History Optional Paper- 2 Solution – 2014: Q.7 (a)

Q.7 (a) “The Declaration of Rights was the death-warrant of the system of privilege, and so of the ancient regime … Yet in the history of ideas it belonged rather to the past than to the future.” Examine. [2014, 20 Marks]


Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was one of the basic charters of human liberties, containing the principles that inspired the French Revolution. This declaration contained the following provisions which was the death-warrant of the system of privilege, and so of the ancient regime:

  • The basic principle of the Declaration was that all “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, which were specified as the rights of liberty, private property, the inviolability of the person, and resistance to oppression.
  • All citizens were equal before the law and were to have the right to participate in legislation directly or indirectly ; no one was to be arrested without a judicial order. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech were safeguarded within the bounds of public “order” and “law.” The offices and position were opened to all citizens.
  • Declaration was an attack on the pre-Revolutionary monarchical regime. Equality before the law was to replace the system of privileges that characterized the old regime. Judicial procedures were insisted upon to prevent abuses by the king or his administration.

In the history of ideas the Declaration of Rights belonged to the past because of the following reasons:

  • The sources of the Declaration included the major thinkers of the French Enlightenment, such as Montesquieu, who had urged the separation of powers, and Rousseau, who wrote of general will—the concept that the state represents the general will of the citizens.
  • The idea that the individual must be safeguarded against arbitrary police or judicial action was anticipated by the 18th-century parlements, as well as by writers such as Voltaire.
  • French jurists and economists such as the physiocrats had insisted on the inviolability of private property.
  • Other influences on the authors of the Declaration were foreign documents such as the manifestos of the Dutch Patriot movement of the 1780s and ideals of American Revolution which were represented in the “Virginia declaration of Rights”.

But the declaration was not futuristic because:

  • The state had ceased to be simply a territory under a single authority; it had become a people, a nation, and as the Declaration stated ‘the source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.’ No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation. Unlike American declaration of rights, which assumed a prior existence of natural law and that man was obliged to obey it, the French declaration kept the responsibility to ensure that the rights of the individual were to be carried with the society or state at large.

  • The age of individual rights was not beginning but ending. The Declaration was the conclusion, not the commencement, of a great intellectual development and is far from summing up the revolution in political ideas that the democratic movement of the later eighteenth century brought about.
  • Also there were many shortcomings: At the time of writing, the rights contained in the declaration were only awarded to men; the declaration was a statement of vision rather than reality; from the times of Napoleon, it encountered opposition as democracy and individual rights were frequently regarded as synonymous with anarchy and subversion.

  • Despite the limited aims of the framers of the Declaration, its principles could be extended logically to mean political and even social democracy. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen came to be, as was recognized by the 19th-century historian Jules Michelet, “the credo of the new age.” Also the declaration served as the preamble to the subsequent Constitutions of France.

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