The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789

The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789

The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789

The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789

Synopsis

"The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789" is the French Revolution's best known utterance. By 1789, to be sure, England looked proudly back to the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and a bill of rights, and even the young American Declaration of Independence and the individual states' various declarations and bills of rights preceded the French Declaration. But the French deputies of the National Assembly tried hard, in the words of one of their number, not to receive lessons from others but rather "to give them" to the rest of the world, to proclaim not the rights of Frenchmen, but those "for all times and nations."

The chapters in this book treat mainly the origins of the Declaration in the political thought and practice of the preceding three centuries that Tocqueville designated the "Old Regime." Among the topics covered are privileged corporations; the events of the three months preceding the Declaration; blacks, Jews, and women; the Assembly's debates on the Declaration; the influence of sixteenth-century notions of sovereignty and the separation of powers; the rights of the accused in legal practices and political trials from 1716 to 1789; the natural rights to freedom of religion; and the monarchy's "feudal" exploitation of the royal domain.

Excerpt

The startling and moving events that swept from China to Eastern Europe to Latin America and South Africa at the end of the 1980s, followed closely by similar events and the subsequent dissolution of what used to be the Soviet Union, formed one of those great historic occasions when calls for freedom, rights, and democracy echoed through political upheaval. A clear-eyed look at any of those conjunctions -- in 1776 and 1789, in 1848 and 1918, as well as in 1989 -- reminds us that freedom, liberty, rights, and democracy are words into which many different and conflicting hopes have been read. The language of freedom -- or liberty, which is interchangeable with freedom most of the time -- is inherently difficult. It carried vastly different meanings in the classical world and in medieval Europe from those of modern understanding, though thinkers in later ages sometimes eagerly assimilated the older meanings to their own circumstances and purposes.

A new kind of freedom, which we have here called modern, gradually disentangles itself from old contexts in Europe, beginning first in England in the early seventeenth century and then, with many confusions, denials, reversals, and cross-purposes, elsewhere in Europe and the world. A large-scale history of this modern, conceptually distinct, idea of freedom is now beyond the ambition of any one scholar, however learned. This collaborative enterprise, tentative though it must be, is an effort to fill the gap.

We could not take into account all the varied meanings that freedom and liberty have carried in the modern world. We have, for example, ruled out extended attention to what some political philosophers have called "positive freedom," in the sense of self-realization of the individual; nor could we, even in a series as large as this, cope with the enormous implications of the four freedoms invoked by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Freedom of speech and freedom of the . . .

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