On July 11, 1789 the Marquis Lafayette recommended to the National Assembly that they enact a Declaration of the Rights of Man. This idea came to fruition during Lafayettes’s long friendship with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and his first-hand exposure to the still relatively new U.S. Constitution and state constitutions. In this short essay, I remember the Declaration and speak briefly about the political and economic situation that gave rise to it.
Lafayette was in the enviable position of having these American documents as a starting point, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man is more explicit in its language. It clearly identifies “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man” as the sole cause of political and economic calamities and the corruption of government.
The purpose of the document is also clearly stated: the rights mentioned the Declaration, “being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected.” The subtext here is of interest. Lafayette clearly expects that ordinary citizens will be able to understand their rights and decide whether the courts and other organs of government are protecting these rights. It is supposed to be a means by which the people can demand a measure of accountability from their political leaders.
|The First and Second Estate, crushing the Third.|
More to the point, however, is that the French Declaration squarely takes aim at the abuses of power by privileged nobles: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” Social distinctions – such as titles of nobility – were routinely abused during the ancien regime.
With regard to taxation, the Declaration stated, “a common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.”
The Declaration also stated, “The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” The resemblance to American conceptions of Natural Rights is plain, but that added phrase – “resistance to oppression” – is remarkable. When these words were heard by members of the French colonies and in particular Haitian slaves, it sparked revolution abroad.
|The martial and clerical orders, doing nothing to ease the burden.|
Unmistakably, the Declaration was a response to the prevailing situation in France during the 1780’s. The country was, in a word, bankrupt. The king was obliged to indefinitely postpone the repayment of debt and made arbitrary reductions to interest rates. Thomas Jefferson, in Paris in 1788, observed with horror Louis XVI's incompetence in allowing the “wheels of government, even in its most essential movements,” to stop for lack of money.
An article of the Declaration reads, “Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration,” and the motivation behind this is clear. The Royal Government had kept its expenditures and accounting practices under strict secrecy, and secrecy invites abuses.
Still, one may ask, how had one of the most prosperous countries in the world come to the brink of economic collapse? The Crown had squandered public money on a succession of wars. Vast sums were spent building vast mansions for members of royalty. Gold-plated putti were being churned out by the dozens. The king had 100 personal servants and his own choir to brighten up his mornings, performing a new song each day. If he chose, he could hunt in his private, well-stocked hunting grounds.
The government also freely gave up sources of revenue by exempting the wealthiest members of society from the requirement to pay taxes. Members of the First Estate, the clergy, were not only exempt from paying taxes but had the right to levy taxes and collect dues from their serfs. Because they owned 10% of all the land in France, they were in a very strong position to use their power as rentiers to accumulate wealth and prevent new entrants (e.g., small land-holders) from competing with them.
Members of the Second estate, the aristocracy, likewise benefited from the twin blessings of being tax exempt and able to levy taxes without the consent of the people. By virtue of having documents attesting to their privileged status, they were granted preferment in terms of employment and financial services. Tradesmen dared not ask a noble for money up front, and as a result were easily swindled by nobles who’d gambled and whored away their wealth. Members of neither the First nor Second Estate were required to perform military service and were granted legal authority over the serfs occupying their lands.
Part of the problem came from the fact that the membership of the Third Estate – that is, the 99% – had already been bled dry. They had no more money to give up in the form of taxes. Nearly every commercial and economic activity had its own tax. And although the country had at first managed to escape mass unemployment, but before long the floodgates were opened to cheap foreign imports. As a predictable result, domestic manufacturing declined and the ranks of the jobless grew.
In reflecting on the political context in which the Declaration of the Rights of Man appeared, and those words, “resistance to oppression,” one may wonder how many ordinary French truly grasped that they were being oppressed. After all, it is easy enough to say “this is how it has always been” and decide that poverty and disenfranchisement does not constitute oppression but is merely part of the natural order of things. Even when a country squanders its way into massive debt and puts off its obligations to pay back its debt, engages in a succession of costly military adventures abroad, permits the accounting of public money to occur under a veil of secrecy and obscurantism, allows the favored few to pay no taxes at all even as it heaps new forms of taxation on those who are least able to pay, and deprives the people of any meaningful interest on their savings, is it oppression? Or is it necessary to allow the situation to deteriorate further, to a state of endemic starvation and the brutal suppression of dissent?