The Rights of Man

Author: Christopher Dawson


by Christopher Dawson

[Editorial Note: The series of chapters from which this one on "The Rights of Man" was taken, were written between 1936 and 1939, consisting of three chapters on the Enlightenment and five on the French Revolution. The last of the eight chapters brought the story up to 1796. But other matters, such as World War II and Dawson's accepting the editorship of The Dublin Review in 1940, interfered with the completion of the volume at that time. In consequence, these chapters were published posthumously in 1972, with three chapters added to show some aspects of the influence of the French Revolution on the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, these chapters were sent on to the present writer in 1953, so that they might be published in one or another American magazine. The first was published in The Catholic World, in 1956, the second and third--all of these dealing with the Enlightenment and its influence--in The Review of Politics in 1954 and 1957. The fourth one, "The Rights of Man," was published in The South Atlantic Quarterly in 1955.]

In the victory of the American Revolution European liberals saw the justification of their ideals and the realization of their hopes. It turned the current of the Enlightenment in a political direction and infused a revolutionary purpose into the democratic idealism of Rousseau. The young nobles, like Lafayette, who returned from America with the prestige of heroes and apostles; the young bourgeois, like Brissot de Warville, who looked to America as the promised land of liberty and democratic virtue, became the centre of a new patriotic movement which demanded the reform of the French government based on the democratic principle of the rights of men and equal citizenship.

But the opposition to the ancien régime and the demand for a thorough going reform of the French government was by no means confined to this group of young idealists. As de Tocqueville pointed out, the most drastic criticisms of the old order are to be found in the preambles to the decrees of the ministers of Louis XVI, such as Turgot, Necker and Brienne, and before even the Revolution had been thought of the royal government had itself undertaken revolutionary changes, such as the abolition of the Parlements, the Jesuits and the guilds, which had profoundly affected the social and economic life of the country. Ever since the middle of the century the government had been in the hands of the friends of the philosophers such as Choiseul and Turgot andMalesherbes and had been influenced by their ideals. But it was not only the philosophers who were responsible for the change in the spirit of the ancien régime; even more important were the economists, the disciples of Quesnay and Gournay for they were not irresponsible men of letters, but serious administrators and statesmen and good servants of the king. Yet they rivalled the philosophers in their contempt for the Gothic barbarism of the ancien régime and in their unbounded faith in the immediate transformation of society by radical reform.

No eighteenth-century ruler was more conscientious or more well meaning than Louis XVI, no European government possessed better or more intelligent ministers and officials than Turgot and Vergennes, Malesherbes and Necker, Dupont de Nemours and Senhac de Meilhan. Yet their reforming energies were frittered away in a series of false starts each of which helped to discredit the government and bring the ancien régime nearer to ruin. What was lacking was neither good intentions nor intelligence nor wealth (for the nation had never been more prosperous than during the reign of Louis XVI). But all these were vain in the absence of the will and energy necessary to overcome the obstacles which stood in the way of reform. In the days of Louis XIV and Colbert, France was the most powerful, efficient and well organized state in Europe, but the very success of their work was the cause of its undoing. The rambling Tudor edifice of the English constitution could be restored or changed according to the needs of each generation, but the classical structure of French absolutism did not admit of additions and alterations.


The whole system centered in the person of the monarch, and if the King lacked the will and power to govern, the system ceased to function. Louis XVI had commenced his reign by undoing that one important achievement of his predecessor - the abolition of the Parlements and the reform of the cumbrous and antiquated judicial system--thus rendering the task of further reform almost impossible. For the chief obstacle to financial reform was the resistance of the privileged classes, which found a rallying point and a center of organization in the class of hereditary magistrates of which the Parlements were composed. Every measure of administration orfinancial reform was opposed by the Parlements in a spirit of blind conservatism which roused the fury of Voltaire. Yet they were always ready to justify their opposition in the name of liberty and the rights of the subject, so that while on the one hand they appealed to the nobility as the defenders of privilege, on the other they appealed to the lawyers and the bourgeoisie as the defenders of constitutional right. It was the very class which stood in the way of reform that was loudest in its criticism of the government and did more than the unprivileged and the oppressed to bring about the Revolution. It is hardly too much to say that if there had been no Parlement there would have been no financial crisis, that if there had been no financial crisis there would have been no States General and if there had been no States General there would have been no Revolution. The ancien régime was destroyed by the lawyers who owed their existence to its power and their wealth to its abuses.

