History

History 4C. Week 3: The French Revolution and its Global Ramifications

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Joan Derk Van der Capellen Tot den Pol (1741-1784)

Derk Van de Capellen Tot den Pol was a Dutch noble who published an important pamphlet To

the People of the Netherlands in 1781 at the beginning of the Dutch Revolution. Translated from

the Dutch.

People of the Netherlands!

Not since yesterday or the day before have you been misled and mistreated; during

nearly two centuries, not to mention earlier periods, have you been at the mercy of several

ambitious persons, who have aimed – pretending to care for your interests and freedom – at…

absolutely nothing else but pressing a hereditary yoke on your free necks.

If peoples are to safeguard their freedom, they should constantly be vigilant and have no unlimited

confidence in any human being – whoever he may be. On the contrary, they must thoroughly

distrust all persons having any authority or power, especially princes and aristocrats, constantly

keeping an eye on them, because experience of all periods from the beginnings of the earth until

our time has shown that even the best are usually weak enough to try to increase the power with

which they are entrusted. Power is sweet! So my fellow countrymen, be vigilant and you will

remain free!…

O my fellow countrymen! Arm yourselves all together and take care of the affairs of this whole

country, that is: of your own affairs. The country belongs to all of you together, not only to the

Prince and his great men, who consider and treat you, all of us, the whole Netherlands people, the

descendants of the free Batavians, as their hereditary property, as their oxen and sheep, which they

can and may shear or slaughter as they think fit to do. The people who live in a country, the

inhabitants, townsfolk and countrymen, poor and rich, the great and the little ones – all together –

they are the true proprietors, the lords and masters of the country and can say how the country’s

affairs should be managed, in what manner and by whom they wish to be governed. A people is

nothing different from a large company. The regents, the authorities and magistrates, the Prince or

whoever has any powerful position – they are only the managers, administrators and stewards of

the company and as such less than the company’s members, that is to say: the whole nation or the

whole people…

All men are born free. By nature, no one has any authority over anyone else. Some people may be

gifted with a better understanding, a stronger body or greater wealth than others, but this does not

in the least entitle the more sensible, stronger or wealthier to govern the less sensible, the weaker

and the poorer. God, our Father, has created men to become happy and has given the duty to all

men – excluding no one – to make each other as happy as possible…

There is no freedom and no freedom can exist in a country where one single person has

the hereditary command over a large army, appoints and dismisses the country’s regents and keeps

them in his power and under his influence, deals with all the offices, and by his influence on the

appointments of professors controls the subject matter that is being taught to the country’s youth

studying in universities, where the people is kept ignorant, where the people is unarmed and has

nothing in the world, God, nothing to say! This is your situation, Netherlanders!

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Anything which is attempted at this time to save our truly almost irretrievably lost fatherland will

be in vain, if you, o people of the Netherlands, remain passive bystanders any longer. So do this!

Assemble each and everyone in your cities and in the villages in the country. Assemble peacefully

and elect from the midst of you a moderate number of good, virtuous, pious men; elect good

patriots whom you can trust […]

Let your commissioners publicly and openly report to you about their actions from time to time

by means of the press. Take care of the freedom of the press, because it is the only support for your

national freedom […].

Arm yourselves, all of you, and elect yourselves the ones that must command you. Act with

calmness and modesty in all things (like the people of America, where not one drop of blood was

shed before the English attacked them in the first place), and Jehova, the God of Freedom, who

has led the Israelites out of slavery and made them a free people, will also without doubt support

our good cause.

Your faithful fellow citizen.

Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789

Translated from the French

Approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the

ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of

the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural,

unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the

members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that

the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any

moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected,

and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and

incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the

happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and

under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

Articles:

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.

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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 entrusted.

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.

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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.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Wollstonecraft was an English philosopher and a pioneer of feminist theory. She moved to Paris

in 1792 in support of the French Revolution.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering

their FASCINATING graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood,

unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness

consists—I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and

to convince them, that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and

refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who

are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become

objects of contempt.

Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our

slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet

docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to show

that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character

as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought

to this simple touchstone…

Rousseau declares, that a woman should never, for a moment feel herself independent, that she

should be governed by fear to exercise her NATURAL cunning, and made a coquetish slave in

order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a SWEETER companion to man, whenever he

chooses to relax himself. He carries the arguments, which he pretends to draw from the indications

of nature, still further, and insinuates that truth and fortitude the corner stones of all human virtue,

shall be cultivated with certain restrictions, because with respect to the female character, obedience

is the grand lesson which ought to be impressed with unrelenting rigor.

