Olympe de Gouge: Declaration of the Rights of Women, 1791

Olympe de Gouge tests the Declaration of the Rights of Man with her own Declaration of the Rights of Woman. She questions what benefits woman gained from the Revolution. When “man” became free from the Revolution, he turned injustice onto woman. Woman were treated as though inferior, French legislators taking the position that there was nothing in common between men and women. De Gouge encourages women to stand up against this false superiority and unite to gain the rights women deserve. De Gouge brings up the contradiction that a married woman can have bastard children who and they will still benefit from their father’s wealth and also their name. However, if a woman is unmarried, her children cannot receive any of their father’s wealth nor their name. She also realizes that men will have to deal with this matter and women have to wait for that to happen. She proposes that in the meantime women prepare for this “through national education, the restoration of morals, and conjugal conventions”.

De Gouge wrote up and “Form for a Social Contract Between Man and Woman”. In it, she writes that man and woman should unite for common preferences such as pooling wealth together instead of man carrying all the wealth and controlling what happens with it. The idea of a woman sharing a man’s wealth and having just as much control over it as man, being able to reserve the right to hand it down to their children or choose to pass it on to someone who they thought deserving, is a revolutionary idea. Another such revolutionary idea of de Gouge’s is that there be a law forcing man to pay, or leave money for, a widow and her children.

At the end of her “contract”, de Gouge suggests that making laws that favor women equally to men will improve the French government, and make it stronger. “prejudice fails, morals are purified, and nature regains all her rights”.

The French and American Declaration

The French and American Revolutions are two of the most famous revolutionary movements in the history of mankind.  The revolutions are very similar, mainly in the writing that led up to revolution.  The United States’ “Declaration of Independence” and the French’s “What is the Third Estate”, “Decree Upon the National Assembly”, “Tennis Court Oath”, and “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” all outline very similar grievances that the people are rising against.

In the “Declaration of Independence” the Continental Congress wrote “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  In the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” the French wrote “The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible right of man; and these rights are Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression.”  The common theme in those two quotes is the word Liberty, which is “the state or condition of people who are able to act and speak freely” (Dictionary.com).  While the Patriots and the French had smaller grievances, specific to their situation, Liberty is the most overarching one.  Both groups felt underrepresented by their controlling body, the English monarchy for the Americans and the French monarchy for the French.  Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès wrote his “What is the Third Estate” after the American Revolution but it applies to what was happening in the colonies as much as it did to what was happening in France.  Sieyès wrote “1) What is the Third Estate?  Everything.  2) What has it been until now in the political order?  Nothing.  3) What does it want to be?  Something.”  Both the American colonists and the French citizens wanted recognition from their controlling government but more importantly they wanted the rights they felt they deserved.

The colonists way of gaining “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” was to declare independence from Britain.  They wrote in the Declaration of Independence “these United Colonies are, and of Right out to be Free and Independent States.”  The French offered up a similar solution, however their monarch was not an ocean away.  The “Third Estate” formed the “National Assembly”, which consisted of “at least ninety-six per cent of the nation.”  The “National Assembly” wrote in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” that they had “resolved to set forth in solemn declaration, these natural, imprescriptible, and inalienable right; that this declaration being constantly present to the minds of the members of the body social” effectively declaring their own independence from the monarchy.

While the American and French revolution happened an ocean away and began about 13 years apart they followed the same track in action and writing.



French and American Revolutions

The American Revolution and the French Revolution may have been at separate times, but the societies of both influenced the genesis of their respective revolutions. The relations of the revolutions to each other can be described as symbiotic. French philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Montesquieu and English thinkers that influenced American revolutionary thought such as John Locke all drew from each other to spur revolution. Because of the different situations of oppressive rule in their respective countries, however, their declarations are notably different. While the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man were different documents in terms of structure and language, the reason for writing was the same: namely to remedy the violation of the rights the writers believed were inalienable. The differences in these natural rights between the two declarations are a foreshadowing of the future success of these revolutions.

The revolutionaries in the American colonies did not need to worry about immediate retaliation from their King; he was overseas. In addition, the concerns of the people were mostly political and not social. Over all, the Declaration emphasized the violation of certain natural rights and the need to regain these rights: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Blaisdell 64). The Declaration also mentions the importance of prudence in the upheaval of government. These rights are concerned with stability and the overall happiness of the country as a whole; it is clear that the American revolutionary thinkers proposed the Declaration of Independence with the intention to eventually create a stable, functioning, and independent country that attempts to address the concerns of its citizens to a reasonable degree.

The Third Estate of the French, or the entire population of France save the clergy and nobility, faced a different dilemma: they lived in close proximity to their ruling class. However, the discontent of their audience from the wrongdoings of the ruling class was much more widespread than in the colonies. As a result, revolution was possible at the cost of social upheaval with no insurance of stability. Natural rights are also addressed first and foremost in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. However, these rights differ from the Declaration of Independence because of the writers’ contrasting priorities. By emphasizing “Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression,” it becomes obvious that the French are more concerned with social upheaval through the elimination of the First and Second Estates than with political change (Blaisdell 80).

These differences in priority can be thought of as a foreshadowing of the success of these revolutions. In focusing on outright social upheaval without thinking about the political consequences, the French failed to create a stable basis for government the first time. On the other hand, the American, future-oriented approach to revolution created a secure starting point to create a new government.