There were, however, deeper sociological causes at work in comparison with which the quarrel between the government and the lawyers sinks into insignificance. At the same time that the revolutionary criticism of the Enlightenment had undermined the religious foundations of the traditional order, the functional basis was being destroyed by economic change. The new financial system and the new capitalist economy were irreconcilable with the hierarchic and authoritative principles of the ancien régime. The nobility had ceased to be the natural leaders of the nation, whose privileges were the reward of their service to the state, as was still the case with the Prussian officer caste. It had preserved its caste spirit and its feudal privileges, while it had lost that control over local administration and agriculture which gave the English aristocracy its power and social prestige. It had become merely a rich leisure class, whose chief social function was to provide a brilliant and expressive setting for the royal court. But since the heavy Baroque pomp of Versailles was no longer in fashion, even this function had become a sinecure, and in the eyes of public opinion the nobles were regarded as social parasites who sucked the life blood of the peasantry and battened on the resources of a discredited and bankrupt state. Above all, they had lost faith in themselves. With the exception of a few eccentrics like the Marquis de Mirabeau and the old guard of zealous Catholics, which had lost its leaders with the dissolution of the Jesuits and the death of Louis XV's eldest son and his pious wife, the nobles were in the forefront of the movement of Enlightenment. They ridiculed the Gothic barbarism of the old order. They applauded the anti-clerical propaganda of the philosophers, the democratic sentiments of Rousseau and Beaumarchais, and the biting satire of Chamfort. As Ségur wrote in an often quoted passage -- `they trod lightly on a carpet offlowers towards the abyss'. And when the crash came, some of the ablest and the most exalted of them--Talleyrand, the Bishop of Autun, Herault de Séchelles, the Comte de St. Simon, even Philip of Orleans, the first of the princes of the blood, were on the side of the Revolution and assisted in the work of destruction. It was only in the more remote provinces, where the nobility had preserved its traditional relations with the land and the peasants and where the influence of the Enlightenment was nonexistent, that they put up a formidable resistance to the progress of revolution. Elsewhere, the proudest and most ancient aristocracy in Europe, which had its roots deep in history, fell like a rotten tree at the first blast of the storm, and resigned its rights and privileges almost without a struggle.


This triumph of the bourgeoisie over the nobility had been rendered almost inevitable by the economic changes of the last hundred years. As Barnave, the most clear-sighted of the liberal leaders saw, the development of commercial and industrial capital had shifted the balance of power from the noble to the bourgeois, and though the industrial development of France had been less intense than that of England, the eighteenth century had seen an immense increase of prosperity among the middle classes, especially at the great ports like Bordeaux and Nantes, and a great development of capital investment, which already made the French rentier class such a considerable social power that Rivarol could assert that it was the rentiers who made the Revolution. Nevertheless, it was a class which had no direct political power and no recognized social status. Its very existence was inconsistent with the functional corporative structure of the old order which theoretically rejected the principle of interest as usurious and antisocial. Nor was this attitude without practical importance, for even as late as 1762 it was asserted by the economists that a third of the capitalists in France dared not invest their money profitably on account of it. The new capitalist class naturally resented the antiquated ideas and unbusinesslike methods of a government of nobles and priests. They demanded a financial reform which would restore public credit and remove the danger of a default on government loans.