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What nonsense! When will a great man arise with sufficient strength of mind to puff away the

fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread over the subject!

Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794)

Robespierre was a lawyer, a radical revolutionary and a French representative at the National

Assembly. In this speech, he described the “principles of the revolutionary government”.

“On the principles of revolutionary government” (25 December 1793)

Citizen Representatives of the people:

The defenders of the Republic are adopting the maxim of Caesar; they believe that nothing has

been done as long as there remains something to do. Enough dangers remain to occupy all our

zeal. To overcome the English and the traitors is an easy enough thing for our Republican soldiers

to do; but there exists an undertaking no less important, and more difficult. The eternal intrigues

of all the enemies of our liberty must be confounded, and the principles on which we must base

public prosperity be made to triumph….

First, we shall discuss the principles of, and the necessity for, revolutionary government; then we

shall explain the situation which is threatening to paralyze it at birth. The theory of revolutionary

government is as new as the revolution which brought it into being. There is no point in searching

for it in the books of political writers, who did not foresee this revolution, nor in the laws of tyrants,

who, content to abuse their power, have little concern for exploring its legitimacy. Consequently,

this phrase is merely a subject of terror or a term of abuse for the aristocracy; it is a scandal, and

for many people, an enigma. We must explain it to everyone, so at least good citizens may be

rallied behind the principles governing public interest. The purpose of the government is to direct

the moral and physical energies of the nation towards the goal for which it was established.

The aim of constitutional government is to maintain the Republic; that of revolutionary

government is to establish it. Revolution is war waged by liberty against its enemies; constitution

is the peaceful rule of victorious liberty. Revolutionary government needs to operate in an

extraordinary manner, precisely because it is at war. It is subject to less uniform and less rigorous

regulations because the circumstances in which it finds itself are stormy and unstable, and, above

all, because it is forced unceasingly to deploy new and swift resources against new and pressing

dangers.

Constitutional government is principally concerned with civil liberty, and revolutionary

government with public liberty. Under a constitutional regime, it almost suffices to protect

individuals against the abuse of power by the state: under a revolutionary regime, it is the state

which has to defend itself against all the factions which assail it. Revolutionary government owes

to all good citizens the fullest protection the state can afford; to the enemies of the people it owes

nothing but death.

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François Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803)

Formerly enslaved in French Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti), Toussaint Louverture became the

governor of the colony. He wrote this letter to French republican authorities, as proslavery

lobbies were scheming to repeal the abolition decree.

Citizen Directors,

At a time when I was thinking that I had rendered eminent service to the republic and my fellow

citizens, … and made myself worthy of the confidence that the government had placed in me,… a

speech given in the legislature by Viénot Vaublanc on 29 May 1797 has just been sent to me from

the United States, and I am pained to see that every page of it slanders my intentions and threatens

the political existence of my brothers.

Such a speech, from a man whose fortune the revolution in Saint Domingue has temporarily taken,

did not surprise me. He who loses has the right to complain, up to a point. But what profoundly

distressed me is that such declamations, which were hardly calculated to restore calm among us

and encourage the cultivators to work, but on the contrary embitter them, giving them the

impression that the French people’s representatives were their enemies…

When France was threatened with losing the colony, it was the blacks who used their strength and

their weapons to preserve it for her… Such are the Negroes whom Vaublanc accuses of being

ignorant and uncouth. No doubt they are, for without education there is only ignorance and crudity.

But should they be criminalized for this lack of education, or should we accuse those who used

terrible punishments to prevent them obtaining it? Is it only civilized people who can distinguish

right and wrong, and know charity and justice? The men of Saint Domingue have been deprived

of education, but thereby have remained closer to nature, and they do not deserve, because they

lack the refinement that comes with education, to form a group separate from the rest of humanity

and to be confused with the animals.

No doubt, the people of Saint Domingue, including the blacks, can be accused of many failings,

even terrible crimes. But in France itself, where the boundaries of social behavior are established,

did not its inhabitants, during the struggle between despotism and liberty, commit the same

excesses of which the blacks are accused by their enemies?

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Secondary Source: Women in the French Revolution

Historian Dominique Godineau discusses what she calls the “Birth of the Female Sans-Culottes

Movement” in her book The Women of Paris and the French Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1998).

History 4C. Week 3: The French Revolution and its Global Ramifications

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History 4C. Week 3: The French Revolution and its Global Ramifications

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