Keith M Baker, professor of Early Modern European History at Stanford University, explains a Digital Humanities project mapping the debates on the constituent articles of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
What happened to rights in 1789? I plan to present in this lecture some results of a collaborative research project exploring this question. Digital Humanities has done remarkable work to reveal the diffusion of texts, the circulation of letters, and the distribution of writers across enlightened Europe. In this regard, its model has tended toward the sociological and dispersive. What might be done, though, with a more political and concentrated approach that would try to digitize decisions and visualize moments of collective choice? What, more specifically, might we learn about the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that portal to the modern political world? Methods of digital humanities aside, there are also good historiographical reasons for looking again at the week of debates in which the National Assembly fixed on that document. The project I will discuss was provoked most immediately by Jonathan Israel's claims that the principles of the French Revolution, particularly as expressed in August 1789 in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, represented a victory for the group of intellectuals he gathers together under the banner of a Radical Enlightenment deriving its ideas and arguments ultimately from materialist philosophy. But it bears also on issues raised by new histories of human rights, for which the character of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen must be crucial for the question of continuity or rupture in the practice of rights talk.