At last the advent to power of Necker in 1781 seemed to give them just what they wanted. For Necker was the very embodiment of the new bourgeois culture and the power of international finance - a Swiss Protestant banker who had made a fortune by successful speculation. But though Necker's administration enriched the financiers it failed to solve the financial problem. In fact the more he applied capitalist methods to government finance, the moresharp became the conflict between the interests of capital and the principles of the ancien régime. And so the bourgeoisie were driven by their interests as well as by their ideals to demand the political and social reforms which would give them control of taxation and a share in the government of the country. "What ought the Third Estate to be?" asked the Abbé Sieyés, `Everything. What is it? Nothing. What does it demand? To be something.'


What the bourgeoisie did not realize was that they themselves were a privileged order, and that the lawyers and men of letters who represented the Third Estate in the National Assembly had far more in common with the noblesse de robe or the officials than with the unprivileged masses - the true people - who belonged to a different world.

For the French peasants and workers had not been taught, like the English, to follow their landlords and employers. It had always been the policy of the French government to detach the people from the privileged classes and to maintain direct control of them through the Intendant and the Curé. They lived their own life in their communes and guilds and looked for guidance not to the nobles and the rich merchants but to the ultimate sources of all authority -- the King and the Church. And hence, though they had little class consciousness in the modern sense, they had a strong national consciousness which had found expression hitherto in their loyalty to the King and their devotion to the Church. Now, however, everything conspired to shake their confidence and disturb their faith. Ever since the death of Louis XIV they had seen the higher powers at war among themselves; Jansenists and Jesuits, Church and Parlements, the government and the magistrates; and more recently the continual succession of reforms and counter-reforms, such as the abolition and re-establishment of the Corporations and the changes that produced the rises of prices and periodic crises of unemployment and food shortage, caused an increasing feeling of insecurity and discontent. There were the disorders and the revolutionary agitation of the last two years, the sinister rumors of treachery in high places, and finally the appeal of the King to the nation by the summoning of the States General and the extraordinary democratic forms of election which exceeded the demand of the reformers themselves.

All these factors combined to rouse popular feeling as it had not been roused since the days of the League. The deeps were moved. Behind the liberal aristocrats and lawyers who formed the majority of the States General, there lay the vast anonymous power that had made the monarchy and had been in turn shaped by it, and now it was to make the Revolution. To the liberal idealists - tomen like Lafayette and Clermont Tonnerre, to the Abbé Fauchet and the orators of the Gironde, the Revolution meant the realization of the ideals of the Enlightenment, liberty and toleration, the rights of men and the religion of humanity. They did not see that they were on the edge of a precipice and that the world they knew was about to be swallowed up in a tempest of change which would destroy both them and their ideals. `Woe unto you, who desire the day of the Lord. It is darkness and not light. As if a man did flee from a lion and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand upon the wall and a serpent bit him'; they were a doomed generation, fated to perish at first by ones and twos, and then by scores and hundreds and thousands, on the scaffold, in the streets and on the battlefield. For as the Revolution advanced it gradually revealed the naked reality that had been veiled by the antiquated trappings of royalty and tradition -- the General Will -- and it was not the benevolent abstraction which the disciples of Rousseau had worshipped but a fierce will to power which destroyed every man and institution that stood in its way. As de Maistre wrote, the will of the people was a battering ram with twenty million men behind it.

Nevertheless, it would be a great mistake to ignore or to minimize the importance of the intellectual factor in the Revolution, as many modern historians have done, in reaction to the idealist conceptions of Louis Blanc and Lamartine and Michelet. If we are to deny the influence of liberalism on the French Revolution we should have to deny the influence of communism on the Revolution in Russia. In fact the movement of ideas was wider and deeper in France than in Russia and had a far greater influence on the course of events. At every stage of the Revolution, from the Assembly of the Notables in 1787 down to the fall of Robespierre in 1794, the battle of ideas decided the fate of parties and statesmen, and it was carried on not only in the National Assembly and in the meetings of the Clubs and Districts, but in the press, the streets and the cafés.