The Power Of a Unified Nation

The revolutionary texts of both France and the United States focus on the injustices of the people have faced, and both appeal to the natural rights of man. One crucial difference between the two country’s texts, though, foreshadowed the ultimate success or failure of their respective revolutions: who the texts targeted as the barrier to the health of the nation. While the United States looked to the foreign, English King as the enemy of the people, France looked at members of its own citizenry as enemies of the country—a difference that proved destructive to France after its Revolution.

The Declaration of Independence paints the King as the source of all of the colonies’ problems. It is he who has refused to pass laws for the good of the people, and he who has prevented the people from receiving their proper representation. It is, in fact, one long catalogue of every way the King has wronged the American people. By targeting one single person as not only separate from, but an enemy to, the people, the Declaration of Independence was able to unite the people around a shared anger and identity; by clearly identifying the King as their common enemy, they were better able to band together as a unified nation. Indeed, the Declaration repeatedly refers to the collective “us”; it was “our most valuable Laws” that the King abolished, and the King has forced troops among “us” (p. 65). Thus, it creates a unified mass of people, banding together against the King.

France, by contrast, points its finger at its own people as the enemy. As Sieyès rallies the Third Estate together, he declares that “nineteen-twentieths” of France is burdened with the jobs that the privileged “refuse to perform” (p. 72). Thus, he creates a sharp division between 96% of the country, and the seemingly lazy remainder of the population. The First and Second Estates, he makes clear, are the enemies of the Third. Even in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, there is a division among the people; the Declaration only supplies for rights that would help the Third Estate. For instance, it provides for the freedom and equality of all men at birth, something that the First and Second Estates had no need for. Thus, even the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document meant to protect the whole citizen body, really only belonged to the Third Estate, and was forced upon the First and Second. A document that truly belonged to the whole populace would have included provisions for not just the Third, but the First and Second Estates as well. Unlike the United States, which were able to unify around a common enemy, France was only able to have its Third Estate come together against its First and Second.

As the revolutions in both the United States and France went underway, it became clear what the consequences of this difference in enemies were. The United States was able to unite all thirteen colonies against the King, and, after winning the War, was able to unify under one confederation. France, by contrast, had a revolution where the people were unable to find an outsider against which the whole populace could unify; the people had no common cause, and so turned against each other even after the monarchy had been overthrown. Indeed, the Reign of Terror that followed the Revolution was largely caused by government officials’ own paranoia that their own people were turning against them. Thus, the inability of the country to unite in revolution caused instability and danger for years afterwards.

And so, even though both France and the United States had similar goals—to better the government’s representation of the people and to structure the government to best protect Man’s natural rights—it was not the systematic change that ultimately made the difference in the success of their governments; it was whether or not their people had ever been able to join together as one, single nation.

Comparing American and French Revolutionary Documents

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.

Revolutionary Documents Comparison

Sam Wittmer

The French and American revolutions developed from each other’s ideas and actions concerning oppressors.  The American Revolution took inspiration from ideas that were circulating around France, inspiring the Declaration of Independence. Six years after the States became officially independent from Britain, the National Assembly of France released The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which shows influence from the Declaration of Independence.  These documents aim to highlight the natural rights of man, all stemming from the right of men to opportunity—authorized by the nation’s people and God.

There are different forms of the right to opportunity.  Prominent is the complaint against economic hindrance, both personal and in terms of the group for which the document speaks.  For the Declaration of Independence, two of the grievances are Britain’s “cutting off Trade with all parts of the world,” and “imposing Taxes without our consent.”[1]  The National assembly of France, creating the Declaration of the rights of man, twice highlights Man’s right to property. In the second Right, it is part of the “imprescriptible” rights of man; “Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression.”[2] Then, in the seventeenth Right, as property being “inviolable and sacred” and that “no one ought to be deprived of it.”[3] The natural economic rights are featured in both documents because the livelihood of the people depended on their physical property. Most opportunity relied on what a person could do with their assets—and therefore have a right to prosper in this respect.

The documents also demand rights to making their own decisions.  In the colonies, independent assemblies were restricted, soldiers were quartered in civilians’ houses, and migration to the colonies was restricted.  The grievance is that external forces were regulating the opportunity for the colonies to better themselves.  In France, the nobility and clergy consumed the products of the bourgeoisie, while they produced nothing themselves.  While doing this, they also had a bar that the “lower” class could reach but never pass.  Sieyes says that the words of the nobility are, “ ‘No matter how useful you are…you can go so far and no further.”[4]  With this system there is no opportunity to advance, therefore, the Assembly requires that honors be available to all people.

The documents derive the support for these natural rights from different sources, though they share similar elements.  The natural rights of the Declaration of Independence come from divine power: God being mentioned three times.  But there are tones that it is the voice of the people who accredit these rights as well.  In the French documents, the people of the third estate are responsible for these rights.  They are the majority who produce and could function as a separate state, and therefore accredit the natural rights.  But God is mentioned as the Assembly asks for the Supreme Being’s blessing before stating the rights of man.


[1] Representatives of the United States, “The Declaration of Independence,” in The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Writings, ed. Bob Blaisdell (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), 65.

[2] National Assembly of France, “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” in The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Writings, ed. Bob Blaisdell (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), 80.


[3] National Assembly of France, “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” 81.

[4] Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, “What is the Third Estate?,” in The Communist Manifesto and other Revolutionary Writings, ed. Bob Blaisdell (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), 72.