The Written Word
of a Shared Dream
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the most beautiful and profound documents ever composed about individual freedom, was adopted on Aug, 26, 1789, by France’s constituent assembly. Closely associated with the U.S. Bill of Rights signed just a few days before, it was to become the French Revolution’s definitive statement.
Along with the U.S. Constitution, it committed to words the main ideals of the Enlightenment Age, including its utopian view that a document would be enough to counter the bloodshed already in progress in France. Curiously, its principles somehow wound up working better on the other side of the ocean than in its place of birth, even if at least for a while.
In fact, it may have been pure luck that the U.S., then at war with one of the world’s biggest powers, had the right brand of leadership to be ushered to its independence relatively free of the carnage associated with the French Revolution. And that for over two hundred years, it succeed in not producing a single dictator or openly authoritarian regime.
In the meantime, within a decade, one of history’s bloodiest tyrant, Napoleon Bonaparte, had made his way to power in France, and from day one, made sure that all hope for a time of peace and prosperity would have to be put on hold once again. It’s hard to conceive how the French may have felt when their dreams were so spectacularly dashed.
But for a brief moment, almost as if coordinated, France and the U.S. dared to imagine that nations and politics could and should be driven by the well being of the people. And even if it didn’t quite work that way, and caused some much heartbreak for the French population, some of it must still hold truth at the heart of common citizens of the world.
UTOPIAN LEGACY & FAILURE
Revolutions are not made to be won, like wars, and are not designed to imagine a future, like dreams. They erupt as hurricanes and destroy everything in their path, regardless if it’s what they meant to bring down, or it’s something that helped them to come about in the first place.
The French Revolution was supposed to turn the dissatisfaction of an oppressed people into the tool for their freedom and right to exist. Problem was, like a natural disaster, once its power is unleashed, there’s no way to make it stop, and all one can hope for is to be able to contain it right after it fulfills its fate. Now tell that to an earthquake or a flood.
Once people had a taste of what it means to be on the driver’s seat of their own destiny, and all reserves of restrain and prudence had been exhausted by a corrupted and unnaturally wealthy nobility, they were literally off to the races. It was also a time for exacerbated populism and false promises of redemption.
People’s pent-up anger was simply too much, despite the great minds and the climate of wonder and scientific discovery of the era. Thus, while words of wisdom and humanism were being invoked to compose a narrative of the movement, blood and carnage had already taken over the streets and cities of the still struggling to be born republic.
WORDS DEFINING A FUTURE
Still, the declaration that emerged was, more than a mirror of the times, a testament of the French’s faith in the future. Inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Baron de Montesquieu, and certainly by three of the U.S.’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, it’s suffused with the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment.
As a monument to natural law, it’s an affirmation of one’s right to be protected by and from the state, and to be entitled to the pursue of freedom and material achievements, as long as such aims won’t interfere with the sovereignty of other individuals. Along with that, and just like the U.S. Constitution, it establishes one of the foundations of modern society: the separation between state and church.
It may not be academically appropriate to allude to the French Revolution as a failure, given its iconic struggle between peasants and the rich aristocracy oppressing them, and its lasting legacy of human rights. However, as many historians agree, while it succeeded doing away with the rotten status-quo, it failed to prevent the ascension of yet another brand of dictatorship.
SHARED PRINCIPLES & DESTINY
Again, it’s not easy to imagine how geographic, political, and historical distances would play on for those piercingly meaningful decades that marked both the French Revolution and the American Independence. But it’s a marvel that they did come together, in essence and ideals, to concoct a few of the definitive written documents of humankind.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man, which as a work in progress, had a final version in 1793, shares so much in common with both the U.S. Bill of Rights and the full constitution itself, that it’s a wonder that there wasn’t a conscious effort to match them. What brought them together, though, was a confluence of humanistic ideals that had been around since ancient Greece.
But as most of its precepts have been absorbed and adopted by other constitutions, declarations, and social documents around the world, we’re still far as a civilization to have fully embraced these principles. Perhaps, not even too unlike how we were at the time doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin introduced the world the invention that would be the measure and rule of law of that period in France.
Rarely two countries separated by history, language, and a whole ocean, had the opportunity to come together and, for a brief moment, seized their own narrative and invent a new day as a gift to the world. Perhaps much of all that would’ve been lost and soaked in the blood of innocents and tyrants alike, if it hadn’t been for the documents they produced.
THE RIGHT TO THRIVE
It’s been 226 years since, and millions of lives sacrificed along the way. But even though that time stamp may comprise the U.S.’s whole history, to France, it’s but a fraction. We may have another big chunk ahead before we can fulfill just some of the commitments mankind vowed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
That’s why it’s so important to mark this date every time it comes around. Because it serves as a reminder of our ability to aim high and, despite the insanity and disillusionment surrounding us, still conceive and imagine a world of tolerance, free will, and harmony.
Thus, to those who were ‘born and remain free and equal in rights,’ who share and must be protected in their ‘freedom to do everything which injures no one else,’ and whose ‘limits can only be determined by law,’ belongs this date.