Study Guide

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

By The Marquis de Lafayette

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen Introduction

Here's a lesson that every child arguing with his parents learns before she's out of footie pajamas: you have to back up anger with reasonable demands.

This has been immortalized in a zillion cute-kid Youtube videos—negotiation is key. You can't just throw a temper tantrum. You have to discuss. You have to list what you want: access to cupcakes, a later bedtime, or full access to Mom's iPad.

And while this situation is adorable when the aggrieved party in question is a diplomatic three-year-old and the Powers That Be are exhausted parents, it's decidedly not adorable when the aggrieved party is the (very much adult) people of France and the Powers That Be are bratty monarchs.

In 1789 the French people had been screaming and yelling about how much they disliked their king and queen and about how they wanted a revolution. And finally people were listening (violent mobs tend to get that reaction). Now they had to say something smart so that everybody would take them seriously and not assume that they were just a bunch of guillotine-happy hooligans.

They needed a declaration—something to sum up what this revolution was really all about. Not a declaration of independence, because (a) that title was taken already, and (b) they weren't declaring themselves independent from anything, they were still planning on being thoroughly French. They just wanted more rights than the king was currently giving them.

So instead they came up with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which is kind of like if the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights had a sassy French baby together. It lists the rights that the French revolutionaries believed all male, French citizens should have in their government and does so in a strong declarative format (learned from those brave American revolutionaries).

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was the brainchild of the Marquis de Lafayette, who'd been a big part of the French military help in the American Revolutionary War, and Thomas Jefferson, who had some prior experience writing documents that outlined the basis for a new form of government that didn't include monarchs.

So did it work? Did the French people get full access to cupcakes and a later bedtime—er—equality and fair taxation? Did they, like the Americans, get rid of their king and start a new government based on equality and democracy?

Well…it's complicated.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was a success and remains the cornerstone of the present-day French Republic, but their revolution didn't go as smoothly as the one in America. In France there were a lot more beheadings, then a dictator,…and then some more kings, and then an emperor. It was messy and unpleasant, but they had good ideas all along as evidenced in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

So they get an A+ for ideas and an F for poor behavior and crazy leaders.

  

What is Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen About and Why Should I Care?

Here's something that will make you feel as patriotic as a bald eagle eating a slice of apple pie at a Fourth of July barbeque while wearing a foam Statue of Liberty crown: it turns out that the American Revolution wasn't a one-off.

Nope: it started something. People in other countries looked at this democracy thing those scrappy Americans put together and said, "Yes please, I'll have one of those, too."

Some of the places trying to Xerox this fun new American government were colonies that (much like the first thirteen U.S. states) they wanted to get their European overlords off their backs and go it alone. But others weren't colonies at all: they were nations where the people a) felt oppressed, b) thought their the leaders were inept, or c) just really liked the look of red, white, and blue.

France, as it turned out, checked all of those boxes.

France became the first non-colony to follow America's whole enlightened government experiment. And, despite not really turning out so well for a while, France wasn't the last. Most nations in the world today have some form of democratic republics. The names may change (they may have presidents or prime ministers and they may have senates or parliaments) but you have to search hard for a nation that still has an absolute monarch.

The American Revolution didn't just create one new nation of and by and for the people, it sparked a global change in how people are governed. France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is an example of how the United States exported some of its best ideas to the rest of the world…whether they were ready for them or not.

And bonus: if you're a brie-loving Francophile (who isn't? this is the nation that brought us Sartre and Edith Piaf, guys) you need to know a little something about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Because this little doc forms much of the backbone of the camembert-and-haute-couture-filled France that we know and admire today.

So whether you're waving the stars and stripes or the tri-color (or both), get your knowledge of some unalienable rights on with this historic bit of legalese.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen Resources

Websites

How the Declaration Contributed to…Everything
A ton of information about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen all in one place and explained by historians.

Video

Info to Help You Pass Any Test on the Declaration
An historian (and amateur You-Tuber) tells you everything you've ever wanted to know about the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in a college style lecture supplemented with visuals.

Whiteboard Theatrics Meet the French Revolution
One of those lectures where someone is illustrating everything that's being said on a whiteboard to make an amazing picture of what's taking place.

Images

Handed Down from On High
This is how the Declaration is often portrayed, like France's very own Ten Commandments.

Audio

"Give it Up for America's Favorite Fighting Frenchman!"
Lafayette gets the fastest song on the Hamilton musical soundtrack, "Guns and Ships."