During the late eighteenth century due to philosophical writings of men such as Rousseau and Locke, the question of what governments should be and the rights that every person should have began to be questioned. In France it led to revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The events in France influenced many in Britain to try for reforms to their own government.
Both France and Britain advocated many rights for their people; this essay will discuss what those rights were supposed to be, who pushed for them, and what the realities of these rights were. In France the concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity blossomed, brought forth by the disenfranchised bourgeoisie (the middle class) who found that their interests were ignored and only the interests of the aristocracy were taken account of by the monarchy. They saw that they had no rights and events led to the French Revolution.
During this time of upheaval changes occurred seeing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (DRMC) drawn up. This declaration dealt with right to resist oppression and the need for a separation of power to avoid a tyrannical government. Three of the 17 articles dealt with the administration of justice. One of them asserts the right to a presumption of innocence and another the freedom from arbitrary detention. Thomson states that the DRMC, "…
was careful to specify those civic rights that most concretely expressed the immediate aims of the middle classes which now predominated in the Assembly: equality of all before the law, eligibility of all citizens for all public offices, personal freedom from arbitrary arrest or punishment, freedom of speech and the press, and above all an equitable distribution of the burdens of national taxation and the inviolability of private property. 1" Unfortunately things did not play out the way people would have expected after such a positive step.
For it was a revolution inspired by, led by, and ruled by the middle class and the replacing governing power: the National Assembly, was filled mostly by the bourgeoisie. It was no wonder, then, that the Constitution and the economic reforms were, in the end, great windfalls for the middle class although some things benefited all. Unfortunately, more was to come that proved that the DRMC was not worth much to the people of France as those in power breached it often. The DRMC set out the basic rights and liberties that were supposed to be taken account of when constituting the new government for France.
From the very beginning, people in power disregarded many of its articles in pursuit of their own ends. Article 6 of the DRMC says that in forming laws: every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative2. This article was breached in 1791 when the first French constitution was drawn up. Thomson states that it, "… made a distinction between 'active' and 'passive' citizens and withheld the vote from the latter, defined as those who did not pay taxes equal in value to 3 days' wages. 3" This meant that both women, and the poor had no say in parliament.
When the Jacobin party led by Robespierre came to power more breaches occurred. Essentially Robespierre ran the country as a dictatorship under which he suppressed all resistance by executing nearly 60,000 French citizens across all classes for counter-revolution or treason4. Robespierre's fall and subsequent guillotining led to 'The Directory' coming to power under the 1795 Constitution. The Directory was unpopular with the people and when the people voted in a royalist majority in 1797, the Directory used military force to oust the elected members from the Assembly5.
The actions of the Directory breached article 3 in that they firstly did not have an authority that emanated from the people, article 6 in that they were preventing the expression of the general will of the people by ejecting their chosen representatives, and article 12 in that they used the military to their own benefit contrary to that of the people. Now, the Directory's actions had put them in a politically precarious position and an alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte the general of the French Military led to Napoleon's rise to power as Emperor of France.
Napoleon's dictatorship in many ways was a more positive environment then the preceding ones with codification of the law and economic stability, but it came with a price. Liberty was curtailed during Napoleon's reign thus breaches of the DRMC under articles 4, 7, and 10 occurred as a result6. He used the military for his own purposes maintaining his power in contravention of article 12. However, Napoleon followed article 6 in employing people in his government based on talent regardless of background, a step forward in relation to equality7.
On the other hand in his Napoleonic Code of laws, any gains made by women during the revolution were trampled8. Though the people of France had gained many rights through the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, they were of no use unless those in power wished to follow them. Unlike France where a declaration put forth the rights of the people, in Britain, the people's rights were upheld by their 'unwritten constitution' which consisted of concepts such as the 'rule of law', the 'responsible government', and documents such as the Bill of Rights 16889, Magna Charta 121510, and Habeas Corpus Act 167911.
The Rule of Law, limits the nature of governmental power to established laws applying those laws equally and impartially to all regardless of position or station. It protects citizens from arbitrary seizure of their goods or person and provides a framework of known procedures with which to conduct oneself. The Rule of Law has as its basis objective Natural Law, i. e. a God-given, and therefore unalienable, moral awareness of natural order, justice, and equality before the law. A. V. Dicey stated that the rule of law provides that "…
no man is punishable or can be made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary courts of the land… every official, from the Prime Minister down… is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen. 12" The concept of responsible government is one where the executive government consists of members of parliament, who when in the House of Commons are responsible to other MPs, and the whole parliament is responsible to the people at elections.
This concept implies that the people of Britain had the right to vote, the right to freedom of political speech, and that elections should be regular so that the Parliament is accountable to the people. These rights are also mentioned under the Bill of Rights 1688, articles 8, 9 and 13 respectively. The Magna Carta 1215 is essentially a primitive written expression of 'Rule of Law' concepts and traditional feudal obligations, mainly in favour of the upper class as it was instituted by the Barons of the time.
The Bill of Rights was merely an extension of the Magna Carta's expression of the Rule of Law by parliament. The Habeas Corpus Act enacted by parliament, protected individuals against arbitrary imprisonment by requiring that any person arrested be brought before a court for formal charge. If the charge is considered to be valid, the person must submit to trial; if not, the person goes free. Although parliamentarians were great advocates for all of these constitutional instruments, from 1790s through to the 1830s some of these rights were non-existent for some citizens and other rights were greatly curtailed.
Britain was going through the industrial revolution at the time, and many people had migrated to the cities. These changes had caused many electorates to greatly decline in population while maintaining the same number of MPs, whereas the large industrial cities grew with no change in the number of MPs13. Since 1429, only adult men who had assets of 40 shillings or more qualified to vote thereby leaving the large population of poor with no say in government.
Also, in order to qualify to be an MP in the County electorates one had to own land worth 600 p. a. , and in Borough electorates one had to own land worth i?? 300 p. a. This meant that the House of Commons was far from common as the majority came from the upper class. These factors clearly added to a disproportionate representative parliament that really only represented those from the upper classes. There was uproar among the lower classes over this unfair situation as events occurring in France at the time had awoken the people's political consciousness.
Fearing an uprising akin to that in France, parliament began to curtail many freedoms that ordinary Britons considered constitutional rights. Firstly Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794, allowing individuals to be imprisoned indefinitely on suspicion without requiring charges or trial. Then a series of 'Gagging Acts'14 were passed preventing speaking, writing, publishing anything 'treasonous' (basically calls for reform), and meetings of more than 50 people in order to discuss reforms15. This just sent reformers underground, and unrest, protests and riots occurred.
In order to pacify the people in 1824 these Acts were repealed and the 1832 Reform Act16 was passed, this act changed the voting qualifications to an income i?? 10 p. a. , some larger towns gained MPs and smaller ones lost MPs. These were minimal reforms with the majority of the people still remaining without a political voice, thus any constitutional rights they had were only at the whim of the parliament. France in time of revolution and change guaranteed the peoples rights in written form.
In Britain any rights the people had were conventions of an 'unwritten constitution'. In both Britain and France, these rights were only adhered to when it suited those in power. France's National Assembly was dominated mainly by the middle class, and the dictatorships formed through the revolution were led by men from the middle class. Whereas Britain's House of Commons was dominated by the upper classes. In both dissent was punished though the people were supposed to have rights to voice their views the reality was that they had them only at the whim of those in power.