The French Revolution and Human Rights Notes
A Brief Documentary History
Introduction: The Revolutionary Origins of Human Rights
• Political rights: equal participation in voting, office holding, and other aspects of
• Civil rights: equal treatment before the law regarding marriage, property and
inheritance – i.e. nonpolitical matters
• Human rights are a combination of the two. In 1948 the United Nations adopted a
Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that “recognition of the inherent
dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is
the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world”.
➢ All human beings have certain inherent rights simply by virtue of being human,
and not by virtue of their status in society
➢ These rights are consequently imagined as “natural”, as stemming from human
nature itself, and they have in the past often been called “natural rights”
➢ Rights belong therefore to individuals and not to any social group, whether a sex,
a race, an ethnicity, a group of families, a social class, an occupational group, a
nation, or the like.
➢ These rights must be made equally available by law to all individuals and cannot
be denied as long as an individual lives under the law
➢ The legitimacy of any government rests on its ability to guarantee the rights of
all its members
• Traditionally, rulers used extreme power because they believed by royal birth,
military success or religious leadership that they were closer to God than
• Nobles were granted certain privileges depending on the traditions of the country.
• Privileges are associated with social rank and are vertical hierarchy while human
rights are a horizontal conception of society.
• People who believe in human rights emphasize the sanctity of the individual who
was essentially equal to all other individuals. This supported democracy.
• Traditional governments stressed the sanctity of one individual, the king or queen,
and noted the importance of social differences. This supported aristocracy and
• Religion could justify both points of view but…
➢ Human rights believers insisted on the separation between church and state
➢ Traditional believers argued for a close connection between religion and politics
• In centuries since the 17 century many have questioned the human rights theory.
➢ Jeremy Bentham said in the early 19 century that “natural rights is simple
nonsense; natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense
➢ Later some argued that rights belonged only to communities or nations but not
individuals. ➢ Some nations have recently rejected the relevance of human rights to their lands,
saying that human rights is only a Western notion and is therefore unsuited to
• The British North American colonies were the first instance of human rights being
accepted, however the meaning of the rights still caused great debate.
➢ Eventually resulted in the Civil War in the 1860s
• The origin of the theory was in relation to the rights of men and religious minorities
but has since expanded to the rights of women, nonwhites, and many other
minorities such as disabled and homosexuals.
• France in the 1790s debated the rights so intensely. The framers of the UN
declaration of 1948 closely followed the French Declaration of Rights of Man and
citizen of 1789.
Defining Rights Before 1789
• The idea of universal human rights emerged in large part as a reaction to
contemporary political conflicts in Great Britain with its colonies and in France.
• It comes from varied new concepts of individual autonomy – the belief that
individuals make their own decisions about marriage, etc. – to debates about the
foundations of government.
• Human rights are for all humans, not just certain groups.
• The theory also has roots to the Greeks and Western imperialism and colonialism.
• Philosopher Hugo Grotius in 1625 said natural laws derived from the study of
human nature not religion, and existed independently from political powers and
• Some argued that by colonizing the people they were actually destroying their
• John Locke wore the social contract theory in 1690 and it provided a crucial link
between natural laws and universal rights.
➢ All government rested on an implicit social contract rooted in human nature.
➢ It expressed natural laws and served to protect natural rights.
➢ He maintained that all men had a natural right to life, liberty, and property.
➢ His view suggested that government should be designed to protect these rights
and if it did not then it should be overthrown just as the English Parliament did
when they overthrew King Charles I in the 1640s.
➢ However the suggesting of the rights of man was long debated – women,
nonwhites, etc.? th
➢ He then wrote at the end of the 17 century in support of the English slave trade
and justified slavery as the legal fruit of wars of conquest.
• Jean Jacques Rousseau insisted in 1762 that society and government could be based
not on tradition, custom, habit, or history but on rational principles
➢ Unlike Locke he believed that the principles should apply to all men, whether
kings or peasants, property owners or property less, French or British. His views
were even more universalistic than Locke’s. • Enlightenment writes held that reason revealed self-evident truths and that among
those truths were the natural rights of all peoples – some thought this meant slaves
and property owners and some thought women as well as men.
• The French Encyclopedia (1755) summarized many of the 18 century
Enlightenment views but unlike present day encyclopedias, the French one edited
by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Aembert between 1751-1780 provoked immediate
political and religious controversy. It challenged many beliefs and customs of its
time and earned the writers constant harassment and condemnation by the Catholic
➢ The “Natural Law” article cloaked serious challenges to the French monarchial
➢ It said it was a familiar idea because it was based on reason and common human
➢ It then said that by natural law the “general will” provides the only foundation of
social and political duties. The general will then teaches people how to
determine their natural rights. Thus this general will based on reason and nature
had very little in common with the usual justifications of monarchy – the concept
of general will might conceivably legitimize democracy instead.