Arthur Young, who came from his quiet Suffolk village like a visitor from another world into the turmoil and excitement of revolutionary Paris, has left an unforgettable picture of the intense agitation which filled the bookshops and cafés of the Palais Royale with seething crowds both day and night during those early summer days of 1789, and he was amazed at the folly of the government in permitting this boundless licence of opinion without doing anything to counter it by the use of publicity and propaganda. The truth was that the government had to deal not with the opposition of a party but with an immense movement of social idealism which was of the nature of a religious revival. As we see from the writings of Paine and Franklin, it was a real religion, with a definite though simple body of dogmas which aspired totake the place of Christianity as the creed of the new age.

Nor was this new religious unity a purely ideal one. It already possessed its ecclesiastical hierarchy and organization in the Order of Freemasons, which attained the climax of its development in the two decades that preceded the Revolution. The spirit of eighteenth-century Freemasonry was very different from the anticlericalism of the modern Grand Orient or the conservative and practical spirit of English Masonry. It was inspired by an almost mystical enthusiasm for the cause of humanity which often assumed fantastic forms, especially in Germany, where it tended to lose itself in illuminism and theosophy. In France, however, the influence of Franklin and the Lodge of the Nine Sisters inspired the movement with a warm sympathy for the cause of liberty and political reform, which found expression in the foundation of societies like the Société des Amis des Noirs and the Constitutional Club, which were under masonic influence though directly political in aim. At the beginning of the Revolution the influence of Freemasonry permeated the ruling classes from the royal family down to the bourgeoisie, and even the Army and the Church were not exempt. How far this influence contributed to the Revolution is, however, a very controversial question. The leading figure in French Freemasonry, Philip, Duke of Orleans, was the center of a web of subterranean agitation and intrigue which has never been unravelled, and he was certainly unscrupulous enough to use his position as head of the Grand Orient to further his schemes in so far as it was possible.


What is clearer, and also more honorable, is the role of Freemasonry in generating the revolutionary optimism which inspired the aristocratic party of reform in the National Assembly. Men like Lafayette, the Vicomte de Noailles, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, the Duc de Liancourt and the two Lameths saw in the new Revolution the fulfillment of the glorious promise of the Revolution in America. To them, and above all to Lafayette, the essence of the Revolution was to be found not in financial or even constitutional reform but in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which had marked a new era in the history of humanity. They felt like Paine, who writes as Lafayette's spokesman to the English-speaking world, that in the "Declaration of Rights we see the solemn and majestic spectacle of a nation opening its commission, under the auspices of its Creator, to establish a government, a scene so new and so transcendently unequalled by anything in the European world, that the name of a Revolution is diminutive of its character, and it rises into a Regeneration of Man.' `Government founded on a moral theory of universal peace, on theindefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the government of the sword revolved from east to west. It interests not particular individuals but nations in its progress and promises a new era to the human race."

Thus the French Revolution falls into place as part of a world revolution which would restore to mankind the original rights of which it had been robbed at the very dawn of history by the tyranny of kings and priests. "Political popery, like the ecclesiastical popery of old, has had its day and is hastening to its exit. The ragged relic and the antiquated precedent, the monk and the monarch, will molder together."

This is the same faith which inspired the speculative Freemasonry of the eighteenth century and which expresses itself in a mystical form in the early prophecies of William Blake. The Declaration of the Rights of Man made it the official creed of the French Revolution and gave the political and economic discontent of the French people a philosophical or rather theological basis on which a new social order could be based.

It is this ideological background which gave the French Revolution its spiritual force and its international significance. Without it, the Revolution might have been nothing more than a new Fronde. With it, it changed the world.

