In the comic book version of history promoted by the left, all Europe groaned under the weight of tyrannical absolute monarchs, who could do whatever they pleased, until the glorious French Revolution recognized the “Rights of Man” (all of which it proceeded to violate). As usual with the Whig interpretation of history, none of it is true.
After the fall of Rome, absolute monarchy was rare in the West until the late 17th and 18th centuries. Kings’ subjects had rights, lots of them, and they were not shy about claiming them. Medieval in origin—the Middle Ages were on the whole a good time, not a bad one—they differed from the “Rights of Man” in fundamental respects. First, they were real, specific, and concrete, not air-fairy promises. I, as a subject, have the right to the products of this field. I have the right to having my grain ground at this mill, at a price not to exceed this much. I have the right not to pay these taxes. I have the right to take certain grievances to the king, in person. I have the right to walk this path (still with us as right-of-way). I have the right, depending on my function in society and thus my class, to serve in the king’s army, or to refuse to serve in his army. If you violate my rights, you will face a dangerous rebellion.
Second, these rights of men (and, differently, women) could neither be established nor withdrawn by law. Rather, they were first established in fact by being exercised, then enshrined in custom, and only finally recognized by law, based on precedent. The rights came first, the law afterward.
This made traditional rights—we know them best as the “rights of Englishmen,” which is what the Americans rebelled to defend in 1776—robust. Because the “Rights of Man” are invented by legislative fiat, they can be easily withdrawn by legislative fiat. Because they depend on the state, they can be withheld by the state. The constitution of the Soviet Union was full of rights, but the same state that created them could and did ignore them. The same thing has occurred in western Europe, where “rights” such as free speech are being withdrawn at the demand of the cultural Marxists. Whatever they deem “hate speech,” which is to say open defiance of cultural Marxism, is now prosecuted.
Before the rise of absolute monarchy in a few places, most prominently France, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, kings had to respect their subjects’ rights. In Spain, a new king, as part of his coronation, had to visit each province, formally swearing to respect that province’s rights. Even in France, the parliaments (which were courts, not legislative bodies) could and regularly did defy the king and block actions he wished to take right up to the catastrophe of 1789. That disaster, the French Revolution, began because the king could not levy new taxes without the approval of the Estates General, which he had to call into session. That was one of his people’s rights.
Ironically, in the 18th century absolute monarchy was not traditional, it was a violation of tradition and its sweeping away. Those promoting it were the equivalents of today’s progressives, not conservatives, who fought to defend traditional rights. Progressives, then as now, wanted an all-powerful central government that could push through their agenda, the people’s rights be damned. In most of Europe, they were not successful in creating the all-powerful monarchs they wanted. In most German states, the Landstände, which were legislatures like France’s Estates General, retained significant power.
Conservatives reject rights created by the wave of a hand, at the demand of some philosopher or ideology (a recent absurdity is “animal rights,” which cannot exist because animals cannot compel us to respect them). That is not because we are against rights, but because we know our rights can neither be created nor legitimately taken away by the state. Something is our “right” because it has been for a long time. Its origin lies in precedent, not politics. If a government violates it, we have the right to rebel and demand its restoration. In both Europe and America, where culturally Marxist governments are violating real rights on a massive basis, rebellion is growing. People want the rights of men, not the evanescent “Rights of Man.”