Putting on paper the "Rights of Man"

On August 26th, 1789, the National Constituent Assembly of France set forth "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." It leans heavily on the notion of natural rights, those held to be universal, valid everywhere and at all times, and deriving from human nature. It is often hailed as an historic blow for human freedom and dignity, akin to Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the US Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights.

Some observers have pointed out that whereas those classic documents secured historic liberties for their subjects, the French Declaration represented more of an aspiration, lacking the mechanisms to deliver in practice the lofty aims to which it aspired. Thus, for example, Article VII says, "Those who solicit, dispatch, carry out or cause to be carried out arbitrary orders, must be punished; but any citizen called or seized under the terms of the law must obey at once; he renders himself culpable by resistance." But there seems to be little to protect an accused from arbitrary laws passed in haste to secure advantage against political opponents.

Article VIII tells us that, "The law should establish only penalties that are strictly and evidently necessary, and no one can be punished but under a law established and promulgated before the offense and legally applied." Again, in practice it seems that for tens of thousands the penalty deemed "strictly and evidently necessary" was the guillotine, applied at short notice, often with only lip-service paid to the motions of law and due process.

Furthermore, the Declaration divided the population into 'active' and 'passive' citizens. The active ones were men aged 25 and over who paid taxes equal to 3 days of work and were not servants. This meant male holders of significant property, and granted the vote to about 4.3m out of a population of about 29m. It did not include women, slaves and foreigners, and gave no rights to children. And while slavery was subsequently abolished in 1794, it was reinstated by Napoleon in 1802.

To people versed in the language of English Common Law, the Declaration seems long on the caveats and loopholes that would allow an unscrupulous state to have its way over people, and short on the limitations that restrict what actions governments can take against their citizens. Perhaps this judgement is coloured by the hindsight we have, knowing the multitude of atrocities and injustices that were inflicted daily during the Reign of Terror.

At risk of offending my French friends, the Declaration rather reminds me of the motions that used to be debated in student unions, and no doubt still are. Lengthy meetings involved minute arguing over fine detail about amendments to the substantive counter-motion, and a form of words finally emerged to much satisfaction by the exhausted participants, but none of it ever made the slightest difference to the real world.

It certainly didn't help Antoine Lavoisier, born on this day, August 26th, 1743. He virtually invented modern chemistry, discovering oxygen's role in combustion, and identifying oxygen and hydrogen, and drawing up a lengthy list of the elements. Unfortunately, he had an aristocratic background, and was an administrator of the Ferme Générale, that took part in tax collection. In 1794, he and other members were charged with stealing state money and watering down tobacco. Lavoisier showed that the charges were false, but the court decided to condemn the accused and seize their goods, to rake in huge funds for the state. The judge remarked "La République n'a pas besoin de savants" (the state has no need of scholars), and Lavoisier with his 27 co-defendants were guillotined. The revolutionaries killed everyone they wanted to, and the pious words of the Declaration afforded no more protection than do the written constitutions of every totalitarian state.