The men who did so much to bring the new gospel out of the coulisses of the salons and the masonic lodges on to the stage of history had no idea where their ideals would lead. Their generous illusions blinded them to the dangers in their path and they thought that the Revolution was accomplished when it had hardly begun. But none the less they played an essential part in the revolutionary drama. Lafayette, `the hero of two worlds,' on his white horse posing as a French Washington, seems an absurd or pathetic figure (Cromwell-Grandison as Mirabeau said) in comparison with the men who were to make history, such as Mirabeau, Danton and Bonaparte. Yet had it not been for Lafayette these might never have had the chance to play their part. To the French bourgeoisie in the opening years of the Revolution, Mirabeau and Danton seemed sinister figures who were ready to play the part of a Catiline or a Clodius. And as Mirabeau was not trusted by the bourgeoisie, so neither did he trust the people. He realized the meaning of revolution and the meaning of authority. But he cared nothing for the metaphysical abstractions of the Declaration of Rights, or the moral principles which inspired the liberal idealism of the moderate reformers no less than the Puritan fanaticism of Robespierre and Saint-Just. Lafayette, on the other hand, was a thoroughly respectable person, a man of high character and high principles, a good liberal and a good deist but no enemy of property and religion. And so thebourgeoisie were ready to fall in and march behind his famous white horse in defence of the cause of liberalism against both the forces of disorder and the forces of reaction.

Had it not been for this, the revolt of the Commune in July, 1789 might have ended in a premature explosion which would have ruined the cause of the Revolution; for France was not ripe for democracy, and the moderate elements in the Assembly which formed the great majority saw the work of what Lafayette calls `the infernal cabals' of the Orleanist faction behind the violence of the mob. The action of Lafayette and Bailly, however, brought the nascent revolutionary democracy of Paris into line with the bourgeois liberalism of the National Assembly. The key of the Bastille was presented by Lafayette to Washington by means of Tom Paine and its capture became transformed from an act of lawless violence into a glorious symbol of the triumph of national liberty over feudal despotism. In the same way, with the revolt of the peasants in the following months when against feudalism and social war threatened to plunge the country in a social conflict which would have united the rich against the poor, the situation was saved by the idealism of the liberal aristocrats led by Lafayette's brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles, who spontaneously renounced their feudal rights in an outburst of humanitarian enthusiasm (4 August, 1789).


Finally, Lafayette managed to secure a triumph for his policy of conciliation in the days of October when the forces of disorder had broken loose even more dangerously than in July. All day long he had argued and threatened and entreated, and at last, looking more dead than alive, he had been forced against his will to set out on the dreary march to Versailles in rain and darkness. Yet next day he returned in the sunlight, amidst cheering crowds and waving branches, with the King at his side and the members of the National Assembly behind him. The crisis that might have ruined him ended in his victory over both the reactionaries and the extremists. The King was forced to rally to Lafayette's program of a democratic monarchy, while Lafayette on his side did his best to strengthen the hand of the government and restore its prestige. Order was restored. The Duke of Orleans and Marat were forced to leave the country. Mirabeau abandoned the Orleanist faction in disgust and began to make advances to Lafayette and the court. The Assembly, supported by Lafayette and the National Guard, and by Bailly and the municipality of Paris, was at last free to devote itself to the reorganization of France and the creation of a new constitution in accordance with the Rights of Man. It seemed as though the Revolution hadentered a new phase, and that the alarms and excursions of the first five months would be followed by a period of peaceful consolidation. And in fact the middle period of the Constituent Assembly, from the autumn of 1789 to that of 1790, when the prestige of Lafayette was at its height, gave France a brief period of relative calm, to which liberals like Mme de Staël looked back in later years with longing and regret:

Never [she wrote] has French society been more brilliant and at the same time more serious. It was the last time, alas! that the French spirit showed itself in all its luster. It was the last time, and in many respects also the first that Parisian society could give an idea of that intellectual intercourse which is the noblest enjoyment of which human nature is capable. Those who have lived at that time cannot help recognizing that nowhere at any time had they seen so much life and intellect so that one can judge by the number of men of talent which the circumstances of that time produced what the French would be, if they were called to take part in public affairs under a wise and sincere form of government.

