyramid with the monarchy at the top and peasants at the bottom, was the basic model for many European societies at the time. What made the French society different from the others was that the social pyramid was plagued with conflicts and tensions that were becoming more apparent. Most of the non-privileged in France were superior to those elsewhere in Europe; they enjoyed a greater degree of freedom and a growing middleclass, having acquired wealth. Because there was more wealth and more enlightenment, the French were more forcefully discontent with the status quo and therefore more ready for change. “It is a mistaken idea that revolution is caused by the worst conditions of tyranny and oppression. There must be the spirit to resist, and usually the most determined resistance comes from those who have secured at least a degree of liberty so that the remaining burdens are all the more galling by reason of the contrast.”

However, members of all social classes were unhappy with the present status. The absolute monarchy was destroying itself; criticism of state business and of government institutions was growing rapidly. The parish priests who lived a modest and humble life grew to resent their superiors who lived in the lap of luxury. The aristocracy, although exempt from most taxes and receiving privileges even in criminal trials, were resentful of their exclusion from office and state affairs. The bourgeoisie was denied social status and a share in the government commensurate with their wealth. The peasants were becoming more educated and independent and yet they were still despised and considered to be the beasts of burden. The peasants were the most over taxed group, with approximately three-fifths of their income being paid to the clergy, nobility and state. They detested the government for their burdensome taxes. The “accumulating grievances aroused a vigorous public opinion in favor of thorough reforms which would make their aspirations reality.”

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The French Revolution however, was mainly a movement of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie grew in response to trade, industry and improvement in means of transportation. These middleclass families owned about a sixth of the land in the nation. Despite their affluence, they were considered to be of an inferior social class. They wanted to do away with the order of society that was determined by birth rather than prosperity. They desired a greater scope for initiative and enterprise. The bourgeoisie were ready for a significant change. They read the published works and pamphlets of the philosophes that expressed the middleclass ideals. Even though many of these works were forbidden by censorship, their contents were heavily discussed in the caf�s, Masonic lodges and salons. The bourgeoisie came confidently to believe that the future belonged to them.

The philosophers and economists of the era profoundly influenced many of the thoughts and ideas for the Revolution. The eighteenth century became known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. It was a time when men stressed raison dĂȘtre as a guide to the solution of the problems of man and the world. The origin of this idea can be found mainly in the works of John Locke, an English philosopher. In his work Of Civil Government, he states his political philosophy that “since all members of a society cannot govern, government must be delegated to a few; and that the relations between governors and governed are established in some form of compact or contract involving mutual benefits and guarantees and punishments for infractions by either party to the agreement.”

Voltaire was perhaps the most famous of the philosophes. He detested the Church and believed it was corrupt, inefficient and guilty of oppression and intolerance. His inclinations were to call for the destruction of an institution in order to rid it of its defects and vices rather than promote reform.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau however, who exerted the most influence over the French populace. He is noted for coining the notion of law as an expression of general will. Rousseau argued that “sovereignty resides in the people, an extremely attractive idea to revolutionaries who wanted to draw up a new constitution to replace the old order they had rejected.” In the Social Contract, Rousseau stated that “all men originally were equal and good, but due to their environment they became unequal and bad. To be saved from themselves they must return to a happy state of nature. This can only be attained by enforcing the law as an expression of the general will. This cannot be done by reason alone, but requires “prompting of the heart.””

When Louis XVI was crowned king in 1775, the treasury was in dire straits. There was a tremendous amount of debt with interest that needed to be paid, and the situation was only expected to worsen. Louis XVI was a well-meaning but ineffective and indecisive ruler. At the Queen’s insistence, he dismissed the ministers of Louis XV, who wanted to implement the tax reforms begun by the late King. These tax reforms would shift the burden from the poor to the rich. Unfortunately, the poor had no voice, whereas the rich made themselves heard and protested the modifications. By giving in to the protests of the nobility, Louis XVI earned great popularity, but prevented the regime from reforming itself. By the time of the Revolution, the treasury was nearly empty and Louis XVI could not prevent the erosion of public confidence in the government.

