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Sometimes history just leaps off the pages and proclaims its relevance for our own times. On December 24, 1894, The Times of London published a long editorial about the first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason.

We must point out that, the more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice. Of these, the most indispensable is publicity. . . . It may be important for the French people to preserve the secrets of their War Department, but it is of infinitely greater importance for them to guard their public justice against even the suspicion of unfairness or of subjection to the gusts of popular opinion.

The Times correspondent wrote these words when there was still little doubt of Dreyfus’ guilt in the public at large. There were no Drefusards yet, that is, members of a movement to see the wrongfully convicted man exonerated. It was three years before Emile Zola wrote “J’accuse.” The point wasn’t about guilt or innocence. It was about the rule of law, which meant due process out in the open even for grave matters of national security. The later establishment of Dreyfus’ innocence reminded observers why.

Tomorrow my class is discussing Michael Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999). Burns tells this dramatic tale with his own gripping prose interspersed with documents from the period. And he extends the tale as far as 1998, in order to help readers understand the affair’s legacy. For those with more time on their hands I also recommend Jean Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), a big history book that reads like a good political thriller.

Today citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. On this day, 232 years ago, thirteen American colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain in a famous document that Thomas Jefferson wrote, the Declaration of Independence. As a history teacher, I find this document fascinating, because it fuses together two different political traditions. On one hand, it recalls seventeenth-century English constitutionalism and its arguments about what had supposedly always been the rights of Englishmen. On the other hand, it advances the kind of powerful and universalizing claims about natural law and human rights spawned in the Enlightenment and given their most dramatic expression during the French Revolution. These connections make the document an interesting object lesson for the history classroom. They also can act as a healthy reminder to Americans that our Declaration of Independence displays not only differences from European political traditions, but also powerful affinities for them.

For traditions of English constitutionalism, have a look at the second half of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of “a long train of abuses and usurpations” and ends thus: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” Following this statement is a list of all the King’s offenses.

Now compare this list as well as the language complaining of tyranny to the Petition of Right, which the English parliament issued in 1628 in response to perceived abuses of power by King Charles I, who a couple decades later fought a civil war and was eventually tried for treason and beheaded in 1649. To understand the gulf in political culture between Parliament and the King, it is also helpful to look at a statement that the king’s father, James I, wrote in 1598, while still just James VI of Scotland: True Law of Free Monarchies. In it the king is a divine right ruler who sees himself as “before any estates or ranks of men within the same, before any Parliaments were holden or laws made; and by them was the land distributed (which at the first was wholly theirs), states erected and discerned, and forms of government devised and established.”

England tried government without a monarchy for a about a decade, but in 1660 a Stuart, Charles II, once again ascended the throne. His son became King James II in 1688. Fears of the son’s absolutist ambitions and attempts to bring Catholicism back to England led Parliament to depose him, and invite his daughter and son-in-law to rule, William and Mary. This time Parliament passed a much more far-reaching bill, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, to which the new King and queen acquiesced. Nonetheless, Parliament did not claim to have the right to depose kings. Instead, it observed that James II had “abdicated the government and the throne [was] thereby vacant.” After discussing his offenses, the members of the upper and lower houses of Parliament declared that “for the vindicating and asserting [of] their [the representatives'] ancient rights and liberties,” kings could not rule without Parliament on their royal authority alone. The king was subject to the law. Then the document enumerates a series of rights that will look familiar to anyone who knows the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence describes similar tyranny, and his explanation for the colonists’ rebellion is not inconsistent with what Parliament had done eighty-eight years earlier. It represented not so much a revolution, per se, as a severing of relations with the king, in order to preserve traditional rights. Jefferson’s own argument read thus:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

If the Declaration of Independence was consistent with English constitutionalist traditions, however, it also offered a powerful and universal statement about human beings that was based on natural law instead of ancient liberties.

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.

This kind of thinking was indeed revolutionary. In France beliefs in natural law soon helped bring down the old regime in 1789, though the American contribution to that was probably more the debts that Louis XVI had incurred in his support of the enemies of his enemy, Great Britain, during the American rebellion. Members of the Third Estate called the National Assembly into existence, and members of this body began their work by focusing on individual rights, only later turning to more practical constitutional issues. In contrast to England in 1688 and later the American colonies in 1776, though, the French didn’t modify an existing form of government. They invented something new based on natural law. Read the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which appeared during the first summer of revolution. The first three items in this document will sound familiar to Americans who know their own country’s foundational documents:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.

