Study Guide

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen Quotes

By The Marquis de Lafayette

  • Dissatisfaction

    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…(Preamble.1)

    Oof. Can't you just feel the dissatisfaction? They just called the government out on its corruption and blamed it for everything bad that's ever happened. It's about time someone did. Too bad these guys weren't around before they built Versailles.

    […] 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…(Preamble.1)

    Ouch. Yeah, they're saying that the current government (both the lawmaking and law enforcing parts) doesn't respect its intended purpose. That's another burn on them and another wave of discontent from the people.

    […] 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. (Preamble.1)

    These guys are so dissatisfied with the direction of their government that they're making plans for future complaints. Someday people will be able to just point to the right that was violated from a master list.

    The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation. (3.1-2)

    The fact that they have to explain this concept should tell you something about how the French people feel about their leaders. They don't have a lot of faith that the king is going to do the right thing. They define sovereignty for him as something that they're a part of too.

    A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all. (16.1)

    Again: just feel that frustration. This is a mini-list of things France doesn't have and really probably should, like a constitution, separation of powers, and observance of laws.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. (2.1-2)

    They're explaining what the role of the government should be, and at the same time setting up the aim of the government they wished they had. They're also listing the basic rights that all the others stem from.

    Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law. (5.1-2)

    This entire Declaration is about setting boundaries and trying to guess how the monarchy and nobility might try to cross them. Here they're explaining what the law can and cannot do and daring anybody to challenge it.

    Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. (6.1-2)

    When this was written France didn't have a true representative government, but they're suggesting that creating one is essential. This Declaration is super-hopeful about the future of France; these guys were optimists.

    All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes. (14.1)

    Again, it's all about citizens participating: a totally new concept to France where the king and his advisors had been running the show for…well, for basically ever. The representatives of the Assembly wanted to change that; they wanted to try running things for a while.

    Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration. (15.1)

    This is an example of them anticipating what might go wrong and planning ahead. They know that the tax-free nobles are crafty and they want to outfox them by demanding upfront that they account for themselves.

  • Rules and Order

    No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense. (7.1-3)

    No more arbitrarily doing things, especially when it comes to arresting people. The authors of the Declaration are telling everyone that France is now a place of rules and order. They're also telling the monarchy to stop it will the unlawful imprisonments.

    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. (8.1)

    Having a law in place that explains how to punish people means that society has order and you can't just go around arresting and punishing however you want. That would be anarchy. The representatives don't agree on much, but they're definitely anti-anarchy.

    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. (9.1)

    They want people to feel confident in the system. Remember that the National Assembly is auditioning to be the new government; they're trying to create a certain feeling of security. They want the French people to have faith that the rules will punish only the guilty.

    The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted. (12.1-2)

    A military creates order. It can be a balancing act as to how much order you want them to inflict, but most would agree that societies need at least some. The author's of this also want people to think that the military will be there to protect, not to bully.

    Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified. (17.1)

    Anyone who's ever been robbed of their property knows the feeling of a lack of rules and order. Preventing theft is a basic when creating societal laws, and when trying to get the people on your side.

  • Rights and Privileges

    Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law. (4.1)

    That's a lot of rights all rolled into one clause. People are given the right to do everything that doesn't take away someone else's rights—yeah, everything. This list could have gone on forever because people have so many rights. Fortunate for us, they capped it at seventeen and included this explanation for why there aren't more.

    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. (10.1)

    This is the French version of the right to free speech and the freedom of religion along with the idea that these rights have almost no limits. Again, laws are the only things that can limit right, and even then only if the laws were created for the greater good.

    The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law. (11.1-2)

    The right to free speech and press come with a warning about abuses. The authors are again worried that if they're not very specific, people may misuse this Declaration. Should the American version have included that too?

    A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means. (13.1-2)

    It turns out people don't have the right to not pay taxes; this is going to come as a surprise to a lot of nobles who haven't ever had to pay them before.

    All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes. (14.1)

    People now have the privilege of electing representatives to government and the right to pay fair taxes. They no longer have the privilege of a title that exempts them from taxes, or the right to literally lord over people.

  • Equality

    Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. (1.1)

    This is the ultimate liberty, that everyone is equal under the law—probably not an accident they put it first. Of course, they aren't actually including everyone—women and landless peasants are defined as neither men, nor citizens—but that's a wrinkle to be worked out later.

    The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. (2.1-2)

    This implies that everyone has certain rights and that they can't be doled out to a select few because they're not the government's to give. They're something we're all born with. The rights are natural; they're handed down from God, or a Supreme Being, or just something that isn't a king named Louis.

    Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. (6.1-2)

    Basically: judges have to apply the law in the same way to everyone. No more letting your friends off the hook and bringing the hammer down on your enemies. (This is a right that's difficult to enforce, btw.)

    All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents. (6.3)

    Okay, so people aren't literally equal: some are smart, some are short, and some are sleepy, some are dopey, and some are Doc. But the law can only make distinctions based on virtues and talents, not on things like titles and last names.

    A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means. (13.1-2)

    Taxes should be equal and proportionate. A peasant shouldn't pay the same as a banker, but they should pay the same percentage. It's complicated but fair…if they figure out a way to do it.