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The Evolution of Human Rights: France vs. America Research Paper


Although there were quite a lot of schools of thought speculating upon the topic of innate human dignity that should be recognized by law, the idea to entitle everyone with equal rights merely by the virtue of humanity appeared not so long ago. Practically all cultures and nations have deep-rooted traditions and even written documents that suggest how and on what basis rights are to be granted to different members of society. The same can be applied to religious books–the oldest sources addressing the topic of human rights, equality, and justice (O’Byrne, 2014).

Thus, it would be wrong to claim the monopoly of Western tradition in the evolution of global consciousness. Nevertheless, its contribution to the political and juridical implementation of the ideas that have existed for ages in most of the countries is undeniable. The Age of Enlightenment made human rights one of the major concerns of the world community, which led to the American and French Revolutions–the turning points in the struggle for justice (O’Byrne, 2014).

Even though the paths of the two nations may seem similar (mainly because they actually led to the same result), it would be a mistake to call them identical. French and American evolutions of human rights have a lot of nation-specific features. The paper at hand is going to investigate commonalities and differences between French and American history of human rights development.

How the Conversation Started and Evolved into Meaningful Declarations

French fighting for human rights began with the French Revolution, which was basically about who should take the power in the country (since it was independent, unlike the United States). Their struggle for liberty, equality, and fraternity began as a striving for unachievable abstractions that could not be materialized through force. In comparison, Americans from the very beginning took up arms against Britain to attain tangible and comprehensible goals (“no taxation without representation”) without any philosophy standing behind their initial demands (Palmer, 2014).

This difference in the approaches is also evident from the settings, in which it all began. In France, a furious, armed crowd broke into the courtyard of the Bastille that was almost empty (with only a couple of old lunatics and Marquis de Sade), refused to take part in any negotiations with the governor and stormed the building, which provoked a battle. The governor had to surrender to stop the violence and opened the gate. He was beaten, stabbed, and his head was carried through the city on a pike.

In 1789, the monarchy was overthrown and the French Republic was established. It is evident, that such a beginning could not lead to a meaningful declaration of human rights in the nearest future, following the establishment of a new order, as it was not supported by parliamentary decisions and did not adhere to any kind of development plan suggested by the ruling parties. The conversation about rights was skipped to give place to open violence and upheaval against centuries-long oppression of the royal family and upper-class society (Hunt, 2013).

Practically at the same time, in the United States, the struggle began quite differently. The Continental Congress gathered to resolve the issue of separating from Great Britain. Nine votes were in favor of this decision and the next day, the measure was passed by the whole Congress. On the 4th of July, the official declaration was finally approved and published. Unlike the French Revolution, the American Declaration of Independence did not involve any kind of dramatic battles, executions, the assassination of the leaders, changing of the regime, or any other kind of violence. On the contrary, it came as a result of a reasonable parliamentary discussion (Deutsch, 2015).

This difference in the reasons for the struggle partially accounts for the fact that the Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, already addressed all basic human rights to life, freedom, happiness, independence, and others (as the colonies were majorly deprived of them), whereas the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, created in 1789, made an emphasis on liberation from monarchy and popular sovereignty (although it also proclaimed political and civil rights, such as those to liberty, private property, etc.) (O’Byrne, 2014).

How Granting Rights to Different Groups Evolved Into Universal Rights

Even though the two revolutions were different, it cannot be denied that they were inspired by one common idea–to grant rights to people. Both Thomas Jefferson and Maximilien Robespierre were proponents of liberty; however, one should not be deluded about the meaning each of the leaders attached to this word.

Understanding this difference allows seeing why and how the Americans and the French went from granting rights to certain groups of the population to the establishment of universal rights. Since the former attached such great significance to the government, equality for them meant equality before the law. Claiming that all men were created equal, Jefferson meant that all of them had the same legal rights, not the same social status.

Hence, one was free to pursue his/her interests only within the limits set by law. James Madison asserted this idea in the Federalist Papers, stating that no perfect equality was possible. That is why women, Indians, African Americans, and other disadvantaged groups of the population could not enjoy the same liberties. It was only in 1848 that the first women’s rights convention was held to call for equal treatment of men and women under the law, while slavery was abolished even later, in 1865, with the introduction of the 13th amendment to the Constitution (Baynton, 2013).

