By the late eighteenth century, America and France had developed a politically and socially symbiotic relationship. It was the tail end of the enlightenment, and France’s famous Encyclopédie had been published and read by thousands European and American citizens. This massive set of books contained subtextual political jabs and criticisms hidden in works from many famous philosophers. Their revolutionary ideas, such as Voltaire’s separation of church and state and Montesquieu’s separation of powers had heavy influences on their own country, as well as on the American colonists, who were becoming increasingly unwilling to cooperate with their mother country, Britain. Although each country’s revolutionary documents (America’s Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) were written in retaliation against oppressive governments, they were written to achieve different goals. The former was written to highlight mankind’s right to institute a new government when its current one is corrupt, whereas the latter was written to highlight and stress the importance of inalienable and universal human rights.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence to unify the colonies and persuade Britain to renounce its sovereignty over America. The piece declares that it is the sole job of a government to protect the basic rights of man—including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness— and if it fails, it is the people’s right to institute a new government. It then lists the most prominent ways in which the British King is governing his colonies tyrannically, and urges the people of the thirteen American states to unify and forcefully emancipate themselves from Great Britain completely, thus beginning the American Revolution.
France’s National Assembly wrote its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in a similar context: a time in which over ninety percent of French citizens were being underrepresented and mistreated by their government. Also a precursor to a revolution, this document stressed the basic rights of every man, which should be unanimously recognized and respected. It lists seventeen human rights, such as liberty, security, and resistance of oppression.
Although they have more similarities than differences, each document was written to inspire social and political change. Each group felt that its rights were being infringed upon, and the respective declarations of France and America illustrate their ideas of what they, as nations and as people, deserve.