Revolutions, Human Rights and the Constitutions

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Absolute monarchy was almost without exception the only form of government in the whole of Continental Europe during the 1600s and 1700s. In this period, the bourgeoisie gradually came to play a larger role in the central administrations, and the state ardently supported trade and industry. This did not increase the influence of the peasant, who everywhere led a poor life. But the many new ideas of the Enlightenment made the bourgeoisie turn against the kings from time to time, because they wanted more political influence, and around Europe something was brewing amongst the citizens.

A common feature of the development in all the countries was also the social uprising seemingly caused by the industrialization around the late 1700s. From the middle 1800s, large parts of the rural population started moving to the cities to find work. In the cities, they lived and worked under terrible conditions, but they encountered the ideas of socialism and revolution and thus gained a political awareness.

Independence and Constitution in America

An event that sparked these changes was the American independence from England in the 1770s. What began as revolt against being under the power of a king situated far away in London eventually started a wave of revolutions in Europe. Not least because the American declaration of independence from July 4th 1776 was also the first declaration of human rights. Its thoughts on the equality of humans and their rights were groundbreaking:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

(Note to translators: Insert translation of the above quote in your language by using the following formula: “And in Portuguese: ...quote...”)

The secession from England did not happen without war, and the war took seven years. In 1783 the war ended with the foundation of USA as a federal state of 13 constituent states, and in 1788 they ratified the world's first democratic constitution. It is of course questionable just how much freedom and democracy the people enjoyed as the constitution neither covered women nor slaves. But it begins by unequivocally asserting that this is the people's own constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

(Note to translators: Insert translation of the above quote in your language by using the following formula: “And in Portuguese: ...quote...”)

Revolution, Human Rights, and Dictatorship in France

The development in America directly inspired the French Revolution in 1789. A few months after the Revolution had broken out, and the French national assembly had taken over the legislative power from the king, the French declaration of human rights was announced:

  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
  2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
  3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
  4. Liberty consists in 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 assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
  5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.
  6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
  7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.
  8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.
  9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law.
  10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.
  11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
  12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.
  13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.
  14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.
  15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.
  16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.
  17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

Just how groundbreaking the 17 articles were is clear if you read them and imagine, for each article, that the wording had been completely opposite. This was often how the European societies looked in the 1700s and earlier.

At the end of 1789 the French king Louis XVI was forced to flee to Paris, where he in 1791 attested the new constitution. And thus the revolution was complete. The kings of the neighboring countries, however, were not happy about the revolution of the French people, and in 1792 a war broke out between France and Austria-Preussia, in which in the first instance France was victorious, but finally suffered defeat. This led to the imprisonment of the king, to mass murders and to

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