In both the American and French revolutionary doctrines, the goal is to inspire and rouse a nation into rebellion. In order to complete such a monumental task, the authors center their declarations on the idea that citizens’ natural and “inalienable” rights are being taken away by the current government. In both the Declaration of Independence and The Declaration of the Rights of Man, natural rights are defined as god-given life, property, and liberty. Both doctrines emphasize that liberty lies in the insurance of safety and happiness of every man.
In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson states that men are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[i] The Declaration of Rights of Man states that among the “imprescriptible rights of man” are “liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.”[ii] Every man is born with certain rights, which are given to him by God and cannot be taken away by any government. These documents both go on to explain that when these natural rights are taken away, it is also the right of man to rebel and resist oppression.
The documents have many connections to John Locke’s second treatise, in which he argues that all humans belong to God, are born as equals, and therefore should live as equals.[iii] This philosophy is very prevalent throughout the revolutionary doctrines. In The Declaration of the Rights of Man, the National Assembly argues that “civil distinctions…can be founded only on public unity,”[iv] stressing Locke’s idea that men are naturally equal and inequality only comes as a result of society’s artificial distinctions. The focus of the American and French doctrines is that governments should protect equality and prevent restrictive class distinctions.
Every man has natural rights, but if the expression of one man’s rights infringes on another’s rights, then (and only then) his rights must be restrained. The doctrines contend that liberty results from every man expressing his rights but never violating another’s. Man’s “unalienable rights” are unalienable until they interfere with the happiness of society.
[i] Representatives of the United States, “The Declaration of Independence,” in The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings (Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 2003), 63-64.
[ii] National Assembly of France, “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” in The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings (Mineola: Dover Publications Inc., 2003), 80.
[iii] “Social Contract Theory,” Celeste Friend, Last modified October 15, 2004. http://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/#SH2b.
[iv] National Assembly of France, “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” in The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings, 80.