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Declaration Of The Rights Of Man And Citizen History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The French Revolution produced many changes both in France and in Europe as a whole. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) could be argued to have laid the foundations for the human rights we know today [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] . Nationalism became an emerging force in the Revolution [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] and spread throughout Europe and could be argued as a contributory factor in both World Wars. The most significant and long ranging of these changes was democracy. The template of society in a democratic country, which forms how most free societies work today, could be argued to have been based on the French system of elected government, as one historian remarks, in the nineteenth century ‘…France provided the vocabulary and the issues of liberal and radical-democratic politics for most of the world’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .

When discussing the origins of the French Revolution, the American Revolution must be mentioned. The mythical effect of a people fighting an unjust monarchy to gain the freedom to govern themselves could be argued as a contributing factor to the events of 1789. The heroic return of soldiers such as Lafayette from the war in America arguably produced a longing for Liberty. Lafayette wrote to Washington a few years after his return that ‘…The ideas of liberty have been since the American Revolution spreading very fast’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .

The situation in France was one of unjust taxes, weak state finances and a King that seemed unable to govern.

The three tier Estate system in France placed a quickly increasing tax burden on the Third Estate which constituted the majority of the population, but was also often the poorest. This unhappiness with the status quo culminated in the Cahiers des doleances of 1788 which gave voice to demands of the Third Estate for equality and their presentation at the Estates General in 1789.

The effect of the Enlightenment and ideas of liberty, equality and sovereignty of the people could be argued as further fuel to the fire. The writings of men such as Rousseau, hailed ‘the father of liberty’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] gave a voice to the Third Estate. Rousseau did not advocate the use of violence, it could be argued his philosophy advocated an enlightened monarchy and that democracy could only be achieved if ‘…men were gods’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] and completely unselfish, yet he is associated with the storming of the Bastille in the 14th July 1789. A bust was carved of Rousseau from a stone taken from the Bastille and engraved with the words Libertié, Egalitié, Fraternité [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] which is often described as the national motto of France.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) can be argued as the foundation of many constitutions in democratic countries. The right to free speech, freedom of religion and presumption of innocence before the law until guilt is proved, are all rights outlined in this document and adopted as part of, for example, the American Bill of Rights (1791). These rights are arguably a hallmark of democracy and a legacy of the French Revolution.

During the 18th century France was the ‘…most powerful and populous state of Europe (leaving Russia apart)’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] . France had a population five times larger than that of America and was considered more civilized [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] , this could be argued to mean that although America was the first to institute democratic ideals; France was the first to have these ideals taken seriously around the world. It could be argued Napoleon invading Spain in 1808 is an example of France spreading its ideology and was a catalyst for the liberation of Latin America from the rule of Spain. Napoleon can be argued to have spread revolutionary ideology wherever he invaded, the idea that the masses could rise up and govern themselves is summed up by saying he inspired ‘…the dream of equality, liberty and fraternity, and of the people rising in its majesty to shake off oppression’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .

The Estates General of 1789 was elected by Universal male suffrage [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] ; this made France unique in Europe as even in Britain ‘…the legislature remained the preserve of the upper classes’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] . The blanket practice of a vote for every man over twenty five years of age and on the tax rolls was given various conditions of inclusion but Universal male suffrage became a long standing practice in France in 1848 [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] . The early introduction of the practice of a vote for every man by such an influential country could be argued to show how this principle of democracy spread throughout the world, one example of its influence was Britain expanding its voting franchise in 1832 with the Reform Act which could be argued to reflect the July revolution in Paris 1830.

The most striking change brought about by the French Revolution, which could be argued to show a shift towards democracy, was the move from absolutism to republicanism. France was regarded in the 18th century as the ultimate example of an absolutist monarchy [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] and as such could only provide inspiration for liberals across Europe who sought to change the status quo of their own monarchies. Britain is an example of this shift towards democracy as William Pitt campaigned for parliamentary reform, although unsuccessfully.

Separation of the executive, legislature and judiciary is often associated with democracies. It could be argued the way European governments functioned can trace their roots back to the French Revolution. It could be argued the writings of Montesquieu can be credited with the idea of the separation of powers becoming part of constitutional law, The Spirit of the Laws advocated this practice and although Montesquieu had observed this in Britain it could be argued as accidental rather than deliberate [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .

Legislative supremacy in modern France can trace it roots back to Rousseau’s Contrat Social [1] .Rousseau advocates the idea that laws can only be the will of the majority and so can only be made by the elected legislature and not by judges in courts of law. The practice of making laws being the concern of the legislature is still in evidence in countries across the world including Britain, Germany and America.

Modern democracies usually function on the discussions between political parties, these parties, in theory, represent differences in public opinion; one of the most polarised modern examples of this phenomenon are the ‘democrats’ and the ‘republicans’ in America [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] , these parties are often called left or right wing political parties. The name left and right wing politics finds its origin in the seating arrangements of the first French National Assembly where the proponents of the ideas of the Enlightenment sat on the left; while the supporters of the ancien régime sat to the right of the president of the Assembly [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] . Although this procedure is reversed in America [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] the division between the parties sitting either to the left or right of the leader of the Assembly persists [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .

The use of propaganda on a mass scale is a modern norm in the transmission of political ideas to the general populace, this practice originated during the French Revolution [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] . The use of pamphlets, cartoons and caricatures were used by French Revolutionary’s to promote national patriotism and unite the masses behind the cause. When the Republic was formed this propaganda took the form of coinage, which no longer showed the monarch, it showed a woman draped in classical clothing wearing a red Phrygian [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] cap of liberty [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .

The transmission of democratic ideas took the form writings by authors. One well known British born writer Thomas Paine was a promoter of democratic ideology; his defence of the French Revolution in his piece The Rights of Man (1791) is possibly more representative of democratic ideals at the time than any other author [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] . Jeremy Bentham was another example of democratic thinker using writing to spread democratic ideology, his piece Emancipate Your Colonies (1793) although berating of the French demonstrates his clear belief in the right of individuals to govern their own country [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .

Religious toleration and freedom is one of the principles stated in Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, this very toleration could be argued to mean that wherever one religion dominated; democracy would determine a dictatorship [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] , the separation of church and state in France could be argued as inevitable if this theory is accepted, due to the domination of the Catholic Church and the French republic fighting against dictatorship of any kind. With the spread of democracy across Europe in the nineteenth century; separation of church and state could be argued as a foregone conclusion.

If significance is measured by an enduring legacy, democracy can be argued as the most significant change to come out of the French Revolution. Most modern democracies show some of the same political framework formed by French revolutionaries, the elected legislature in France remains much the same as it was in the 18th century and many countries base their political structure on the French model. The right of everyman to vote, which was first introduced in 1792, remains a tenet of a democracy. The introduction of left and right politics, which can be attributed to the Revolution, remains in evidence in countries such as Britain and America. Although ultimately the Revolution produced a military dictatorship under Napoleon ‘…the seed of the democratic ideal would survive, so that all later democracies would stand to some extent in the French Revolution’s debt’ [CITATION ESt10 l 2057] .


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