But if it was a time of freedom and hope, it was also a time of illusion. The Constituent Assembly went to work in a mood of boundless optimism without any regard for the facts of history or the limitations of time and place, in the spirit of their arch theorist Sieyès, who said that the so-called truths of history were as unreal as the so-called truths of religion. When their work was finished, Cerutti declared that they had destroyed fourteen centuries of abuses in three years, that the Constitution they had made would endure for centuries, and that their names would be blessed by future generations. Yet before many months had elapsed their work was undone and their leaders were executed, imprisoned or in exile. They had destroyed what they could not replace and called up forces that they could neither understand nor control. For the liberal aristocracy and bourgeoisie were not the people, and in some respects they were further from the people than the nobles and clergy who remained faithful to the old order. On the one hand there were the vast inarticulate masses of the peasantry who were ready to burn the castles of the nobles but who were often equally ready to fight with desperate resolution for their religion. On the other hand there was the people of the communes, above all the Commune of Paris.

For Paris was still at heart the old city of the League and it needed no teaching from America or England to learn the lesson of Revolution. It remembered the night of St. Bartholomew and the killing of Henry III, and its crowds rallied as readily to the preaching of the new Cordeliers and the new Jacobins as to that of their Catholic predecessors who led the mob against theHuguenots and held the city for five years against Henry of Navarre. Already in the days of July the people of Paris had asserted their power in unequivocal fashion and had regained their liberty by force of arms. Henceforward the people of Paris were an independent power, and a power which possessed far more political self-consciousness and revolutionary will than the people whose representatives sat in the National Assembly. It is true that in the first years of the Revolution the municipality was still in the hands of the bourgeoisie, but this was not the case with the assemblies of the districts and sections which were the real centers of political action. Here was democracy in action. Not the representative democracy of liberal constitutionalism, but the direct democracy of the medieval communes and the Greek city states -- the democracy of which Rousseau and Mably had dreamed. It was this new and terrible power which was to undo the work of the aristocratic liberals and remake the Revolution; and already in the days of the Constituent Assembly it had found its leader in Danton, and its philosopher and teacher in Marat.

For the venomous and diseased little Swiss doctor, who was regarded as either a criminal or a lunatic by the respectable politicians of the Assembly, saw more clearly than they the fundamental issues of the Revolution and the bloody road that it was to travel. From the first he denounced the new constitution as the work of a privileged class and he marvelled at the way in which the workers had risked their lives to destroy the Bastille which was not their prison but that of their oppressors. He even warned the Assembly that if the bourgeoisie rejected the political rights of the workers on the ground of their poverty, they would find a remedy in the assertion of their economic rights to share in the possessions of the rich. "How many orators boast thoughtlessly of the charms of liberty. It only has a value for the thinker who has no wish to crawl and for the man who is called to play an important part by his wealth and position, but it means nothing to the people. What are Bastilles to them? They were nothing but a name. Where is the country of the poor?' he writes in November 1789, in reference to the question of conscription. "Everywhere condemned to serve, if they are not under the yoke of a master, they are under that of their fellow-citizens, and whatever revolution may come, their eternal lot is servitude, poverty and oppression. What can they owe to a state which has done nothing, nothing but secure their misery and tighten their chains. They owe it nothing but hatred and malediction."

This is very different from the optimistic liberal idealism which was the prevailing spirit in 1789-90. In fact Marat was anything but a liberal. From the first he had preached the gospel of terror and his political ideal was a popular dictatorship rather than any kind of liberal constitutionalism. But he understood the mind of the people better than Lafayette and the makers of the Constitution of 1791, and it was not liberalism but his creed of revolutionary democracy which became the creed of the Commune, the Jacobins and the Republic, in the decisive years that followed.

First Published in The South Atlantic Quarterly, (1955). (Notes have been omitted. For these see chapter 4 of The Gods of Revolution, New York University Press, 1972.)

Taken from the Winter 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor