The French Revolution in European History: Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

The Declaration of Rights stated that men were born free and equal in rights; these included liberty, ownership of property, security, resistance to oppression. The National Assembly also promised fiscal equality and the right to participate in government directly or indirectly.

However, only those deemed active citizens (men who paid taxes equivalent to three days work) could obtain these political rights. Women, slaves and foreigners were excluded.

Rights of Man

The Declaration asserted that all men are born free and equal in rights. These rights included the right to liberty, private property and safety from oppression, with the freedom of religion within limits of public order. It also established that people could not be enslaved or made to serve others (Article 5) and that no one should be punished without a judicial decree or trial (Article 12). This Declaration became the preamble of the Constitution that was adopted for the Fifth French Republic in 1958.

It was influenced by ideas from the Enlightenment that had challenged the thinking of French society. These new ideas were being discussed at the evening gatherings of Paris high society known as salons. These women, called salonnieres, had a great deal of indirect influence on the Revolution and helped shape its philosophy. They encouraged new ideas about education, class and individualism. The Girondists promised equality in economic terms while the extreme Jacobins, led by Maximilien de Robespierre, promised equality in political and social status.

Rights of the Citizen

A key aspect of the revolution was defining who a citizen was. This meant that only 'active citizens' - those who paid taxes - could vote. It also ruled that people in government would progress based on merit and not birth. The National Assembly also nationalised church property, abolished religious vows and turned clergy into civil servants.

France was in economic crisis. Costs of war and a bad harvest had emptied the treasury. Unemployment was high and urban workers were especially unhappy.

The Third Estate broke away from the Estates General and formed the National Assembly (known as the National Constituent Assembly during its work on a constitution). It named itself this to emphasise that it represented the nation's interests, not the King's. The French were eager for genuine political reform. Urban workers stormed the Bastille, a symbol of the ancien regime. Many prisoners were freed, including the prison governor whose head was displayed on a pike in the streets of Paris.

Rights of Women

As the revolution grew more radical, ideas from the Enlightenment challenged traditional notions of class and privilege. Women began participating in politics and writing about it. These ladies, known as salonnieres, held a great deal of influence at the evening gatherings in Paris high society where they discussed political issues with friends and acquaintances.

When the Third Estate met on May 5, it demanded equal representation and the removal of the noble veto. Its members were also calling for new laws and taxation that would treat people as individuals rather than based on social rank.

To make this a reality, the Convention instituted "dechristianization" and made church property and icons disappear, replacing them with ceremonies that worshipped the newly invented Supreme Being of Reason. This was part of a wider campaign to re-make society by removing Christianity as the religion of the nation. The convention was ruthless in eliminating anyone thought to be counter-revolutionary, executing thousands of people (including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) by guillotine.

Rights of the Clergy

The clergy in France constituted one of the three estates that comprised the French legislature known as the Estates-General. In addition to its taxation system the state was in dire financial straits following a century of war (on and off) with Britain, plus poor crop seasons that had left the peasants hungry.

When the king refused to allow the Third Estate to vote en bloc it split and formed the National Assembly. But the National Assembly's attempts to fix the food and unemployment crisis failed.

In the summer of 1789 urban workers and peasants joined forces and stormed the Bastille, a symbol of the ancien régime. The event, which is remembered in France as a holiday, marks the start of the Revolution. The Revolution's long term effects are still being debated but most historians see it as a turning point in world history. Among the key reasons for this is that it set precedents for democratic institutions and constitutions.