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.