In 178, Louis XVI was in urgent need of money. He had no choice but to tap into the wealth of the Church and aristocracy by levying taxes. The only way he could accomplish this was to convene a meeting of the Estates General (similar to medieval Europe’s great council or a rudimentary Parliament), which hadn’t taken place since 1614. The meeting demonstrated the King’s desperation and weakened authority. He needed the help of the nation to affect any real reform. The meeting of the Estates General raised many people’s hopes that the government might finally be forced to consider the grievances of the various social groups. Despite his weakened position, he maintained a superior, arrogant attitude. He expected the assembly to bow to his wishes and agree with his requests. Instead the delegates arrived with a list of grievances (cahiers de dol�ances), which called for less oppressive taxes, free speech and press, the abolition of letters de cachet (arbitrary arrest) and regular meetings of the Estates General.

The Estates General consisted of three orders clergy, nobles and commoners-including the bourgeoisie. All three orders were equal in power. However the commoners outnumbered the other two orders and therefore demanded votes “by head” in a single assembly that would maintain equality of the orders and provide the commoners with a majority voice. This demand was denied. The King, influenced by the Queen and the Court decided to support the privileged classes. The commoners took matters into their own hands and declared themselves the National Assembly of France. When guards refused to admit them to meet in the building they moved to a nearby tennis court where they took the famous Tennis Court Oath vowing not to break up until a constitution had been framed for France.

The National Assembly was not looking to make France a democracy or eliminate the monarchy. They wanted to draft a constitution that would guarantee all French citizens, regardless of social class, basic civil rights and oblige the king to agree and sign it. It would make France a constitutional monarchy and the king’s authority would rest on the will of the people and their duly elected representatives in government. Many of the clergy and nobles joined the commoners at the National Assembly, which weakened the government position. The King urged the remainder of the privileged orders to join with them. Two schools of thought then emerged with regards to the constitution. One said France already had a constitution that had been violated and ignored. It needed to be reinstated and the abuses of it eliminated. These defenders of the old constitution were the nobility and clergy. The commoners favored a new constitution, saying that the old

one was vicious and not worth saving, if one existed at all. This thought reflected the influence of Voltaire. It wouldn’t matter if there were a new constitution or the old one were restored if the provisions were the same. But that was the problem; there was no agreement.

The King’s concession for the privileged orders to join the National Assembly was not in good faith. Influenced by members of the royal family and disgruntled aristocrats who feared losing their wealth and power, he used this time to gather troops on the outskirts of Paris and Versailles. This caused the people of Paris to become extremely anxious. They feared the troops would disband the Assembly or attack the city. Paris and the surrounding cities began to collect arms.

On July 14th in search of weapons, the people came upon the Bastille, the fortress where political prisoners were once kept. This building was a hated symbol of the monarchy’s past abuses. Out of fear and ineptitude, the governor of the fortress ordered his guards to fire on the crowd. The angry survivors captured the Bastille and executed the governor and several guards. “Bastille Day” is now celebrated as France’s independence day. If Louis XVI had intended to disassemble the Assembly, he had to back away from the plan now. The old leaders, from the King down, began to lose their power.

After the fall of the Bastille, there was an increasing disorder in the provinces, reports of disturbances, uprisings and demonstrations against the government throughout France. To the peasants, who did not care about politics but wanted the end of unequal taxation and feudal dues, these uprisings were their spark to set off the fire. Rumors that the King was sending troops to rural areas to control the revolts started the “Great Fear.” Peasants fled their homes and villages and took shelter in the forest. After their fears subsided they found themselves gathered together with arms. They turned their attention to the evils that plagued them and took action. Peasants burned mansions and monasteries destroying documents that recorded their feudal obligations to provide landlords with labor and monetary payments. Realizing that the rioting must be stopped and evil cured at its roots, the aristocracy in the Assembly renounced feudal rights and instituted proportional taxing. The abolition of the feudal regime on August 4, 178 was a direct expression of the popular will. From then on all French citizens were theoretically equal under the law.

With the growing discontent in the city streets, the Assembly knew that fundamental changes were imperative and a liberating decree needed to be provided. They were determined to educate the citizens about liberty. The National Assembly voted that a declaration was necessary and should be separate from and preliminary to the constitution. Marquis de Lafayette, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and a celebrated French participant in the American Revolution, offered the first proposal on July 11, 178. Even at the earliest stages, the connection between natural rights and democracy as a form of government emerged. Some felt that the idea of democracy was suitable for Americans who were accustomed to equality, but it could not be introduced in France where feudalism and nobility had been the heritage. After days of debate and 4 articles proposed, 17 articles were agreed upon and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was ratified on August 6, 178. The Declaration provided a vision of the government based on principles completely different from the monarchy. The legitimacy of the government now stems from the guarantee of individual rights by law. The government of the absolute monarchy had stemmed from the king’s divine right and maintenance of social order that guaranteed privileges according to rank and status, allowing him to buy allegiances.

