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The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is a legal document, which means it's basically 100% pure ethos.
Following the logic of popular sovereignty, it gets its power from the men (sorry ladies) who approved it. Those men are the representatives serving in the National Assembly, and they get their power from the men (sorry again, ladies) who voted for them. It assertively claims that it doesn't need power from the king (sorry Louis) because he isn't very good at his job and the people don't respect him (sorrynotsorry).
But it does claim to be written under the guidance of the Supreme Being…which sounds like science fiction, but they really just mean God.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen doesn't include personal stories of people wronged by King Louis. (Although it would have spiced it up if they included lines like: "The same year Marie Antoinette build herself an entire village on the grounds of Versailles to play dress-up shepherd girl, my children starved because there wasn't any bread.")
But don't worry people do plenty of complaining about the royal family in a later stage of the French Revolution…because there was plenty to complain about.
There also aren't any studies that have been done to suggest that these really are the rights that people should have. Although the authors had pretty much spent their whole lives reading Enlightenment philosophers and the last decade watching the Americans experiment with the whole idea of people having rights.
So they were basing it on some research, but none of that is mentioned in the document. It's just a straightforward, this-is-how-it-is-so-deal-with-it type of statement.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen begins with a really, really long sentence explaining what it's all about and why it was written. It's the kind of sentence your English teacher would cover in red ink and make you redo. But back then grammar wasn't as defined as it is today, so they could get away with stuff like that.
Next it contains seventeen articles that are a combination of rights that all men and citizens of France have and explanations of how government should work to protect those rights. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is a legal document, basically a bill passed by a congress. Its contents aren't exactly laws, they're more like the foundation that laws will eventually be built on, so it still has that straightforward, legalese-y structure.
Articles 1-4 all deal with explaining the basic idea that men are equal and therefore should have the liberty to do as they please. In addition to asking to government to butt out and give people more liberty, these articles explain that the government is only there because they've been given the authority by the people (popular sovereignty, y'all).
Articles 5-9, 16, and 17 all deal with the kinds of laws the government can and can't create and enforce. These all center around the idea of not infringing upon man's liberties or making men unequal. They set the groundwork for a constitution that will (presumably) clarify what exactly the laws are.
Articles 10 and 11 return to the idea of rights to stress the idea of freedom of speech and religion.
Articles 12-15 mention some topics that tend to be a wee bit controversial within governments. They make it clear that a military will be needed to protect people's rights and taxes will have to be collected to maintain a government. These are both carefully explained as being for the people in addition to the promise that they will be conducted fairly.
It's a mouthful, isn't it?
The reason that it's so long is that the representatives in the National Assembly wanted to make it clear that they weren't actually offering rights to everyone. At first glance the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen sounds great, but those last three words are important.
The rights only apply to men, and they only apply to French citizens (which at the time were defined as property owners). Sorry French ladies and renters, you don't have rights yet.
While the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence stays vague on these ideas, allowing people to assume that they meant mankind or at least all men regardless of wealth, the French didn't want to get people's hopes up. Only men who owned property could vote and participate in the French government.
Technically the document begins by noting that it was approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26, 1789. That was the day they passed the final article and submitted the whole thing to the people. Yeah; it's not terribly exciting.
The first sentence of the preamble clocks in at a whopping 147 words. This massive opening line explains the many purposes of the rights that follow. (We're going to bullet those explanations, because we loathe run-on sentences.)
So: the opening line states that the representatives have created this list because:
Yeah they do all that in one sentence. Way to go, guys.
There, um, aren't any.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen just ends with Article 17, which is about property rights. They apparently didn't think that it was necessary to include any profound last words.
(We definitely think they should have come up with a signature sign off. What the French Revolution needed was more mic dropping.)
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen isn't the most exciting bedtime story you've ever read…but it also isn't going to send you searching through the dictionary trying to figure out giant, archaic words.
It's a legal document written over two hundred years ago so yeah: it's a bit dry. However, it's also short, less than a thousand words. And the words themselves aren't especially big or complicated. The preamble has some run-on sentences, but then it's smooth sailing through the brief and to-the-point articles, which are almost snappy in their succinctness. As far as 18th-century writing goes, this is about as good as it gets.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract (2.1)
Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (16.1)
John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government (3.1-2)
Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence (Preamble.1)
Supreme Being (Preamble.2)
H.G. Wells, The Rights of Man, 1940
The original version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen contained twenty-four clauses, but only seventeen were approved by the National Assembly. The rest were rejected because the debate over them was taking too long. Some people are so impatient. (Source)
King Louis XVI refused to endorse the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen until October 5, 1789…and even then he only did so to try to convince the angry mobs outside his palace to leave him alone. It didn't work. (Source)
Each time France rewrote its constitution during the Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was also revised. The 1793 version had 35 articles and the 1795 had 22 rights and 9 duties. Imagine how long it could have gotten if Napoleon hadn't stopped the whole thing. (Source)
While historians know who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, it wasn't signed by anyone. During the French Revolution it was frequently depicted as being handed down, in tablet form, from the Supreme Being. Dang: talk about overcompensating. (Source)
Original copies of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen are on display in Paris at the French National Archives and the Musee de Carnavalet, where it sits next to liberty caps and models of guillotines. (Source)