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History: The French Declaration of 1789 Essay

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Updated: Mar 18th, 2020


Human rights protection is one of the most important issues covered by our country’s constitution. Modern human right ideals are adopted from some early constitutional protections of rights. One important historical human rights protection declaration is the 1789 “French Declaration of the Rights of man and the Cit1zen”.

This paper will provide a historical context of these rights and discuss their effectiveness in addressing the wrongs that were prevalent at the time. The influences of these rights on future human rights protections will also be articulated.

The Declaration and its Context

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is regarded as the main document produced by the French Revolution. This revolution was a popular uprising against the feudal system and the inadequacies of the monarchy (Smith, 2010). The revolts were sparked by the financial crisis facing France at the time and the unfair tax system that burdened the poor.

The Declaration, drafted by French delegates as the Revolution was in progress, was a response to abuses of power by the monarchy. The document was meant to serve as the foundation of a new Republic and it tried to formulate the principles that would lay the foundation for the new French constitution. As the French Declaration was being written, the opposition to the monarchy increased among the populace.

The National Assembly of France approved the Declaration on 26 August 1789 (Spielvogel, 2008). Once the Declaration was complete, it was given to the King. However, the thoughts expressed in this declaration were considered too radical by the king who refused to endorse it. This led to more revolts ending in the eventual collapse of the monarchy.

The philosophical concepts contained in the Declaration were largely influenced by the French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Specifically, Rousseau’s concept of “The Social Contract” hugely influenced the declaration (Maslan, 2004). In this concept, Rousseau argues that social distinctions are only acceptable if they result in positive outcomes for the people.

In addition to this, the social contract asserts that people hold power, and they should only be ruled by their will. The Enlightenment political philosophy also influenced the French Declaration.

According to Enlightenment, society was to be reformed through advancement in knowledge rather than relying on tradition (Spielvogel, 2008). Enlightenment also emphasized individualism, which meant that the worth and the interests of the person were greater than the states.

The Wrongs they were seeking to right

The Declaration asserted the rights of the people against an overreaching monarchy. The King and the nobles were deemed unsympathetic to the needs of the common people. This was evident from the fact that the poor were being made to pay the highest price for the financial crisis affecting the nation (Spielvogel, 2008). The Declaration asserted that the government should serve the general will and avoid actions that harmed society.

The Declaration was also prompted by the numerous economic and political failures of the monarchy and the aristocracy. For the past few decades, France had been experiencing a financial crisis. The king had been unable to solve the problems and instead, the lower classes of society were forced to incur a heavy tax burden while the nobility and clergy were exempt from most taxes (Smith, 2010).

The Declaration also sought to promote a change in relations between the various ranks of society. The French citizens were divided into distinctive classes based on power or profession. The First Estate consisted of the clergy who enjoyed tithes and numerous tax exemptions.

The Second Estate was made of the nobility who had political and economic power in society. This group exerted great influence in society and also enjoyed great tax exemptions. The Third Estate was made up of the lower classes who were predominantly peasants, and the lower working class people.


The Declaration contributed to the abolition of the exploitative feudal system. This system had been responsible for the establishment of class divisions in French (Maslan, 2004). The system was also contrary to egalitarianism since a person’s worth was dependent on his/her heritage. The declaration and its emphasis on equality abolished this system. The eventual end of the French monarchy was also caused by the Declaration (Lerner, 2011).

The common people in French were angered by the inadequacies of their King. They, therefore, sought a system where the rights and needs of the people would be responded to. The Declaration proposed such a system, therefore, encouraging more popular uprising against the monarchy (Lerner, 2011).

The Declaration achieved its goal of serving as the foundation for a constitution for the Republic of France. This document was adopted into the National Parliament and used as the basis for the country’s constitution.


The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen forms the basis of modern political liberty. Lerner (2011) reveals that this declaration increased the understanding of liberty. Its ideals were welcome by individuals from other European countries, including Italy, Western Germany, and Switzerland. The Declaration of 1789 recognized the right of citizens to resist oppression.

This ideal was influential since it justified and encouraged armed struggle against oppressive regimes. The Irish Republicans of 1798 embraced this Declaration and used it as the basis for their republican revolution (Hayley, 1992). The French Declaration did not limit its language to the local populace.

It was, therefore, easy to export the ideals of this document to other nations. Hayley (1992) notes that the Declaration claimed to legislate for all citizens of the world, not just the citizens of France. For this reason, the document was widely received by other nations in Europe.


Hayley, B. (1992). Ireland and France, a Bountiful Friendship: Literature, History, and Ideas: Essays in Honor of Patrick Rafroidi. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lerner, M. (2011). A Laboratory of Liberty: The Transformation of Political Culture in Republican Switzerland, 1750-1848. NY: BRILL.

Maslan, S. (2004). The Anti-Human: Man and Citizen before the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2), 357-374.

Smith, T. (2010). Subject and Citizen. Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 8(4), 385-409.

Spielvogel, J.J. (2008). Western Civilization: Volume C: Since 1789: Since 1789. NY: Cengage Learning.

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