The French Democratic Tradition

Courtesy Reuters

A HUNDRED and fifty years have elapsed since the principles of the French Revolution were enunciated in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen." Today those principles still hold, are still dynamic. Conditions have changed, of course. When the Bastille fell the principles of 1789 were being urged against an absolutist past. Today the defenders of freedom are protesting in the name of those principles against the menace of a collectivist future. In the circumstances, the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of 1789 assumes quite unusual significance. What might have been a tiresome and commonplace official celebration turns out to symbolize a whole civilization whose fate is in the balance. Nothing emphasizes the changes that the modern world has undergone more clearly than this shift of positions on the ideological checkerboard.


The original appeal of the French Revolution was so elementary and so simple that the most untutored mind could grasp it. It sought to defend against the arbitrary caprice of absolute power the unalterable freedom of the individual -- the "natural rights" of man. Those rights the reformers of that era conceived of as being liberty, property, personal inviolability, freedom from oppression. If tyranny arose in the form of personal power, it was met with the doctrine of popular sovereignty. "The principle of sovereignty," says the Declaration, "resides essentially in the Nation. No institution and no individual can exercise an authority which does not emanate expressly from the Nation." If the tyranny came from the Church, it was met with the concept of the independence of secular society. Thus the Revolution declared that sovereignty derives from the people -- from below, not from above. All citizens are equal -- metaphysically equal, one might say. "Men are born and remain," says the Declaration, "equal in right. Social distinctions can be based only on social services." From these premises freedom of thought and conscience follow logically: "The free communication of thoughts is one of the most precious rights of man. Any

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