• Monarchy was the dominant form of government everywhere in the world at the
➢ The French monarchy was based on “divine right”: monarchs ruled because God
had chosen them for their positions and Kings were imagined as literally closer
to God than all other humans.
➢ Kings subsequently had religious auras about them.
➢ An individual’s position was determined by his or her rank and one’s privileges
followed from social position. The chain goes as follows: royalty aristocrats
(nobles) commoners merchants servants etc.
• The Encyclopedia spoke the language of equal, individual human rights. The natural
law article made no mention of social differences or of kings. It ended with a clear
challenge to the monarchy: “the law should be made for everyone, not just one
person [the king]”. Diderot was the writer but he never specified the content of the
natural rights of humanity. He did say reason should be used to determine them but
then stopped before providing a list.
➢ This made sense given the situation because the mere insistence on “natural”
rights might be viewed as threatening to the established authority. Because the
French monarchy considered itself above ordinary mortals and closely tied to
the Catholic Church, it did not tolerate open criticism of its policies or variations
in religious practice. Even vague accusations made in the Encyclopedia brought
the wrath of French censors.
• The idea of human rights continued to gain strength in the 18 century due to being
propelled by campaigns for religious toleration and abolition of slavery.
• In 1685 Louis XIV revoked all rights and privileges of French Calvinists (protestants
who followed the teachings of the French-born reformer John Calvin), and required
them to convert to Catholicism. ➢ He ordered to destroy their churches, forbade public worship, confiscated
property of any Calvinist who fled, and condemned to the galleys any pastor who
refused to renounce his religion.
➢ 200,000 Calvinists fled into exile and were joined by another 100,000 in the
coming decades. Many stayed behind and practiced in secret.
➢ There was widespread support for this policy within the country but criticism
grew inside and out of France and fueled the Enlightenment as a movement of
➢ Throughout the 18 century public opinion grew favorable for Calvinists and the
Calas Affair brought reform sentiment to a boil.
o In 1761 the son of Calvinist Jean Calas apparently committed suicide at
home. The family did not report it as suicide because that would have meant
it was a crime and lead to a humiliating public trial. Local magistrates
believed that Calas had killed his son to prevent him from converting from
Calvinism to Catholicism they condemned the father to torture and death.
o Throughout the tortures Calas refused to confess and after the execution
Voltaire – an Enlightenment writer – took up the family case and won official
rehabilitation of Calas’s reputation and earned the family compensation.
o During this time Voltaire wrote Treatise on Toleration (1763) where he
argued that freedom of conscience was guaranteed by natural law and that
religious toleration would help endure social stability and prosperity. The
French government immediately confiscated the book and arrested people
that distributed copies.
• Due to the mounting criticism that had been ongoing for decades the French
monarchy gave way and granted, with much reluctance, certain civil rights to
➢ The Edict of Toleration of 1787 used a new language of rights by in their terms it
was not universal or inherent but limited privileges bestowed by monarchial
favor. It offered the rights of civil status (legally recognized births, marriages,
and deaths), property and inheritance, and freedom to choose a profession but
refused all political rights to Calvinists.
• The French government did not persecute the Jewish population as horribly as the
Calvinists but popular prejudices against them ran more deeply. In 1686 French
monarchy declared that Portuguese and Spanish Jews could remain in the kingdom
without converting. As France acquired more land in the east the Jewish population
grew. The Jews in southern France (Portuguese and Spanish) were similar to the
French but the new eastern Jews knew little French, wrote in Hebrew and spoke in
➢ By law the eastern Jews could not live in most big cities or practice most
occupations – they were restricted to trading in animals and old clothes and
loans with interest, which brought great animosity in the peasant-debtor
➢ The legal situation varied form region to region; they had no civil rights under
French law but they could live in their own communities, practice their religion and decide their political and judicial affair for themselves – unlike the
➢ By the 1780s enlightened opinion thought reform of Jews was necessary. Most
favored the reform so that Jews could assimilate with the French (Abbe Gregoire,
an advocate of the human rights reform). The monarchy set up a commission to
study the status of the Jews in 1788 but it never reached any decision.
• In the 18 century both slave trading and colonial commerce in the Caribbean
expanded dramatically, linked together by the establishment of sugar, indigo, coffee,
and cotton plantations worked by slaves imported from Africa.
