Even though the idea of human equal rights has a rather long history, it wasn't a reality up until the late 18th century. Nobles still had more or less absolute power over the lower classes. The lower your caste was, the harder it was to enjoy a fair and just legal system.

Throughout history there have been several rebellions where the common man tries to stand up against his oppressors but it has always been quelled and things have gone back to status quo. Perhaps a king or two was replaced but the system as it was remained pretty much intact - nobles at the top, commoners at the bottom.

The French Revolution marked a turning point. Not only were the rulers overthrown for real but this time the revolutionaries managed to keep it that way. And although the revolution sparked a few years of terror, it planted a seed of equal rights that would spread to the rest of Europe and large part of the world.

Several other countries, like Sweden imposed more equality for the common man around the same time. The king of Sweden, Gustav III (1746-1792), created several laws that gave commoners more rights and nobility less so. He also abolished the death penalty and torture for all but the most severe crimes and he allowed Jews and Muslims to practice their religion openly. All in all, a rather humane ruler at the time.

So why did all this happen at this particular time in human history? There must have been several times where the revolutionaries were fed up with their rulers the same way as the French were. Was society simply not ready for equal rights? Or is this one of those questions that is really not possible to answer?

  • Have you read about the Enlightenment (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment)? – SJuan76 Jan 19 '16 at 16:16
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    I think this is one of those unknowable questions. Certainly society needed to pass critical values of capital, literacy, economic organizations. But there is no way to tell. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 19 '16 at 18:53
  • Read Steven Pinker's the Better Angels of Our Nature, that talks a lot about the concept of human rights. – Ne Mo Jan 20 '16 at 18:02

In a rather simplistic answer, because of bourgeoisie. The French Revolution was a commons revolt, but we need to remember that not all "commons" where poor. Bourgeois where commons, in the third estate. As they are rich, they are stronger political and ideological players that could patronage thinkers and artists that supports the overthrow of society based in estates.* Without the support of rich bourgeois to mobilize and arm white guards and humanitarian and republican thinkers the revolution could not successes not in ideological neither in material aspects.

*How you say "estamental society" in English? The society with rigid stratus like the pre revolution France, with three states.

  • Sounds like you're referring to the class system with lower/working class, middle class and upper/ruling/landowning class. A 'classist' or 'stratified' society. – squigbobble Jan 19 '16 at 16:56
  • This is roughly where I'd go too. I'm generally not a huge fan of the Marxist view of history, but this is the exact kind of question it was created to address, so it does so fairly well. – T.E.D. Jan 19 '16 at 18:46
  • Not exactly @squigbobble. In Portuguese we refer to feudal societies as "estamental" societies, a society with estates, as French ancient regime. A classist society is another thing. The third estate had working class, peasants, but also urban middle class, petty bourgeois and big bourgeois. – Cochise Jan 19 '16 at 19:12
  • @Cochise sounds like "Estates of the realm" – Aaron Brick Oct 15 '17 at 19:42
  • Upvoted, but a lot of people today better understand the term middle class. A substantial middle class begets some sort of democracy, usually. – John Dee Oct 15 '17 at 22:48

The turning point was not the French revolution but American revolution which happened 13 years earlier. The Declaration of Independence (1776) is the first official political document where these rights (for all) are mentioned. The idea should probably be credited to French philosophers of 1700s.

Human rights (in the sense of the rights of ALL humans) evolved slowly from the rights of nobility. Magna Carta is an early example of a document which fixed certain rights - not for all, but for nobility. In Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth there was a numerous nobility (10% of population!) which enjoyed very broad set of rights (called "liberties"). The idea that rights can be extended to all white males appeared in 1700s. Gradually the recognition of equal rights spread to wider and wider set of humans, first including people of other races,and then, finally, women.

I recall that women's rights as equal to men's rights were recognized in most of Europe only in 1900s.

Why it started in 1700s? Because of the bourgeois revolutions, as Cochise stated correctly. Full rights of women were widely recognized after WWI, because of their increasing role in the economy.

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