chapter  42
Inventing Human Rights: A History (Lynn Hunt)
Pages 6

Born in Panama and brought up in St. Paul, Minnesota, Hunt was educated at Carleton College (B.A. in 1967) and Stanford University

(Ph.D. in 1973). Her specialty is the French Revolution, on which she has written authoritative books and articles. Hers is an articulate voice also on the nature, scope, and possibilities of the “new history,” which embraces economic, social, and cultural history. She has written as well about gender in European history and historiography. She taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 11 years and was a

professor at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University before settling in at the University of California, Los Angeles as the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History. She has been visiting professor at the École des Haute Études in France, Beijing University, and the Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam. Many honors have come her way. In 1991 she was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2002 was elected president of the American Historical Association. While the idea of human rights is known, even if resisted or

neglected, nearly everywhere in the modern world, and is more or less taken for granted in the West, not much thought has been given to exactly where it came from and under what conditions it was formulated: “How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals? How did equality of rights become a ‘self-evident’ truth in such unlikely places?” (19). Those questions are addressed in five compact chapters supported by 30 crowded pages of notes and references, many in French. An appendix supplies the text of three documentsthe American (1776), French (1789), and United Nations (1948) declarations of human rights. A claim of self-evidence was itself a remarkable development in

European and American history, since what is self-evident requires no argument or proof: “This claim of self-evidence, crucial to human rights even now, gives rise to a paradox: if equality of rights is so selfevident, then why did this assertion have to [be] made, and why was it only made in specific times and places?” (Ibid.). The usual explanation is that it originated as a rather amorphous, philosophically appealing notion in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and was nailed down to specifics by American and French revolutionaries in 1776 and 1789. In France, England, and America the idea of rights in some form

was in the air as “rights of mankind,” “rights of humanity,” “natural rights,” “rights of our being.” Familiar names associated with a discussion of rights were Rousseau, D’Holbach, Condorcet, Blackstone, Jefferson, and Paine. Hunt weaves an account of how these trial

expressions finally came together as “human rights.” The messiness of history with regard to the emergence of “rights” is resolved into clarity through the prism of high scholarship. The heart of this clarity was what human rights ultimately came to mean. They must be “natural (inherent in human beings); equal (the same for everyone); and universal (applicable everywhere)” (20). For these meanings to take hold certain conditions had to be satis-

fied. The first was affirmation that individual humans are autonomous, that is, capable of making decisions based on knowledge of right and wrong: “To have human rights, people had to be perceived as separate individuals who were capable of exercising independent moral judgment” (27). The second was empathy, an awareness and acceptance that others

have autonomy or a potential for it, as with servants, slaves, and women, that all men and women have thoughts and feelings like us: “Human rights depend both on self-possession and on the recognition that all others are equally self-possessed. It is the incomplete development of the latter that gives rise to all the inequalities of rights that have preoccupied us throughout history” (29). Recognition that others were autonomous beings led to an insistence in politics on shared decision-making. The third was growing awareness that everyone has a body worthy

of respect, and that our physical being is sacred and must not be violated. Higher regard for the body arose from changing social sensibilities, like disgust with urination and defecation in public, distaste for spitting and blowing one’s nose on clothes or in one’s hand. Where whole families slept in the same bed in earlier times, the trend was toward separate beds for parents and children where possible. In the theater polite silence and attention replaced former noisy conversation and random wandering about during a performance. This positive attitude toward other people’s bodies was a necessary

condition for the movement to abolish torture and cruel punishments, which proceeded unevenly from place to place. Hunt provides a graphic account of torture, like breaking on the wheel, and its public settings. Judicial torment to extract confessions and repay society came under fierce attack: “Torture ended because the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart, to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new framework, in which individuals owned their bodies, had rights to their separateness and to bodily inviolability, and recognized in other people the same passions, sentiments, and sympathies as in themselves” (112).