The Enlightenment began in the 18th century. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that emphasized reason and the individual rather than tradition. These ideals were exemplified by the defining document of this time, the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, which was passed by the National Assembly in 1789. This document was revolutionary and idealistic, asserting the idea of equal rights for all French men. This document was extremely progressive in its stance on many complex issues facing French society at the time. To a large extent ideals from the Enlightenment influenced debates and laws about the previously untouched concepts of suffrage, religious minorities and slavery, however, Enlightenment ideals stimulated minimal debate about the place of women in society, and no progressive legislation was passed.
During the revolution one of the most contested issues was the idea of who would be able to vote in an election. Some, like Abbé Sieyés, wanted only property owners to be eligible to vote and others, like Robespierre, believed in true universal male suffrage. Sieyés argued that there should be two classes of citizens, passive citizens who would have protection under the law, but were not active in politics, and active citizens, those with property, who would be able to vote and hold office (Hunt, 81). Robespierre argued that the separation of citizens was not in line with the Enlightenment ideals surrounding equality. Robespierre believed that as an Enlightenment thinker that individuals have the “right to participate in making the law which governs him” (Hunt, 83). Robespierre’s ideas lined up with the ideas written in the Declaration of Rights of M...
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Enlightenment ideals such as the idea of equality and freedom as described in the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen were applied to issues of suffrage, to religious minorities and to slaves. Women were not seen as fully-fledged citizens, which caused them to be exempt from most debates and laws. Progress was made in bringing equality and freedom to slaves, religious minorities and all men in terms of voting and rights. The revolution successfully abolished slavery, gave religious minorities full civil and political rights and established for the first time universal male suffrage. These changes did not remain because once Napoleon rose to power he reversed almost all of them. However, the revolution did set a precedent for future progressive societies, it showed the importance of reason, equality and freedom when creating a society.
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