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The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen ( ) 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 last article of Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted 26 or 27 August, 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée nationale constituante), during the period of the French Revolution, as the first step toward writing a constitution for Francemarker. It was prepared and proposed by the marquis de Lafayette. A second and lengthier declaration, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793 was later adopted.

Philosophic and theoretical context

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. 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.

The declaration is in the spirit of what has come to be called secular natural law, which is not derived from religious doctrine, beliefs or authority.

The declaration defines a single set of individual and collective rights for all men. 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, like the United States Bill of Rights, is based on a theory of human nature that holds that all men are created equal. They have certain natural rights to property, to liberty and to life. According to this theory the role of government is to recognise and secure these rights. Furthermore government should be carried on by elected representatives.

At the time of writing the rights contained in the declaration were only awarded to men. Furthermore, like the United States Bill of Rights, the declaration was a statement of vision rather than reality. The declaration was not deeply rooted in either the practice of the West or even France at the time. The declaration emerged in the late 18th Century out of war and revolution. It encountered opposition as democracy and individual rights were frequently regarded as synonymous with anarchy and subversion. The declaration embodies ideals and aspirations towards which France pledged to struggle in the future.


The Declaration opens by affirming "the natural and impresciptible rights of man" to "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression". It called for the destruction of aristocratic privileges by proclaiming an end to exemptions from taxation, freedom and equal rights for all men, and access to public office based on talent. The monarchy was restricted, and all citizens were to have the right to take part in the legislative process. Freedom of speech and press were declared, and arbitrary arrests outlawed.

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.

Women's rights

The Declaration recognized most rights as belonging only to men. This was despite the fact that after The March on Versailles on 5 October 1789, women presented the Women's Petition to the National Assembly in which they proposed a decree giving women equality. In 1790 Nicolas de Condorcet and Etta Palm d’Aelders unsuccessfully called on the National Assembly to extend civil and political rights to women. Condorcet declared that “and he who votes against the right of another, whatever the religion, color, or sex of that other, has henceforth adjured his own”. The French Revolution did not lead to a recognition of women’s rights and this prompted de Gouges to publish the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in September 1791.

The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen is modelled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and is ironic in formulation and exposes the failure of the French Revolution, which had been devoted to equality. It states that:
“This revolution will only take effect when all women become fully aware of their deplorable condition, and of the rights they have lost in society”.
The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen follows the seventeen articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen point for point and has been described by Camille Naish as “almost a parody... of the original document”. The first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaims that:
“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.”
The first article of Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen replied:
“Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions may only be based on common utility”.
De Gouges also draws attention to the fact that under French law women were fully punishable, yet denied equal rights, declaring “Women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum”.

Women were eventually given these rights with the adoption of the 1946 Constitution of the French Fourth Republic.


The declaration did not revoke the institution of slavery, as lobbied for by Jacques-Pierre Brissot's Les Amis des Noirs and defended by the group of colonial planters called the Club Massiac because they met at the Hôtel Massiac. Despite the lack of explicit mention of slavery in the Declaration, slave uprisings in Saint-Domingue that would later be known as the beginning of the Haitian Revolution took inspiration from its words, as discussed in C.L.R. James' history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.Deplorable conditions for the thousands of slaves in Saint-Domingue, the most profitable slave colony in the world, also led to the uprisings which would be known as the first successful slave revolt in the New World. Slavery in the French colonies was abolished by the Convention dominatd by the jacobins in 1794. However, Napoleon reinstated it in 1802. The colony of Saint-Domingue declared its independence in 1804.For more information about the Haitian Revolution and its connection to the French Revolution, see Laurent Dubois's Avengers of the New World.

Constitution of the French Fifth Republic

According to the preamble of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic (adopted on 4 October 1958, and the current constitution), the principles set forth in the Declaration have constitutional value. Many laws and regulations have been canceled because they did not comply with those principles as interpreted by the Conseil Constitutionnel ("Constitutional Council of France") or the Conseil d'État ("Council of State").
  • Taxation legislation or practices that seem to make some unwarranted difference between citizens are struck down as anticonstitutional.
  • 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.


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 sentenced to be imprisoned for ten years for doing so. In 2003, the document was listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.

Other early declarations of rights

See also


  1. Some sources say 27 August because the debate was not officially closed.
  2. [1] Thomas Jefferson's autobiography at Yale Law School's Avalon Project
  3. 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. By comparison, few French in 1789 were vividly aware of these precedents of the American declaration.
  5. First Article, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
  6. The club of reactionary colonial proprietors meeting since July 1789 were opposed to representation in the Assemblée of France's overseas dominions, for fear "that this would expose delicate colonial issues to the hazards of debate in the Assembly," as Robin Blackburn expressed it (Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 [1988:174f]); see also the speech of Jean-Baptiste Belley

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