Common Authors

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
repercussion 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.(Sherman, 100) The fact that
this is distinctly stated implies that arbitrary laws were being
passed and enforced under Louis XVI. Article VI states
that law is the expression of the general will every citizen
has the right to participate personally or through his
represenative.... (Sherman, 100) 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