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Maximilien Robespierre Primary Source Analysis

  • I can summarize the main ideas of historic images and texts.
  • I can create an argument supported by historical evidence from primary sources.
  • I can compare the major ideas of the Declaration of the Rights and Man and Citizen with the Declaration of Independence.

Building Context

In 1789, France was in a crisis. The French government was bankrupt, in part because of its role in helping the Americans win their revolution against Great Britain. The French King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General, France’s legislative body, for the first time in 175 years to address the financial crisis. Three groups or estates made up the Estates General: the nobility (the First Estate representing roughly 1% of the population of France), the clergy (the Second Estate, or approximately 2% of the population), and everyone else (approximately 97% of the population). Tired of being outvoted by the nobility and clergy, the Third Estate broke into a nearby tennis court and declared themselves the National Assembly. The French painter Jacques Louis David captured the moment when the newly-created National Assembly took an oath to create a new government for France. David was a member of the Estates General and was present at this event. The National Assembly issued the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen in August 1789.

Excerpts from the Declaration follow the image.

“The Tennis Court Oath” by Jacques Louis David, 1791 

Analysis Questions

  1. Take a few minutes to look closely at the image and make observations. What stands out to you?
  2. Do you think the artist thought the oath to create a new government for France was a good or bad thing for France? Explain your reasoning.

Text Source

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789

Note: This text was shortened. For the full text, please see the source link below.

Source link:

Essential Vocabulary

Events causing great and often sudden damage or
distress; a disaster.
To be unable to be taken away from or given away by the
Real or imagined wrongs or other causes for complaint or protest, especially unfair treatment.
Not able to be disputed.
Come back upon; rebound on.
under the auspices of
With the help and support of someone or something.
Unable to be taken away.
sovereignty Power or authority.


 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 Notes


  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.  
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.  

Analysis Questions

  1. What is the purpose of this document?
  2. Is there one driving principle that informs the rest of the document? If so, what is it?
  3. How is the rule of law treated in the document? What are the limits of an individual’s rights if it conflicts with the needs of the nation? What are the implications for individuals when the “nation” is given supreme authority?
  4. The Declaration of the Rights of Man makes repeated references to “Citizens”. What significance does this word have?
  5. Compare this document with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:  a. 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.
  6. How is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen similar? What is the difference of sovereignty, or authority, residing in the nation or “general good” in France’s document as opposed to the people in the American document?