Study Guide

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen Compare and Contrast

By The Marquis de Lafayette

  • The Declaration of Independence

    The obvious choice would be to compare the two great declarations…because they have a ton in common. The Marquis de Lafayette based much of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen on the ideas and words of his friend Thomas Jefferson, who helped draft this declaration too.

    The two aren't exactly alike, they set out to accomplish very different goals, including trying to stick-it to very different kings, but they overlap in a lot of their Enlightenment era thinking.

  • The American Bill of Rights

    While the Declaration of Independence mentions equality and the idea that mankind has certain rights that can never be taken away, it stops short of actually listing them outright.

    That task is left up to James Madison, who wrote the Bill of Rights. It was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1789…the same summer that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was written.

    Coincidence? Probably not.

    Madison was a good friend of Jefferson, who was serving as Ambassador to France and hanging out with Lafayette while all these rights were being put into lists. They frequently shared ideas and read drafts of each other's writing, so the Bill of Rights for both America and France were created at the same time by cross-Atlantic pen pals.

  • John Locke

    One of the biggest, most revolutionary ideas within the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is popular sovereignty. You know: letting the people participate in their government by voting politicians in and out of office.

    One of the Enlightened philosophers who suggested popular sovereignty was the Englishman John Locke. He wasn't the first to come up with it, but through his writings he repeatedly championed the idea that people should be allowed some kind of say in their government.

    Like most Enlightenment thinkers, he was stealing ideas from the republic of ancient Rome and updating them with modern ideas of representation that reflected the will of the people. His thoughts would probably not have been popular with King Louis XVI, who thought that the only government participation people should have is politely asking him for something.

  • Jean Jacques Rousseau

    Rousseau was a French-Swiss guy who suggested getting rid of the class system decades before the French Revolution. And that makes him a strong influence on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

    Rousseau had some ideas that were way ahead of his time. He suggested that there's a social contract between leaders and the people they govern. If the contract is violated, the people should replace their leaders—a bold idea in a time of monarchies. He also said that when society makes distinctions between people—like calling some of them nobles and others peasants—that's the root of all inequality and unhappiness in the world.

    He took this idea to the extreme by suggesting people were better off living in the wilderness without the burdens of society. Most people choose not to go that far (um, modern plumbing is also a major source of human happiness).

    Even without people running off to the woods, he probably would have really liked the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; it was finally putting his philosophy to use.

  • Thomas Aquinas

    Hidden within the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is the idea that citizens have the right to start a revolution if their government isn't treating them fairly—which is a pretty bombastic statement to make.

    Remember that the Declaration blames all France's problems on the corruption of the monarchy and the National Assembly is trying to do something about it. This idea of fighting against tyranny comes from a 13th-century saint named Thomas Aquinas. He said it was okay to curb the powers of a monarch in order to avoid oppression, which by the way is not very Christian.

    Aquinas was kinda one of the first people to start asking kings WWJD. According to him, Jesus said not to become a dictator and take advantage of your power. We think that's probably good advice.

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