Comparing Revolutionary Documents

The idea of natural rights, or the universal unalienable privileges given to any citizen, gained popularity after the Enlightenment era. John Locke argued that it is the government’s role to help protect its peoples’ rights to life, liberty, and property. The French and American governments both chose to include their own versions of Locke’s ideas in their declarations; France with The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and America in The Declaration of Independence. Although both countries included similar natural rights, the specific dictation is very important in learning what ideals each country held above all else.

The writers of The Declaration of the Rights of Man stated, “The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptable rights of man; and these rights are Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression.” Both countries neglect to include one of Locke’s original natural rights. It seems neglecting life as one of the universal rights foreshadows the Reign of Terror which began as an extension of the French Revolution after all the Third Estate’s requests were not met. The French included security and resistance to oppression in their natural rights. After such a large percentage of the population was abused, and subjected to poverty for such a lengthy period-of-time it seems obvious that they would be more focused on these ideas than the American people. Furthermore in The Declaration of the Rights of Man they describe natural rights as being imprescriptable, meaning immune from the prescription of law or rule. This coincides their proposal that the government and law should only hinder actions that are harmful to society.

Thomas Jefferson is most famous for writing the section of The Declaration of Independence which said, “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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 American version property is not included. It could be argued, that the meaning is the same if you view wealth as the highest happiness, because at the time property equalled wealth. Instead of arguing that these values should not be interfered with by law Jefferson chooses to connect natural rights with religion, and chooses the word, self-evident, or without requiring proof. Of course as a country formed on the ideals of religious freedom, with most of it’s citizens practicing Christianity it is logical that they believed this would be the most inspirational wording.

Since the French were subjected to oppression from their own people they were even more weary of government than Americans who no longer considered themselves part of the English people. Both countries viewed natural rights differently based on the specific circumstances of their abuse. This lead them to modify Locke’s ideas in ways that better suited the goals of their revolution. Both countries were seeking equality, but the French’s attempt was more of a revision, whereas the American’s were striving to create a whole new nation.


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.