In contrast, the French understanding of equality as a natural right made all the citizens united by a common will, which was incongruent with different social statuses, interests, and opinions as the freedom was collective (Palmer, 2014). This approach created a paradox. On the one hand, women were initially treated equally with men, which was evidenced by the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen that immediately followed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and repeated it. However, on the other hand, those who did not belong to the ruling party (first–Royalists, then–Girondists) were immediately deprived of all their rights and freedoms and beheaded. No law protected them (unlike in the US). The desire to reach consensus led to excessive violence and the protection of the only group consisting of those who supported the current regime (O’Byrne, 2014).

As we can see, both nations, depending on their interpretation of liberty and equality, gave rights only to certain groups of people. In the case of the US, the distinction was based on the traditional gender and race discrimination whereas the French ensured equal rights only to those who supported the ruling party. Yet, both nations ended up granting universal rights to everyone (through the abolition of slavery, women’s rights movement, and the Napoleon code), which were documented by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration in 1948. The major reason was that the atrocities committed by Hitler made the global community realize that there was a need for a universal declaration that would guarantee that no discrimination on any basis would ever take place again (Moyn, 2014).

What Caused the Gap between American and French Revolutions

There are numerous reasons (besides those mentioned above) why the French and the American revolutions and the paths of human rights development were so different until 1948.

First and foremost, most of the Americans were farmers who belonged to the middle class. Except for slaves, others were more or less equal. Their revolutionary leaders were lawyers, who were not at all interested in overturning the existing power but were trying to reinforce it to be able to struggle against Great Britain. They did not strive for any other human rights besides those that they already had. They needed to protect them against the oppressor (Deutsch, 2015).

On the contrary, most of the French were poor peasants suffering from feudal lords. The social disparity was huge indeed: Only a small part of the society could enjoy rights while the majority did not have any whatsoever. That is why the Revolution was led by liberal aristocrats or outcasts of the regime, who wanted to overturn it. It was a real social revolution unlike the revolt of independence that took place in the US (Hunt, 2013).

Secondly, Americans believed that all the freedoms were natural but had to be protected by the government from outer threats. Moreover, Protestant distrust of human nature made it necessary to evaluate all rights using reason and faith. In general, protecting people was considered to be good under the condition that they were protected from their sins as well. Religion was seen as a positive regulating force (Deutsch, 2015).

It was different for the French: liberty meant that everyone cared for one another; yet, it was possible only if the entire old system was abolished and replaced by a new one. Thus, they followed the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that mankind was corrupted by civilization and should go back to nature to purify itself. Human rights were believed to be threatened from the inside, not from the outside. The Church consisted of privileged aristocrats and, having its huge revenue and property, was seen as a source of oppression. The French revolution aimed to establish secularism (Hunt, 2013).

What the Future Holds for Broad Enforcement of Human Rights

The key question that arises when one analyzes the inner motifs and implications of human rights movements that took place in the past is what they mean for our present-day society. In particular, it is crucial to understand how the existing violations of human rights at the national level may hinder their broad enforcement and in what way it can be prevented.

I believe that globalization led to the assertion of the primacy of human rights over any other international issues and laws, which allows stating that their global enforcement is attainable. All governments nowadays are obliged to conform to the accepted norms; hence, any kinds of human rights violations (even by non-state actors) are severely punishable. The power of the state can no longer exceed the power of the global community.

However, it is also doubtless, that there is a growing need to strengthen states that do not have the necessary institutions to ensure and protect rights guaranteed by international law. Individual state action exercised by powerful state agents may make interferences in human rights policy unnecessary.


Baynton, D. C. (2013). Disability and the justification of inequality in American history. The Disability Studies Reader, 17(33), 57-65.

Deutsch, K. W. (2015). Political community and the North American area. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hunt, L. (2013). Family romance of the French revolution. London, UK: Routledge.

Moyn, S. (2014). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in the history of cosmopolitanism. Critical Inquiry, 40(4), 365-384.

O’Byrne, D. (2014). Human rights: An introduction. London, UK: Routledge.

Palmer, R. R. (2014). The age of the democratic revolution: A political history of Europe and America, 1760-1800. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Evolution of Human Rights: France vs. America'. 27 July.

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