examining natural rights in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Men

Written within ten years of each other on the eve of two different revolutions, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Men remain today as influential revolutionary texts. While both documents examine natural rights, they do so in different contexts, for The Declaration of Independence was the assertion of a fledgling democracy’s right to political autonomy, while the Declaration of the Rights of Men enumerates and demands the protection of the individual natural rights of an oppressed class of citizens. Though the focuses of the two documents are different, examining them in tandem shows us the inextricable relationship between government and individual rights.

The Declaration of Independence lists the colonists’ grievances against the King of England and does not identify individual human rights, believing that these truths were “self-evident” (Blaisdell 63). The extensive list of complaints against King George are concerned with his interference in different institutions within the colonial government – cutting off trade, dissolving representative houses, and “refusing to assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” (Blaisdell 65). While this declaration is a response to the oppression of the natural rights of a sovereign nation, the Declaration of the Rights of Men was written in response to the oppression of individual rights – namely, those of the Third Estate, the class of all french citizens who were not part of the gentry or nobility. The Third Estate was burdened with “all the really arduous work, all the tasks which the privileged refuses to perform” (Blaisdell 72). The French National Assembly listed fewer grievances in their declaration than the American Continental Congress and instead offered a comprehensive outline of the natural rights of individual citizens, ranging from freedom of speech to the right to property.

Different though their content may be, each declaration examines half of the relationship between citizens and their government. Both the french and americans agreed that a government is instituted to protect its citizens’ rights, and in return for this protection citizens will sacrifice certain rights of their own. The Continental Congress shows us government protection of rights in action – an elected group of officials protesting the abuse of another power against their own citizens. The French national Assembly outlines the second half of this political equation, showing how citizens sacrifice for their government through acts such as paying taxes and limiting their natural right to those which will not infringe upon someone else’s. Together, these documents show us how individuals allow for the creation of government, and how a government allows for the protection of natural rights.

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