Independence versus the Rights of Man

Apr 7, 2015 by

Over the course of my studies, I have had the opportunity to study both the Declaration of Independence produced by the American Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man produced by the French Revolution.  Comparing the two documents gives a lot of insight into the nature of these two revolutions.

To begin, let us start with the Declaration of Independence (DI).  The DI has three parts, Principles, List of Grievances, and Declaration of Independence.  In the first part, the convention gives an account of the rights that all men possess in virtue of their being born human.  This section lays down universal principles that cannot be overridden, ignored, or muted.  They apply not just to Englishmen or Americans, by all people.  This document begins from an acknowledgement of certain rights.  From here, it gets into the list of grievances.  This section lists how exactly their current government had violated their rights.  Finally, we have the actual declaration of independence, where the document concludes that the only course of action is to declare independence, as is their right according to the stated principles.  This document is an argument in two senses.  It argues for basic principles from which government can and must be evaluated by.  Also, this document argues, based on those principles, they have a right to declare independence.  This is a logical, universal document that shows a revolution clearly based on principle and not self-interest.

Next, let us analyze the Declaration of the Rights of Man (DRM).  This document is only one part, a list of the rights of man.  The DRM begins on a similar foot as the DI.  It states that the rights are natural and immutable.  However, the main difference comes when you read the rights themselves.  Where the DI puts political power in the hands of the people, and governments derive “Their just powers from the consent of the governed”, the DRM states that ALL sovereignty is derived from the “Nation”.  Article 3 states that no man or group has the authority to rise above the nation.  Now, rather than continue, this article seems to be flawed in several aspects.  First, what is the nation?  This was a concept even the French Revolution never really had a grasp on.  Is it the cultural identity known as French?  Is it the political boundaries of France?  Is it residing in a legislative group of the people?  The Monarch?  The government irrespective of form?  The problem here is that it is extremely vague.  The problem with vague is that the National Assembly who produced the DRM was a rebellion against the monarch, who could, to some very real degree, claim to be the nation.  Thus, the National Assembly itself is listing rights that it itself has possibly violated.  It it is merely a grouping of representatives, than who is to say the scope of this grouping?  Is it all regions who wish to participate?  If so, then could they not leave?  But if they were to leave, that would be a body taking sovereignty from the Nation, violating Article 3.  Is it the cultural identity known as French?  Well, not everyone in France spoke French at the time, so that would be a poor definition.  Is it the political boundaries?  Well who set those boundaries, and what about the regions recently gained, lost, or whose political control changed constantly?  What Nation are they a part of?  This one line of the document is so inconsistent, vague, disordered, and flawed because it represents the French Revolution itself.  However, Article 3 is not the only article, so let me move on.  As you move on to the next articles, the DRM begins listing the exact rights men have.  Yet, if you notice, all of these rights come with some version of the phrase:  except by law.  “These limits can only be determined by law” (4)  “Nothing can be prevented which is not prohibited by law.” (5)  While they are stating where the law cannot extend, allow the precise border to be determined by the law itself.  For instance Article 4 states: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law”  It states that no limit can be placed on actions that do not affect others.  That sounds like a right, but then they go and say that the law determines what affects others.  The effect of this is that you have the right to do whatever you want, except what we say you can’t.  This is the theme of the document in general.  You have the right to do whatever you want so long as the law and the mysterious nation permits it.  The effect is you have a nation as free as a prison yard.  Even if in practice the same rights were allowed in France as America, rights is not the correct word.  They become more privileges, things you are allowed to do for the moment.

In the end, these two documents really represent the two revolutions.  The American Revolution was an attempt to restore natural rights to the people and form a government derived from the consent of those people.  The French Revolution was an attempt for one body politic to gain control over the nation and gain power with the semblance of rights.

http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/index.htm

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