French Revolution Blog #2: American and French Rights

The idea of human rights is not revolutionary.  Roman citizens enjoyed a wide variety of rights both written and unwritten. We've learned from Britain that it is possible to have an unwritten constitution that works - so why not uphold this example? Romans had rights, and they were male property owners. This is no different from how the Americans and French set up their 18th century "free" societies.

The idea of human rights is not revolutionary. Roman citizens enjoyed a wide variety of rights both written and unwritten. We’ve learned from Britain that it is possible to have an unwritten constitution that works – so why not uphold this example? Romans had rights, and they were male property owners. This is no different from how the Americans and French set up their 18th century “free” societies.

Rights are a fickle thing these days. Contrary to popular belief, they are not unalienable. Sorry Jefferson – you may have spoke a bit verbosely in the Declaration. The government can take away your rights when they deem it necessary. For instance, a person on probation for petty theft no longer has the same rights that other citizens have in America. They can be searched at any given time, and they cannot resist. This means that such a government can arrest anyone for a felony in order to effectively silence them, jail them, or otherwise harass them. Depending on your own taste, felonies may be a good or bad example, but you can hardly deny that we do this to felons. Those rights, folks, are not unalienable.

The Declaration of Independence tells us that “All men” have rights. It doesn’t say that some men, most men, or a lot of men have them. It says “all.” Society begins to crumble when citizens lose their rights. After all, the United States was the first society to adopt a bill of human rights, right? Nope.

Should we really take rights away from people under certain circumstances?

Should we really take rights away from people under certain circumstances?

It is a common misconception that the Bill of Rights – our first 10 Amendments to the US Constitution – were the first batch of useful civil rights drafted in modern history. This time, it wasn’t a bunch of nobles signing the Magna Carta to ensure their lineages. A document was drafted “by the people, for the people.”

The first document of basic human law was born out of the French Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was drafted in August of 1789, and Madison drafted the American version in September of 1789. They both spell out some essential rights that people need, and they are somewhat different in scope. The general idea is the same, though.

In the United States, we passed the Constitution with no mention of any rights for the common citizen. This is the opposite of how the French proceeded, because they adopted a bill of universal rights first and foremost. Maybe this has something to do with how disastrous the French Revolution turned out to be. The American approach of strengthening the highest level of government first definitely kept the country from falling apart. In France, that "falling apart" led to Napoleon's reign.

In the United States, we passed the Constitution with no mention of any rights for the common citizen. This is the opposite of how the French proceeded, because they adopted a bill of universal rights first and foremost. Maybe this has something to do with how disastrous the French Revolution turned out to be. The American approach of strengthening the highest level of government first definitely kept the country from falling apart. In France, that “falling apart” led to Napoleon’s reign.

The “French Bill of Rights” wasn’t perfect, though. Not for our modern backwards-looking eyes, anyway. Like the Magna Carta and so many similar documents before it, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen favors only one sex: Men.

Well, that didn’t sit right with Olymp de Gouges. She drafted a similar document aimed solely at women called The Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen. This was a groundbreaking first attempt at eliminating the ancient divide between men and women in the public sphere. It was too much too soon, though.

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The French Revolution Was Violent.

In A Short History of the French Revolution, Jeremy Popkin tells us that the original French Declaration - the one meant for men – caused a stir of controversy among the Bourgeoisie reformers. They felt that a document aimed at all citizens might incite civil unrest within the peasant ranks of society. That really is the best term for it too – peasant.

Why peasant? Well, that’s because France may have been as much as 90 percent filled with peasants during these revolutionary times. It’s hard to imagine so many peasants here in America, because Americans never really have had a peasant class. Richard Hofstadter discusses this topic in his monumental work The Age of Reform. In the United States,

Rightly according to Hofstadter, we've never really had a true "peasant class" in the United States. This famous painting, American Gothic, is a testament to the sort of faux-Bourgeoisie nature of our agrarian farmers.

Rightly according to Hofstadter, we’ve never really had a true “peasant class” in the United States. This famous painting, American Gothic, is a testament to the sort of faux-Bourgeoisie nature of our agrarian farmers.

agrarian farmers tend to be more capitalist and middle-classes when compared to their old world counterparts. This is why we don’t understand Europeans in the United States. We’re different.

If the French were upset with the document intended for men, it can only be imagined how they felt about Olymp de Gouges’ version intended for women. They killed her. That’s how they felt. It is quite ironic that one article in de Gouges’ Declaration states that, “woman has the right to mount the scaffold.” Sadly, she certainly did, and that is exactly what occured. She was Guillotined on November 3rd, 1793.

In The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, Timothy Tackett tells us that Olymp de Gouges was publicly screaming about the “perpetual tyranny” of men. This led to a debate about whether females were truly inferior to men in the first place. In The French Revolution in Global Perspective, its editors remind us that Olymp de Gouges was also an abolitionist. This small and often-omitted fact about her may have led to her untimely death, because – like in America – the French carried out a revolution for the “common people” while they still owned slaves. The Haitian Rebellion and its implications wouldn’t begin to set in on the French until the dawn of 1792.

Is this humorous picture going too far? Perhaps not.

Is this humorous picture going too far? Perhaps not.

What does all this say about basic human rights, though? Our rights were hard to secure, that is for sure. But wait – do we even have rights? The Patriot Act allows the government to take away our rights for a broad number of reasons.

The Patriot Act is better known as the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” We were told publicly that the Patriot Act – laughably the enemy of what patriots fought for, at least in part – expired in 2015. If you look this up, however, you will find that our Federal Legislature has re-enacted the expired portions. That’s right! Your phone can be monitored for a broad number of reasons which ultimately amount to any old reason.

Life really is a big, dangerous machine. Don't get caught up in it  too much! Save yourself!  Well, don't be fooled into thinking that you truly have rights in a society that also has "The Patriot Act."

Life really is a big, dangerous machine. Don’t get caught up in it too much! Save yourself! Well, don’t be fooled into thinking that you truly have rights in a society that also has “The Patriot Act.”

When people like Olymp de Gouges try to claim lost rights – they end up gobbled up in the wheels of progress. Life is an uncontrollable machine, and the wise stay out of its path. Some ideas are laughable - and the idea of “unalienable rights” may just be one of those laughable ideas.

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