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Weber reads: the declaration of the rights of man

History professor Brady Brower gave a lecture for Weber Reads! on Wednesday about the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and its effect on people.

Weber Reads! is an organization that was first started five years ago and has now become a county-wide project.

Weber Reads! is currently sending out packets to every school in Weber County. These packets include books and lesson plans written by teachers from the Wasatch Range Writing Project. To get children interested in the subject of the founders, which Weber Reads! is now talking about, they are relating the topic to pirates.

“We know that kids are sometimes hard to grab with ideas, we’ve learned that some of the early nineteenth centuries pirates… practiced democracy of sort on the ship,” said Margaret Rostkowski, the co-director of the Wasatch Range Writing Project. “That’s a hook to get kids to talk about some of the issues like, ‘why do people want to have some role in what happens to them’ and ‘what does it mean to have rights’…”

During the second session of Weber Reads!, Brower discussed the French Declaration of the Rights of Man written in 1789. He focused on the effects that the declaration had on the French society. The declaration looked at the civic rights people had in France and was first proposed by the Marquis de Lafayette.

The document was eventually accepted by the national assembly after at first being rejected because it was thought to be a distraction from establishing a new government. The American constitution was used as an example when writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Brower talked about the concept he calls French exceptionalism.

“. . . the French people feel that they have a particularly privileged relationship to the idea of rights,” he said.

Brower mentioned the concept of the abstract individual. In France, this meant that the individuals had to “be stripped of their particularities, those stemming from social relations, class, or gender for example,” he said. This was to assure that people returned to their presocial state of nature or an absolute state of liberty. This led to people whose characteristics that could not be taken away, were barred from society and given no rights.

The working class people had a difficult time getting rights. The active citizens who could vote were mostly men over the age of 25 and owned property. Passive citizens couldn’t vote and included servants, the poor and actors. Distinguishing between passive and active citizens was dropped in 1792.

In 1871, Paris workers proclaimed the right to self government only to be suppressed by the French army and were denied rights of self government until 1977.

Women were also a group trying to gain rights. Some women protested the fact that they did not have the right to vote, which backfired.

“By doing something,” Brower said, “they affirmed their status as a group marked by a particular sex and said that they, women, were not abstract individuals, but rather a category.”

They eventually gained the right to vote in 1944.

“Rights are undeniably useful tools in political discourse, but…it is the ends that we put these tools to that we should focus our attention on,” Brower said. “In the French case, it is clear that the conception of rights that adopts a logic of universality, only to exclude those who do not conform to this abstract ideal, is a conception that misunderstands the vital role played by difference in general democratic societies.”

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