The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen draws upon the ideals of the enlightenment philosophers to set a foundation for an ideal and equal government as well as to outline the restraints which should be placed on any governing body by the people to whom it administrates. The concepts, predominantly of John Locke, as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu are evident in this French political treatise. Security being the reason people give up their power to the government is a prominent theme in The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen as it seems to favor a more liberal government by giving the citizen many rights which until around this time period a ruling body was not always inclined to grant its subjects. This document also takes a somewhat relaxed view in the interference of God, as the “Supreme Being” is only briefly mentioned once throughout the entire article. This supports a growing theory of separation of church and the state. To every nature belongs a principle, and virtue is what this form of government wishes to strengthen. This idea is very evident in The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding and more importantly Two treatises on Civil Government, both written by John Locke, have shown their influence in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. In the second book of Two treatises on Civil Government the prominent idea is the state of nature from which all humans are born. “If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. “(2nd Tr., §123) The first right stated by the The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen states that men are born with certain unalienable rights and freedom. The second proclamation outlines the purpose of government as a body to protect these rights such as liberty, property, and security. Man is only to be hindered by what he consents to. These are all Lockean principles, and their influence in The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen is undeniable. John Locke’s theories on property are similar to those in this document as well. “The greatest part of things really useful to the Life of Man, and such as the necessity of subsisting made the first Commoners of the World look after, as it doth the Americans now, are generally things of short duration; such as, if they are not consumed by use, will decay and perish of themselves . . . . Now . . . every one . . . had a Property in all that he could affect with his Labour.”(Second Treatise on Civil Government, Sec. 46) This coincides with the French national assembly which states that, “Property is a sacred and inviolable right.” A final theory by John Locke which is evident in The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen is the abolishment of the divine right of kings, which holds the legitimacy and authority of a monarch to rule claiming that he derives his power from God. The king or queen is answerable only to God as well under this theory. In his Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government he gives the people the right to revolution against Tyranny. This subjects a monarch to the will of the people. Many points in The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen more or less so agree with this, including the third, sixth and twelfth right.
The influence of other enlightenment philosophers can be seen in The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen as well. Montesquieu’s separation of powers is another was another force influencing the French National Assembly’s work on this document. Some power is taken from rulers and given to the people in the 15th declaration of this document, “Society has the right to require of every public agent an accounting of his administration.” Also considering that the, “The source of all sovereignty resides in the nation…” this is a siphon of power away from any one ruling body.
One of the major enlightenment ideals was the idea of religious toleration. From the declaration, “No one is to be disquieted because of their opinions, even religious, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” This is a step towards the deism of the enlightenment first of all. Having this limited religious freedom would likely ensure that the religion of the average person upholds the highest morals possible without infringing of the rights of any said person. The philosophes of the enlightenment were able to deduce that the most heinous crimes of man were in the name of God and religion, so granting a good amount of religious freedom would undoubtedly be good for society in many ways. Voltaire was one of the men who advocated this policy the most during this time period. This clause in the The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen passively strengthened the idea that understanding and predicting the natural world with science and reason, not religion, would bring about the greater good of mankind. Learning was held above all other things by Diderot as well, this being the motivation for him to write his Encyclopedie. Finally it was this knowledge and understanding of nature through science that would push society away from the harsh constraints of any one religion because that religion was no longer relied upon to give its disciples an understanding of the workings of the universe. It is in this way that the political ideas of religious tolerance in the enlightenment carried over into the French document.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu exerted other influences of the enlightenment on The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. By subjecting the government and society to the general will, more freedom will be given to the people, even though he saw society as corruptive in nature. Montesquieu held that when power was taken out of the hands of say one individual or group society as a whole would benefit and the individuals therein would have greater political and economic freedom. The equality and fairness of laws promised by The Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen van be considered derived from the works of Montesquieu. “In a true state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it and they recover it only by the protection of law.”(The Spirit of Laws, Book 8) Thus making everyone subjected to law will bring about equality among all of the subjects of a nation. Montesquieu “…put his faith in the balance of power and the division of authority as a weapon against despotic rule by individuals or groups or majorities; and approved of social equality, but not the point which it threatened individual liberty; and out of liberty, but not to the point where it threatened to disrupt orderly government” (Against the Current, Sir Isaiah Berlin) and this is arguably the goal of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
In retrospect almost all of the rights guaranteed by the French document have their roots in the ideas of the enlightenment and of men such as John Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Ideas such as the social contract, religious toleration, and equality were prominent in this document as well as in the enlightenment. The government which The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen attempts to put forth and the newfound freedoms it grants aims to enrich the lives of the people it governs as a whole and bring about a greater understanding of nature and the universe through reason and science.