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French Revolution: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793

By Sjoerd-Blankenstein Mar 04, 2014 1292 Words
Declaration of the rights of Man & the Citizen in the Reign of Terror
Fueled by the Enlightenment ideas, the French revolution from 1789 – 1815 is an event of great international importance. Not only did it mark the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who became one of the greatest emperor in the world history, but also marked the destruction of the Old Regime. This was when France changed from a monarchy to a republic, the first French Republic. This was the revolution that brought change in the structure of the society. The revolution, led by the middle class, meant the end of the tyranny of the King and the aristocracy and marked the rising of the working class. It marked the end of an era. But most importantly, in a world where absolute monarchy was still prevailing, and where the divine right of the King and the power of the nobility were still prevailing, the French Revolution brought about a rebellious attitude. This was a rebellion towards the old traditions which, later, started to spread the ideas of equality all over France and eventually all over Europe. This was the period when various philosophical ideas were starting to prevail all over Europe and the French republic was attempting to maintain order and peace within the country, amidst a lot of violence and bloodshed. One of the documents that stand out from this period is the Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen through which the government attempted to maintain order in the country. In August 1789, the national assembly published a document declaring that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” (405). This was the Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen. This declaration can be considered an enlightenment document because it is filled with the ideas of Voltaire, Montesquieu and other enlightenment philosophers. The French Revolution was a social revolution. It was a revolution against inability of King Louise the XVI to address the famine that was widespread in the country. It was the revolution from the people, for the people, by the people against the social inequalities that were prevailing during the era. Since these ideals had to be carried on after the overthrowing of the King, I believe that the republic attempted to gain faith of the public, by putting those ideals on the paper, and declaring them to the public. Equality before the law, careers open to talent, right to speech and protest, these were some of the basic arguments of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man & the Citizen. The main aim of the government was to increase people’s trust on the shaky establishment. Therefore, the government made sure that the declaration had clear points in the declaration stating that it is the government’s job to protect the rights of the people and that the government was accountable for what it did and would owe the public an explanation for anything they did, if demanded. This was to show that the government was on the people’s side and that they had no plans of going back to the absolutism that was being practiced by the kings in the Old Regime. They wanted to show the people that the public was the most powerful, and the government was just an establishment to maintain order. However, this state of affairs was hard to maintain for the government. They had just been declared a Republic in January, 1793 and they needed to find a new system to run the country. Also, at that point, they were constantly at war with other major powers in Europe. Since, the country was at a fragile state, the government, led by Robespierre & the Jacobins, deemed it necessary to protect the country. This led to paranoia being spread across the Jacobins. They started worrying that their enemies had spies in France who would help them take advantage of the fragile state of affairs, and help destroy France from within. As of such, the Jacobins started arresting anyone who was believed to be an enemy of the new republic, and had them executed. This was the Reign of Terror where the Jacobins believed that they needed to get rid of the enemies as soon as possible, even if it meant a lot of violence. “The process of execution was also a sad and heartrending spectacle” wrote J. G. Milligen in The Revolutionary Tribunal (410). Anybody who was suspected, was executed. Even though the accused were provided a “fair trial”, the results were always the same. The just trials were only an act to show that the new government was not like the old one. These trials, as described by the vivid writing in the The Revolutionary Tribunal, were of a theatrical nature. The condemned are brought in front of a judge to plead their case, where they are accused of being guilty, then taken to the Place de la Revolution filled with jeering mob, where their head is passed through a hole in the guillotine, also referred to as the “republican’s toilet seat”, and it is chopped off. The whole setting and the progression of events is rather theatrical and the method of execution in itself is rather theatrical. It is believed that the Guillotine was used as the execution method because of its efficiency, as they could execute more people in less time. However, I think that wasn’t all there was to it. I think that the Jacobins valued the power of a performance, and by staging such a brutal murder technique in front of the masses, they wanted to show that they are to be feared as well. To the public, the guillotine was a symbol of the strength of the Republic of France, but to the Jacobins it was a symbol for their own strength. This was a period when everything the French government did was for window dressing. They just wanted to make sure that they didn’t seem too weak to the French people or their enemies. Therefore, even though the government made the Declaration of the Rights of the Man & the Citizen, they were the ones who were violating those rights. Article 7 of the Declaration clearly states that “No man can be accused, arrested, or detained except in cases determined by the law, and according to the forms which it has prescribed….”, however the Jacobins were bending the laws to fit their doings, and defending what they were doing, saying it was being done for the good of the country. The people were being robbed of their liberty, property and even life. Robespierre even argued that at that point in the revolution, the civil rights of the people had to be evoked as there were a lot of enemies waiting to take advantage of their enlightened way of viewing the world. He said that these actions were temporary and the rights were being evoked in order to save them. Thus, the justice in the Reign of Terror was actually a direct violation of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man & the Citizen and was in no way just at all.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Man & the Citizen and the Reign of Terror represent two different phases and sides of the French revolution. The Declaration is stating that the people of France are free from the tyranny that they were once living under; however the Reign of Terror begs to differ. The Reign of Terror represents the power of propaganda and paranoia, and the extent that the people with power can go in order to keep that power. This helped spread the ideals of Enlightenment all over Europe. Thus, the French Revolution, in its own twisted way, has helped change the world.

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