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Few political documents have affected the world quite like the American Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The repercussions of each have had a profound effect on world history up to this point. But why did these documents have such an effect? The answer lies in the common philosophical backgrounds of the two. The writings of Rousseau, Locke and Montesquieu all contained ideas that were later used by Thomas Jefferson and the National Assembly to compose the two documents.
Rousseau's ideas of a social contract, which states that the general will and the people were sovereign, and if a king abuses the liberty of the people they have a right and a duty to dissolve the current government and create a new one (McKay, 581), were central to both documents. Jefferson had Rousseau's ideas in mind when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states...a prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people...we therefore...solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are...independent states... (Jefferson, 1-2). The reasons, such as suspension of colonial legislatures, impressment of American sailors and the importation of mercenaries (Jefferson, 2), given for the dissolution of the political connections that the American and British people have held for over 100 years all relate to the King's tyrannical tendencies and the peoples right to choose a different government. The edict also states that although petitions of grievances were issued, the King turned a deaf ear.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man is not only built on the social contract, but also on Rousseau's idea of general will of the people. He defines the general will as being, "Sacred and absolute, reflecting the common interests of the people, who have displaced the monarch as the holder of the sovereign powers. (McKay, 581)" Passing and enforcing arbitrary laws are considered to be an act of tyranny and a substantial reason, according to Rousseau, to declare the current government void and establish a new one. Article VII clearly states that arbitrary laws and orders cannot exist.
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Locke's ideas of natural rights, the rights of human beings to the pursuit of life, liberty, and property (McKay, 524), is clearly stated in both declarations. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson used the exact words in the preamble - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - in which he uses happiness to mean property.(1) He also cites examples of the arbitrary suspension of liberties by George III such as the right to peaceably assemble, taxation without the consent of the colonists, maintenance of a peacetime standing army, and the right to a trial by jury.(1-2)
A reference to natural rights also appear in the preamble of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Article II of the proclamation directly states, "The aim of all political associations is the preservation of the natural ... rights of man (which are)... liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression. (Sherman, 99-100)" Article IV defines liberty as:
The freedom to do everything which injures no one else hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assures to the other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.(Sherman, 100)
The rights of freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and the idea of someone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty (Sherman, 100) were all laid out by the national Assembly and run parallel to Locke's ideas about human rights.
Montesquieu's ideas of the courts being the foremost protector of liberties (577) is used as a reason for the break with Great Britain. The justices of the admiralty or naval courts that existed in colonial America served at "King's Pleasure" rather than "Good Behavior", ensuring that the decisions of the courts would be biased in favor of the King. The right to a trial by jury was also suspended for those who broke the laws laid down by the Navigation acts. The colonials expressed these concerns in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of the Rights of Man also hold Montesquieu's interpretation of the courts. It provides for the right to a trial and freedom from punishments that are not strictly and obviously necessary.(Sherman 100) It also holds that all men are equal in the eyes of the law.
Both the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen have common roots in the arguments of the Enlightenment, and in the Enlightened philosophies Rousseau, Locke and Montesquieu. Rousseau's idea of a social contract, Locke's natural rights, and Montesquieu's idea of the courts being the defenders of liberties all came into play when the two documents were written, and in being written, the culmination of the Enlightened thinkers came to their peak.