Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “Inventing Human Rights”

July 11, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

The words are familiar to every schoolchild in the United States:

That's the beginning of the preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), largely written by Thomas Jefferson. That document was in turn a major influence on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) drafted in the early days of the French Revolution. The first two items of this second declaration read

Although earlier documents such as the English Bill of Rights of 1689 had identified certain legal and civil rights, the two declarations of the late 18th century contain something very new and significant: They indicate that people have basic rights as an intrinsic part of being human. These rights are not granted by church or state. They are universal and innate, what we now call "human rights."

Where did this concept come from? That's the question that UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt attempts to answer in her fascinating new book Inventing Human Rights: A History (W. W. Norton, 2007). The book is fairly short (endnotes begin on page 230) but it is scrupulously researched and packed with details.

Lynn Hunt believes that fundamental changes in people's outlooks occurred in the second half of the 18th century, and the first chapter of Inventing Human Rights explores a surprising source of this change: novels. Two of the most popular novels of the 18th century were Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48), which influenced Rousseau in writing another immensely popular novel, Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).

Pamela, Clarissa, and Julie were all epistolary novels — novels told as a series of letters (epistles) among the various characters. The epistolary form allowed the author to present multiple points of view, not only letting the reader see the events of the novel through the eyes of various characters who write the letters, but also in reading the letters through the eyes of other characters. Through this process, the reader learns empathy.

Readers of these novels included influential Englightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Thomas Jefferson. Like other readers, they responded emotionally and viscerally, and found they were morally elevated by the experience of living within these characters.

Chapter 2 of Inventing Human Rights explores the practice of torture, common in the mid-18th century, and particularly the case of a Jean Calas, who was tortured and executed by a French court in 1762. Voltaire publicized the case as an act of wrongful prosecution, but his first writings about it didn't mention the torture that took place. A few years later (in 1766) Voltaire began explicitly condemning the torture of Calas. A shift of focus had taken place.

Voltaire was only one of many people developing new attitudes toward torture in the 1760s. Lynn Hunt partially credits this to "the short punchy Essay on Crimes and Punishments, published in 1764 by a twenty-five-year-old aristocrat, Cesare Beccaria.... The Italian upstart rejected not only torture and cruel punishment but also—in a move remarkable for the time—the death penalty itself." (pg. 80) The book was widely read and very influential, despite having been put on the papal Index of Forbidden Books in 1766.

Inventing Human Rights next traces the development of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and then examines how the concept of human rights was interpreted and implemented. By the time the United States Constitution was written in 1787, the focus had shifted from human rights to nation building. A few concepts of human rights entered the Bill of Rights (1789-1791) such as the prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" but that phrase came right out of the 1689 English Bill of Rights. Nothing in the Constitution quite matched the strength and universal simplicity of the words of the Declaration of Independence.

For much of her analysis of the implications of a declaration of human rights, Lynn Hunt concentrates on her area of expertise, which is France. During the revolutionary years of the 1790s, rights were extended to more and more classes of people. Of course, the French Revolution these days is remembered mostly for the liberal use of the guillotine in eliminating counter-revolutionary activity, but it should be remembered that the guillotine was adapted as a "humane" method of execution, and any torture that took place was mostly psychological.

But the sad truth is that a phrase such as "all men are created equal" certainly did not apply to "all men." Slavery was legal in the United States until 1865, and while it was outlawed in France in 1794, slavery lasted much longer in the colonies of France, such as Haiti. Moreover, the word "men" really meant "men." The French Revolution gave women inheritance rights and divorce rights, but women weren't allowed to vote anywhere in the world until the late 19th century, and in the U.S. not until 1920.

That the concept of human rights should have implications for women as well as men didn't go unnoticed. In 1790, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. (Burke had condemned the "paltry blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man" and contrasted his Tory beliefs: "We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility.") Two years later Mary Wollstonecraft followed her earlier book with a text that is now much more famous: A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Although enfranchisement and political rights generally expanded over the 19th century, Lynn Hunt believes that the concept of universal human rights went into eclipse for about 150 years starting with the beginning of Bonaparte's command of France. The Napoleonic Wars led to the mixed blessing of nationalism—at first a movement of self-determination but then turning to exclusivity and xenophobia—and then two major wars of the 20th century. Certain concepts quite antithetical to human rights—anti-Semitism, in particular—became quite virulent in the late 19th century and led to Hitler's Final Solution.

Only after the end of the second world war was there significant talk again about human rights in connection with the establishment of the United Nations. But there was much opposition to explicitly spelling it out:

It took some work, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was finalized in 1948. Article 1 states "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Most of us agree, yet Lynn Hunt ends her book on a fairly pessimistic note. Human rights abuses—including slavery, genocide, and torture—are still all too common. Certainly we empathize with the victims, but we've also come to realize that governments usually can't "enforce" human rights outside their borders without also becoming part of the problem. And I hardly need to mention the recent human rights violations committed by the very country that began its existence with a declaration of the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."