Primary Source Analysis: the French Revolution and Human Rights

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Perhaps one of the most unique eras in world history was the Enlightenment, a time period in which intellectuals like Voltaire, Adam Smith and Denis Diderot “Observed with unprecedented acuity the evils and flaws of human society in their day” (Tignor, Adelman, Aron, Kotkin, March and, and, 621) and sought to change the worldview of their generation both socially and politically. Those intellectuals believed that by sharing an aspiration to spread knowledge, human judgments could resist ignorance. Today, the ideals of those Enlightenment thinkers have become the foundation of many, if not all human societies. The Enlightenment had a great impact on the world, especially on Europeans who were customary to old practices of fixed social hierarchies, in which the king held absolute power. The knowledge gained from this intellectual movement brought about many changes in society. Minority groups such as women “gained confidence in their own worthiness---to create art, to write books, to observe the world accurately, and perhaps even rule their states” (Tignor, Adelman, Aron, Kotkin, Marchand, and, 619). The Enlightenment also paved the way for a newer approach towards the concept of human rights. Human beings were granted certain individual rights known as their “natural rights” that was always convenient by law. Before the French Revolution, European cultures were restricted by “two major institutions: the Catholic and Protestant churches and the dynastic court systems” (Tignor, Adelman, Aron, Kotkin, Marchand, 617) where individual rights were given based on social ranks. The Enlightenment influenced the concept of human rights in France in that society had a better awareness of their world, which contributed to the emergence of cultural ambitions such as women forming political clubs to debate for social and political equality. Traditional governing ideas were gradually replaced by new governing visions to protect the natural rights of citizens over the king’s authority. For instance, prior “traditional Christian belief in original sin and God’s mysterious tamperings with natural forces and human events” (Tignor, Adelman, Aron, Kotkin, Marchand, 617) were abandoned. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens was also established, which helped changed the social and political structure of the country. Additionally, and perhaps the most influence the Enlightenment had on the concept of human rights in France was that it provided “freedom of religion, freedom of the press, no taxation without representation, elimination of excessive punishments, and various safeguards against arbitrary administration” (Hunt, 77). Having been greatly influenced by the American War of Independence, “French officers who served in North America arrived home fired by the ideals of liberty that they saw in action in the New World” (Hunt, 13). French deputies met in 1789 with constitutional ideals adopted from Americans like Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, establishing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens in an effort to drive the “ideas of rights and liberties in a more universalistic direction” (Hunt, 13). A more Universalistic direction basically meant replacing ideals of the old order with knowledge gained from the Enlightenment. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens empowered all French citizens with protected liberties and granted all men equality under the law. It also declared that the basis of all sovereignty rests most importantly in the nation. Additionally, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens not only grant these rights, but “trumpeted individual rights, the principle of equality and connected more closely the concept of the people with the nation” (Tignor, Adelman, Aron, Kotkin, Marchand, 647). It is obvious that the document had great significance. Prior to the declaration, political and social situations raised questions that were often left unanswered, usually sparking tensions between...
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