Inventing Human Rights

For Lynn Hunt, a leading historian of eighteenth century France, two striking aspects of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen were the assertions that these rights were universal and self-evident. The claims echoed the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence and were repeated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.

Despite use of the word “citizen” in the title of the French declaration, both in that document and in the American one the rights listed applied to everyonewith the understanding that for political participation “all men” did not necessarily include propertyless males, slaves, free blacks, women, or at times religious minorities. In Inventing Human Rights: A History, Hunt asks: If rights were self-evident, why was it necessary to declare them, and why was the claim made at this particular time?

For Hunt, the particular time and place are important. She stresses that use of the phrase “rights of man” began in the eighteenth century. The first attempt to actually enumerate them was the Declaration of Rights written by George Mason and prefaced to the Virginia constitution in early 1776. His list was widely copied by other states, and Thomas Jefferson used an improved version of Mason’s language in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Translations of American constitutions circulated widely in France in the 1770’s and 1780’s, influencing its 1789 declaration.

Critics of Hunt object to her stress on the eighteenth century as too limiting, arguing that the rights claimed in 1776 and 1789 had a lengthy history. Beginnings can be traced as far back as the law codes of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century b.c.e., in the political speculation of Greek philosophers, in the commandments of all major religions, and in changing views of human individuality that arose during the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. Hunt rejects the call to study all possible sources of the declarations, objecting that it would involve writing a history of Western civilization (others would say of world civilization) and would not explain what changed in the eighteenth century. Although two of the Ten Commandments anticipated parts of John Locke’s trilogy of rightsthe injunction not to kill clearly implied a right to security of life, the charge not to steal recognized a right to propertynot until the political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did anything resembling modern concepts of liberty emerge.

Hunt praises Hugo Grotius’s De iure belli ac pacis libri res (1625; On the Law of War and Peace, 1654) for asserting the concept of natural rights independent of religion and applicable to all humankind, not just one country or legal tradition. Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui elaborated Grotius’s ideas in his Principes du droit naturel (1747; The Principles of Natural Law, 1748), widely translated into English and various European languages. Even more influential in America was Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690), with its claim that states were formed under a social contract subject to natural law guaranteeing inalienable rights.

What transformed abstract speculation on politics to a revolutionary movement, Hunt suggests, was the addition of a growing emotional identification with others, or empathy, to reasoned arguments. Belief in human rights became self-evident and a stimulus for action when people began to see others as their equals, as being like them in significant ways. Before that could happen, attitudes like that recorded of Madame Duchâtelet, “who did not hesitate to undress in front of her servants, not considering it a proven fact that valets were men,” had to change.

In one of the most interesting and original assertions in the book, Hunt claims that reading novels was a major way that eighteenth century people learned to empathize with others. She focuses on epistolary novels, in which the author pretends to be only the editor of a series...

(The entire section is 1674 words.)