My study of the French Revolution has provided me an interesting opportunity to reflect more deeply on the American Revolution. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been comparing and contrasting the two as I write my current manuscript. Giving credit where credit is due, many of these thoughts have been inspired while listening to Great Courses: Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon.
Today, I was thinking about the difference between the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen. While it’s true that the path to republicanism started with a “declaration” of sorts for both the French and the Americans, but they are fundamentally different – although not incompatible - documents.
The American Declaration of Independence
I often call the American Declaration of Independence the world’s most famous complaint letter. It starts out with these words:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
After a bit more of an intro, the Declaration goes on to list the transgressions of King George III, such as:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on his rights of the people.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
In all, there are 18 offenses listed, and the quartering of troops lists several sub-offenses.
Note the use of “He” in each of these. This is the first time the Americans actually blamed the King himself, publicly at least. I guess if you’re going to commit treason, in for a penny in for a pound.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Since I don’t speak French, I pulled down an English translation of the French Declaration from the Yale Law School Avalon Project. Here’s the link if you want the full text.
Then Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen starts out with:
The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:
The Declaration then goes on to list 17 separate articles such as:
The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.
As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law.
No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.
I find it particularly ironic that a Declaration that led, albeit indirectly, to the Reign of Terror and the slaughter of an estimated 16,000 people who were pretty much treated to Kangaroo Court trials should have an article about presumed innocence. But maybe I’m being too much of a cynic.
At any rate, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is much more akin to our constitution, e.g., providing for trial by jury, freedom of expression, no harsh and unusual punishments etc.
Another quick irony here. As most of you know, the Declaration of Independence was largely written by Jefferson even though he was one of a committee of five. He did not have a hand in the Constitution of the United States as he was at the time where else? France, of course! He is said to have influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. So while Jefferson didn’t have a hand in writing the Constitution of the United States directly, it would be hard for me to believe that that document, signed by the Continental Congress in 1787, didn’t influence the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Like the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen lives on. It’s my understanding that has been incorporated into many of the fifteen different constitutions passed by various French Republics, including the most recent one.
What does all this have to do with writing romance novels?
Glad you asked. Nothing really. But my current manuscript is set during the French Revolution, and as I study this pivotal event in world history, this blog is my outlet for the random thoughts that might keep me up at night – or worse, end up in my manuscript - if I don’t share them somewhere.