Study Guide

On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Compare and Contrast

By Eleanor Roosevelt

  • Magna Carta

    It might sound a whole lot like Disney's animated Robin Hood, but life under King John in the 1200s wasn't really worth singing about.

    For many years, King John ruled England absolutely and arbitrarily because he was king and could do that. When he lost a bunch of land to France, King John raised taxes to pay for a war to get that land back. However, it failed (pretty spectacularly as those things tend to do), and King John needed even more money to end the conflict.

    But the English barons had had enough and refused to pay the increasingly high taxes. Instead, they threatened to go to war with the king unless John agreed to sign the Magna Carta, a document that guaranteed them certain rights and limited the king's power.

    You can bet John wasn't too crazy about doing that.

    Unfortunately for him, there really wasn't much choice. Civil war broke out, and the rebels eventually gained control of London. The Magna Carta was intended to serve as a peace treaty but had to be reissued multiple times to avoid further conflict.

    That said, the legacy of the document is what's most important. It's the first constitution in European history, and even though many of the benefits remained reserved for the upper class well into the 17th century, the Magna Carta served as inspiration for the American colonists as they drafted the Declaration of Independence.

  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

    When the French joined the American colonists in the fight for independence in 1778, defeating Great Britain suddenly didn't seem like such a crazy idea. And if the British colonies could transform themselves into a republic, France could do it, too.

    The Marquis de Lafayette, with a little help from Thomas Jefferson, wrote and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. The French people were tired of living in extreme poverty while the king and queen lived in complete excess, and they felt they were guaranteed certain rights.

    Not unlike similar documents from the time, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen focused on men—that is, only male French citizens got the rights included in the declaration. But it was still a step in the right direction and remains to this day the foundation of the French government.

  • The Bill of Rights

    When the American Revolution ended in 1783, suddenly the newly formed United States needed to figure out how to govern successfully without reverting back to an absolute ruler. Monarchies were so 1774.

    It might be one of the most important parts of the U.S. Constitution, but the Bill of Rights actually wasn't included in the first draft. Most of the framers were convinced that a limited government was enough to protect individual liberties and basic rights. However, as the states debated over whether or not to ratify the Constitution, it started to feel like a pretty good idea—just in case.

    The Bill of Rights is significant because it guarantees personal freedoms and rights, and it also places clear limitations on governmental power. You can thank the first 10 amendments for, among other things, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to say "no" if a British soldier comes knocking on your door and asks to stay awhile.

    You can also thank the Bill of Rights for directly influencing many of the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—free speech is in that one, too.

  • FDR's Four Freedoms

    When FDR gave his State of the Union address on January 6th, 1941, everyone expected him to stand behind isolationist policies to keep the country out of World War II.

    But he actually did the opposite.

    FDR believed U.S. involvement in the war was inevitable, and he used this speech to try and prepare the American people. He said the United States had a responsibility as the largest and most powerful democracy in the world to protect other democratic nations when they're threatened by tyranny. He outlined the Lend-Lease Act, which would help the Allies currently fighting in Europe while stockpiling weapons for America's defense. It would keep the United States out of active fighting and boost manufacturing.

    But the speech gets its name from its second half, when FDR proposed four fundamental freedoms all people deserve to have...and freedoms the United States has an obligation to defend: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

    All four can be found to some degree in the U.S. Constitution, and they popped up again in 1948, when the U.N. approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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