➢ At the end of the 17 century the French supplied the colonies with 1000-2000
slaves annually but by 1780 that had risen to 37000 slaves.
➢ Slowly this began to raise opposition. In Great Britain and North American
colonies, antislavery agitation had religious roots in evangelical Protestantism
especially among the Quakers. But in Catholic France antislavery was rooted
from the Enlightenment’s very secular influence on universal human rights.
➢ Some of the greatest beneficiaries of the social system in French monarchy took
a stand for the antislavery movement that emerged in the 1780s.
o Marquis de Condorcet wrote against slavery and the burning of sodomites
(homosexuals) saying that as long as an activity did not violate any human
rights, it should not be criminalized. He joined the Society of the Friends of
Blacks which was to agitate collectively against the slave trade. Their
pamphlets argued that slavery should be abolished but did not advocate a
plan to make this happen – due to the still strict reign of the monarchy.
• During this time women were unsuited to political life. There was a lack of interest
for women’s rights unlike the Jews or slavery. Most women even believed that they
belonged in the private sphere of the home and did not play a role in public affairs.
The woman question received a boost during the Revolution period.
➢ The monarchy faced a financial crisis in the 1780s (brought on by supporting the
North American colonies war against Great Britain) and struggled to find an
answer to the debt. After failing to get agreement from Parliament or the nobles
assembly, Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General in 1789 (hadn’t metrd
since 1614). He invited the three estates: the clergy, the nobility and the 3
estate (everyone who was not a noble or cleric) to elect deputies to draw up lists
➢ The king had not invited women so a few took the matter in their own hands and
sent him their own petitions outlining their concerns. The women were modest
and did not demand full civil and political rights.
➢ By 1789 communication had evolved, mail was easier, and the monarchy could
not control the vast amount of pamphlets issued on every political topic.
➢ Voting was of the highest concern. The king gave the 3 estate twice the number
of deputies and left it to the Estates General to decide whether it would vote by
order (estate – would give the clergy and nobility virtual veto) or head
(individually – would give 3 estate the upper hand). The political future of the
country depended on this matter. ➢ A pamphlet by Abbe Sieyes showed the wider implications for the nature of the
French society. He attacked every form of legal privilege and said the nobility
was a parasite. He gave a new vision of the nation in which individuals were not
judged and ranked only by their contribution to productive life, not by their
family background and inherited privileges. The 3 estate would be dominant. It
electrified readers and helped the 3 estate hold strong against the two
“privileged” orders. Sieyes was elected deputy of the 3 estate. The idea of
nobility and aristocracy was called into question.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789
• The American War of Independence helped make notions of human rights more
influential in France because many of the French officers who served in North
America came home fired up with the ideals of the liberty they had seen in action in
the New World.
• Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence of 1776 put the Enlightenment
position on rights into a declarative, political form. The protection of these rights
justified the colonial resistance against Great Britain but it had no legal relationship
to the constitutions that were written later. When the Americans declared their
rights they drew on the constitutional tradition they inherited from the English.
• The idea of proclaiming a bill of rights passed over to the American colonies in the
1770s where several state legislatures drew up such bills when they wrote new
state constitutions. The best was the Virginia Bill of Rights by George Mason in
1776. It influenced the French deputies when they met in1789. Like Jefferson’s
Declaration of Independence, it proclaimed the rights of all men not just Americans
or Virginians. The new US Congress was discussing a federal bill of rights about the
same time as the French National Assembly considered drafting a declaration of
their own – the idea of making a solemn declaration of rights was definitely in the
• On June 17, 1789 the deputies of the 3 estate proclaimed themselves the true
representatives of the nation and invited the deputies of the two other estates to
join them as deputies of a National Assembly. The 3 estate had changed the
political situation of the country and as a National Assembly they began writing a
constitution based on their new principles. Marquis de Lafayette offered the first
proposal on July 11, 1789 of a declaration of rights.
• July 13: Parisians learned Lourd XIV has secretly fired his finance minister, Jacques
Necker, a supporter of the 3 estate. This led to bands of Parisians arming
• July 14: an armed crowd attacked the most imposing symbol of royal power in Paris,
the Bastille prison. The crowd cut off the head of the prison governor and paraded it
through the streets. They feared that the movement of thousands of army troops
into their city presaged an attack on the new National Assembly which met in
nearby Versailles. The old leaders, from the king and down, began to lose their
authority. The need for a declaration of rights was more pressing and urgent than
ever. • Debate in August on the declaration revealed great diversity on opinions about the
desirability of making any kind of proclamation of specific rights. At this early stage
of discussion the connection between natural rights and democracy as a form of
government had already emerged – some argued that democracy would work for
America but not for France. The National Assembly ultimately created a document
of rights with seventeen articles.