According to the Italian writer Beccaria in his work Of Crime and Punishments, when we “adhere to the strict execution of the laws, which is the result of the will of all, people will know the exact consequences of their crimes and will be more effectively deterred. It then follows for the need of legislative supremacy, with a severe limitation of the power of judges, confined to strict execution of the laws. The law itself can determine the just proportion between crime and punishment. Limiting the power of judges is essential to the freedom of citizens”

The influence of this rationalism is apparent in the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. It reinforces the legitimacy of the state by implying laws will be more legitimate and obeyed because they conform to the Declaration; that it is possible to judge the actions of the legislature by the standards of the rights of man. The terms of the Declaration are clear to be understood by everyone, which prevents the need for judicial interpretation. It establishes legislative supremacy in the ordering of liberties. Whatever the delegated responsibilities are to the executive and judicial powers, the legislative powers are supreme and are invested with the responsibility to express the general will of the people as stated in law. The law is the expression of general will.

The Declaration expresses revolutionary faithfulness to the legacy of the Enlightenment, which promoted a politics of reason based on evidence entrusted to the power of statute law. Many of the Enlightenment’s concerns are evident throughout the document including individual freedom, civic equality and unjust privileges. All people were to stand equally before the law. Rationalized law now replaced custom and the will of the king, whose legitimacy extended only to his conformity to the wishes of the enlightened public opinion. The main problem for the Enlightenment was not the identity of the sovereign, but the rationalization of the social order. The assertion of equality of opportunity was not intended to eliminate all social distinctions. The preservation of property rights assured that differences due to wealth, education and talent would remain and be considered natural and legitimate. The Declaration therefore, helped make wealth not birth the foundation for social and political order in the new regime.

The Assembly endeavored to make a statement of universality rather than one that was uniquely French. The Declaration clearly placed sovereignty in the “nation.” The notion of rights stemming from membership in the nation as opposed to that in a social-political order was a fundamental change. People began to greet each other as “citizen.”

The French Revolution was a radical break. It promoted people vs. king, equality under the revolution vs. privilege under the monarchy, citizens vs. subjects of the king. “To liberty and equality the French Revolution added “fraternity,” in respect of which no inequalities are justifiable. The impartial republic must be equal.” There was no diversity of interests, no non-French and no nobles. Their political goal was to be a nation of equals.

The Declaration of 178 is a close relation to our Declaration of Independence. Both revolutions appealed to the idea of rights inherent in all human beings. The French wanted to produce what they believed to be a more purely rational and universalistic statement. They felt the Americans did not break radically enough with their English past. The French thought Americans were preoccupied with specific legalities and limitations, whereas they wanted to address the essence of the law. They have a commitment to absolute legislative sovereignty and impatience with the American doctrine of separation of powers. They could not see the point of checks and balances in a system where privilege had been abolished in favor of equal rights for all citizens. They felt it was an imitation of the English government. The philosophes felt the American’s limitations and balances only served to obstruct the simple truth they had discovered that the will of the people as expressed in legislation is sovereign.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen tries to combine the elements of the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of natural rights and the Constitution, which establishes civil rights into one document, mixing together natural and civil rights. In principle the French system was opposed to private interests. However, it was actually more open to the influence of particular interests through opinion by the societies (i.e.-Jacobins). The Americans knew that you “must distinguish the people’s reason from their will; hence government, representing reason, must be at a certain distance from popular will.” However, the French viewed reason and will the same. Government is necessary but can always be corrupted. You must bring the government as close to the people as possible by bringing it in alignment with popular opinion. “Opinion is about equality or about what equality demands right now. And what the nation wants, or is assumed to want, is more equality.”

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen exercised an enduring influence on all subsequent discussions of human rights. Like the Declaration of Independence, it spoke of the “natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man.” It stood as the preamble to the constitution and provided the principles for political legitimacy. It provided a vision of government that would stem from the guarantee of individual rights by law. It held out for the highest ideals including genuine justice and the encouragement of human development. They added fraternit� to the democratic qualities and leaders often spoke of the necessity of virtue and community. Most important is their attempt at universal application, rather than one particularly French. It is because of its universality that it has continued to resound in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity.


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