2. The purpose 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 rests essentially in the nation. No body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from the nation.

The causal link between this document and our own Constitution and Declaration of Independence is indirect at best, but one can see the common concerns that had arisen from the Enlightenment, and the common justification for people coming together and forming a new political order of their own free will.

The Declaration of Independence has a foot in two different traditions, one of old English rights that Parliament asserted and expanded in the face of the absolutist ambitions of its kings, and one more universal, based on natural law and reflected not only in the ideals of the French Revolution, but also the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is tempting to speculate on how these two different traditions might continue to inform American political culture today, but that will have to wait for another time and perhaps another author. Important here is rather the conversation among foundational constitutional documents from the United States, England, and France.

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Image: “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull

Related post: Human Rights in the History Survey

Today bloggers around the world are writing about human rights in an action called Bloggers Unite, which is organized by BlogCatalog and joined by Amnesty International. The following post is part of that effort, but it also relates to a central concern of Clio and Me, teaching history.

I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier, this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was “Politics and Human Rights.”

If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century.

I took my cue from a nice little collection of primary sources that Lynn Hunt edited and translated: The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996). Of course, people did not use the term “human rights” in the eighteenth century, but they did reimagine and rework the relationship between the individual and the state in a fundamental way. The rights that eighteenth-century thinkers and politicians posited and then fought for formed the basis of what we now consider fundamental human rights: freedom of religion and expression, the protection of one’s property, and the right to pursue an occupation and earn rewards according to one’s talents, not birth. Government existed to protect these and other rights, not according to the whims of a monarch above the law.

The English gained such rights based on the accumulation of precedents over time. Milestones included the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689). Rights grew more expansive, but they adhered to Englishmen as Englishmen. Enlightenment thought, on the other hand, was characterized by its universality. Men had rights by virtue of their common humanity. Thomas Jefferson reflected both traditions in the Declaration of Independence (1776), which enumerated English offenses against the colonists’ rights, on one hand, but contained language whose bold universality conveyed a message far beyond its original purpose:

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.

As we know from American history, this famous declaration left many questions unanswered and long went unrealized in society. Who was to be included in this equality? At first it was only all free men. Black slaves were property. There was also the question of property qualifications for voting rights. Could the poor and uneducated be trusted to make the right decisions in a democracy? And what about women? Much of American history can be told as the history of making Jefferson’s words become a reality.

These questions also held great urgency during the French Revolution, which offers unparalleled opportunities for students to read about, reflect on, and discuss the major issues thrown up by the advent of citizenship and individual rights. For instead of struggling with the major issues over a period of some two centuries, the revolutionaries in France tried to do it all in a period of only five years, from the onset of the Revolution in 1789 to the end of the Terror in 1794.

The most enduring document from that time was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), but students can also consider Olympes de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791). Besides these and some other famous documents, Hunt’s book contains a host of compelling material otherwise unavailable in English. The main point of the exercise is to help students think about where our notions of such rights come from and to understand better their contingent and contested nature in the past.

Discussing Hunt’s book covered one seventy-five minute unit. Two more units entailed a lecture that walked students through these issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along the way exploring the issues of nationalism, feminism, socialism, and totalitarianism. I am still not satisfied with the result, but the topic of human rights lent Europe’s confusing political history more narrative coherence than I had been able to muster in the past. It also permitted me to push the issue into the second half of the twentieth century and include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), decolonization, the Helsinki Accords (1975), the collapse of Europe’s communist regimes, and the human rights abuses that followed Yugoslavia’s breakup.

My mind was dizzy after such a trip, especially since I use slides but no prepared text. I’m sure some students had trouble with the shifting geography and rapidly advancing timeline. Nonetheless, they were able to follow one theme over the course of two hundred years and see how it touches on nearly every major aspect of history in this time. How many other topics link politics, the economy, gender, race, religion, ideology, party politics, war, and international relations in such clearly important ways? In future I will surely make changes in how I cover the topic, but I will continue to give it an important place in my survey courses.

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