• The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen spoke the language of “the natural,
inalienable and sacred rights of man”.
➢ It stood as a preamble to the constitution and provided the principles of political
legitimacy. It provided the basis for government itself and was consequently
drafted before the constitution.
➢ It laid out a vision of government based on principles completely different than
those of the monarchy.
➢ The legitimacy of government must flow from the guarantee of individual rights
by the law unlike the monarchy, which depended on the king’s will and his
maintenance of a historic order that granted privileges according to rank and
Debates Over Citizenship and Rights During the Revolution
• After the declaration had been adopted the question of who was included in the
definition of “man and citizen” was brought up. Where should the lines be drawn?
Women? Nonwhites? Slaves? The question of citizenship helped drive the
Revolution into increasingly radical directions after 1789 ad one excluded group
after another began to assert its claims.
• French legislators approached the question of citizenship step by step for 5 years
• Between 1789-1791 the National Assembly drafted legislation to establish a
constitutional monarchy. To qualify for voting, men had to be property owners, but
all other noble titles were eliminated.
• An elected Legislative Assembly subsequently took office in 1791 but was not stable
because 1) the king tried to flee to the border in disguise and 2) large numbers of
former nobles left the country to form armies to combat revolutionaries.
• War brought political conflicts to a head. April 1792 France went to war with
Austria and lost a series of critical battles.
➢ They were then threatened by foreign invasion and a popular uprising in Paris
on August 10, 1792 forced the Legislative Assembly to depose the king from his
➢ The second revolution opened a much more radical period in French politics.
The voters elected new deputies, who abolished the monarchy and established a
republic. Meeting as a National Convention the deputies tried the king for
treason and ordered his execution.
➢ The republic faced an increasingly broad and desperate war with all the major
European powers, most of them monarchies deeply suspicious of republican or
democratic forms of government. • Between 1792-1795 the National Convention ruled by a combination of laws and
emergency decrees. It suppressed property qualifications for voting and eventually
abolished slavery in French colonies but still forbade women to set up their own
political clubs, and established new forms of censorship and repressed most forms
of political dissent.
• Under a regime known as Terror until 1794, revolutionary tribunals sentenced
thousands of opponents of the government to death at the newly invented guillotine.
Rights and revolution had a paradoxical relationship: some rights were opened
(abolishing slavery) but suppressed others (freedom of speech).
• After 1795 constitution came into force and the political situation became steadier.
The guillotine was used less frequently to terrorize opponents and it tried to rule by
law rather than emergency decree.
• The discussion of rights had reached its end and political divisions erupted.
➢ Royalists wanted to reestablish the monarchy and bring back the nobility
➢ Left-wing republicans wanted to revive the political fervor of 1792-1794
➢ Right-wing republicans wanted a more authoritarian form of government with
strong central leadership.
• In 1799 General Napoleon Bonaparte seized opportunity in the midst of uncertainty
took charge of an entirely new government that turned in an increasingly
authoritarian, militaristic direction.
➢ 1802: reestablished slavery in French colonies
➢ 1804: new Civil Code relegated women to a legally inferior status
➢ Throughout he strictly controlled the press and other publications.
➢ The glory of the nation now took precedence over the rights of the individual,
however he did guarantee freedom of religion, access to official positions based
on merit, and equality before the law.
• Human rights philosophy helped undermine the traditional monarchy and provided
legitimacy of the revolutionary regimes.
• The Declaration of the Rights for Man and Citizen announced universal principles
applicable to every individual in the nation, if not world. The force of its universal
logic seemed to support and provoke demands for inclusion in the political process.
It therefore pushed the Revolution into radical directions but did not by itself create
a permanent foundation for rule.
➢ Some argue that it was sound but too far ahead of its time, that it gained
advocates too slowly.
➢ Others say it and human rights are inherently flawed because they are too
universalistic and too abstract.
The Poor and the Propertied
• The decision to impose property qualifications for voting and holding office
commanded nearly unanimous assent at first but came under attack not long after.
• In 1789 they voted to establish a constitutional distinction between active and
passive citizens – those who could vote and hold office (political rights) and those
who enjoyed equal protection under the law in matters of marriage, property, or
religion (civil rights). • Abbe Sieyes was the one who argued for the elimination of the privileges of the
nobility and the clergy then proposed the active-passive distinction in July 1789.
They believed that officeholders first had to prove their own worth by doing well
enough to own property.
