Monday’s class begins with a simple idea: during the Ancien Regime the citizen enjoyed his freedom and rights based upon his citizenship; following the French Revolution, his citizenship expresses the natural freedom and liberty enjoyed from birth. I doubt that this idea will withstand the scrutiny of the students, especially since the class consists entirely of women. Nevertheless, it will introduce questions about the practice of citizenship during the French Revolution, leading into the contentious Reign of Terror: a nation of the sovereign people could not tolerate individualist, particularist expressions of personal liberties.

What was interesting about the revolution’s elucidation of the rights and liberties of the individual was its desire to be both foundational and universal–an expression of human rights, not just those reserved for Frenchmen. Although American constitutions and bills of rights (national and state) served as models for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (with a particular Jeffersonian accent), the revolutionary deputies felt that the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal, … endowed … with certain unalienable rights” was not adequately enshrined in the Bill of Rights. From their perspective, the French saw a document that reflected the realities of American culture, and it give any reason to say that these were anything more than American rights.

Distinguishing themselves from the Americans, yet appealing to the world, revolutionary deputies set forth to tell the world of the natural rights that were denied to them, not the least of which was that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” And many Europeans and a few Haitians seemed to agree, even as they were kicking the French out of their own countries.

There are probably those out there who will disagree with the assessment of the Bill of Rights versus the Declaration of the Rights of Man, that the former indeed offered a statement of universal (and revolutionary) truth to the world. And some rights may not entirely be universal. Regardless, both documents are premised on the notion of the existence of rights that belong to the individual, regardless of gender, status or nationality. The social contract is not even the benefactor of these liberties, but must observe them as being natural and innate.

What are these rights? Right of free speech? Rights to dispose of one’s own property and labor? Right to a public, jury trial? What are these inalienable rights that precede all political categories and considerations? And has any nation the right to deny them?

[Part II coming soon]