The Rights of Man and of the Citizen, French history.
Last evening somebody commented that it is odd the way the French regard France as “le pays des droits de l’homme” – the land of the rights of man.
Well, the French did write a very important document called “Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen” (declaration of the rights of man and of citizens) in 1789, and it is on this that they base their claim.
However, it does indeed need clarifying. What, exactly, are “the rights of man” ?
They are defined as “natural law”, that is law that is not governed or influenced by religion or authority. In other words:-
– the non-absolutism of the monarch
– religious tolerance
– the right to be tried by law
– the right to own property
– freedom of speech
– the right to “promotion” instead of inherited promotion
– the right to humane treatment
So, although France did indeed draw up this document, it needs to be said that most of these rights already existed in Great Britain, in Prussia (today’s Germany and Poland) and in the USA.
It also needs to be added that this “Declaration des Droits de l’Homme” was all very fine, but it did not include women, children, slaves, foreigners, servants, non-tax payers of any kind, men under the age of 25, or men who did not own land.
A quick time-line:-
1215, England: The Magna Carta. This document, drawn up under the reign of King John, reduces the monarch’s authority and entitles all “free men” (ie not serfs) to be tried by law.
1628, England: The Petition of Rights, Charles 1. Religious tolerance is established. The king marries a Roman Catholic (Henrietta Maria) and also offers protection to Protestants (Huguenots) in hiding in La Rochelle
1642, England: the English Civil War. The precedent that a monarch cannot govern without Parliament is established
1712, Prussia: Frederick the Great rules with an enlightened absolutism (ie the king cannot make arbitary laws), greatly supports religious tolerance and passes laws by which prisoners are to be treated humanely
1776, USA: Thomas Jefferson advocates free speech, human rights, religious freedom (ie not just religious tolerance)
1789, USA: The Bill of Rights, Madison
1789, France: the French Revolution
There is not the room here to go in to a proper discussion, and I don’t have time, though it would be fun. Meanwhile, just out of curiosity:-
votes for women:
New Zealand: 1893
(ignoring various suffrage movements, the first of which was in France in 1780, and ignoring partial laws etc)
(same footnote as votes for women).
My conclusion is that France is not really The Land of the Rights of Man at all, but that it did give it a name …. and so it has gone down in French history books as such.
Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. She is widely travelled and writes regularly for magazines and blog sites.