• The second revolution of August 10, 1792 forced the Legislative Assembly to abolish
the active-passive distinction and grant the vote to all men except servants and
unemployed. The Constitution of 1793 was passed but then shelved (never put into
action) gave servants the full right of citizenship but the Constitution of 1795
excluded them once again.
• Debates over the status of servants, the propertyless, and the poor continued in
France and elsewhere in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century and
were not definitely resolved until the twentieth century.
Religious Minorities and Questionable Professions
• In December 1789 the deputies began to debate the unresolved status of non-
Catholics. There was debate over whether the declaration automatically included all
Protestants or not.
• Economic and political rivalries between the competing religious groups exploded
in violent street fighting in June 1790 where nearly 400 people died, the majority
• With the issue of Protestants rising came debate over the status of Jews, actors, and
• The status of the Jews proved to be much more divisive than the Calvinists because
their civil rights had already been guaranteed by the monarchy in the Edict of
Toleration of 1787.
➢ Unlike the Protestants, the Jews did not seem to be automatically French because
they did not speak French and their social customs were very different from
those of the French communities surrounding them.
➢ Those who favored full citizenship for the Jews did so on the ground that the
Jews would not longer enjoy any separate status. The Jews could no longer be a
nation within a nation and they had to assimilate to the French nation.
➢ The majority of the deputies refused immediate action and tabled the question
and leave it for future consideration.
➢ By tabling the decision rights were actually taken away from the Portuguese and
Spanish Jews in the south of France. They sent a delegation to Paris to plead
their case and on January 28, 1790 the National Assembly declared that
Portuguese and Spanish Jews would enjoy their previous rights and would have
to meet the other requirements to qualify as active citizens.
➢ The Jews of Paris and Eastern Europe prepared a case of their own that they
become full citizens of France but the deputies turned down their request.
➢ Due to the opposition to Jewish emancipation led to peasant riots against the
Jews in eastern villages in the summer of 1789 – peasants singled out who owed
them money. These disturbances continued sporadically in 1790 and 1791. ➢ On September 27, 1791 the National Assembly finally acted in favor of the Jews –
they had to renounce their privileges as a separate group in order to enjoy the
rights of an individual French citizen.
• The question of national identity would emerge later in more purely linguistic form.
People all over the nation spoke different languages. At the beginning of the
Revolutions the deputies paid little attention to the linguistic differences but some
worried for the potential divisiveness. The government made some attempts to
stifle the use of languages other than French in 1794 but made little headway and
they soon dropped the plans.
• Actors and executioners fared better than the Jews in the debates of December
1789. They had been denied voting rights before 1789 because they practiced
disreputable professions but now the deputies agreed that a man’s profession could
not disqualify him from rights that applied inherently to all men. Even though these
groups were given rights the deputies continued to believe that some groups should
• As the Revolution turned increasingly radical after 1792 religious minorities and
sometimes majorities found themselves confronted by a new form of intolerance.
• In addition to drawing up a new calendar in 1792, the most radical republicans
mounted a de-Christianization campaign to attack the prerogatives of the churches.
➢ The Catholic Church was their main target but they also closed synagogues and
Protestant churches, burned religious books, exiled rabbis, pastors, and priests
and confiscated religious objects.
Free Blacks and Slaves
• Most deputies feared the effects of the loss of commerce that would result from
either the abolition of slavery or the elimination of the slave trade.
• Lost of wealth depended on slavery – shipbuilding, sugar refining, coffee
consumption, and a host of subsidiary industries rested on the slave trade. Slave
owners and shippers did not intend to give up their prospects without a fight.
• The US’s refusal to give up slavery or the slave trade added fuel for their position.
• The Society of the Friends of Blacks continued to fight for limitation or abolition of
the slave trade but came under intense attack for their views. The result was
apologetic tones when proposing for abolition of slavery.
➢ They continued their fight in the National Assembly but were confronted with
growing hostility to their position so they retreated from abolition of slavery and
instead fought for the abolition of the slave trade.
• The Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue wanted representation in the new National
Assembly and sent delegates to France – the mulattos sent delegates as well. Both
failed to gain representation.
• The agitation in favor of granting rights to free blacks and abolishing the slave trade
created uncertainty in the colonies and raised expectations from the blacks. White
planters mounted their own counterattack and even began to contemplate
demanding independence from France.
➢ To quiet the unrest among the powerful white planters, the colonial committee
of the National Assembly proposed in March 1790 to exempt the colonies from the constitution and to prosecute anyone who attempted to prompt uprisings
against the sl