On 26 August 1789, the French National Constituent Assembly issued the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) which defined individual and collective rights at the time of the French Revolution. Some delegates at the Assembly had expressed their admiration for Magna Carta and other constitutional documents, such as the United States Declaration of Independence, but ultimately the Déclaration rejected appeals to ancient charters of liberties, based on the principle that the rights of man were natural, universal and inalienable.
The Déclaration nonetheless echoed Magna Carta in certain key statements, such as by subordinating the monarch to the rule of law (clause 3); by maintaining that, ‘Nul homme ne peut etre accusé, arreté ni detenu que dans les cas déterminés par la loi’ (No person shall be accused, arrested or imprisoned except in those cases established by the law; clause 7); and by ensuring that taxation could only be raised by common consent (clause 14). Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834), the principal author of the Déclaration, collaborated with Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who had been influenced in turn by Magna Carta. Jefferson’s influence is clearly discernible in clause 1, which declares that, ‘Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et egaux en droits’ (Men are born and remain free and equal in rights).
Painted by the artist Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1738-1826), this depiction of the Déclaration celebrates these rights as a crowning achievement of the French Revolution. The allegorical figures of France breaking her chains and Fame under the eye of God sit atop the Déclaration, which is associated with a red Phrygian cap, a snake biting its tail and a laurel wreath, representing liberty, eternal unity and glory respectively.
- Article by:
- Justin Fisher
- Magna Carta today
Why does Magna Carta matter 800 years after it was first sealed? Looking at Magna Carta as a document of historical and legal significance, Professor Justin Fisher explores the evolution of our rights and freedoms, and examines the relevance of the Great Charter today.
- Article by:
- Matthew White
- Politics and religion, Language and ideas
The Enlightenment's emphasis on reason shaped philosophical, political and scientific discourse from the late 17th to the early 19th century. Matthew White traces the Enlightenment back to its roots in the aftermath of the Civil War, and forward to its effects on the present day.
- Article by:
- S I Martin
- Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery, Language and ideas
By 1780, Britain had a Black population of at least 20,000 people. S I Martin describes how four writers, taken from Africa as children and sold into slavery, grew up to write works that challenged British ideas about race, called for African brotherhood and demanded the abolition of the slave trade.