Inventing Human Rights: A History

Lynn Hunt

Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).

The title, Inventing Human Rights: A History, suggests the paradoxes that Lynn Hunt promises to explore. An eminent historian of the French Revolution, Hunt has published earlier works, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992) and an edited collection of documents, The French Revolution and Human Rights (1996), which examine the tensions contained within the 18th-century claim of universal, natural rights. With Inventing Human Rights she takes up a clear and passionate defense of those rights and of their continued relevance. She seeks to rescue the authors of the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen from the charge of being “elitist, racist and misogynist” (18). She reminds readers that the equality of men proclaimed in these documents was itself revolutionary. She recreates the cultural milieu of Enlightenment men and women–urban, literate, moderately affluent. She explains how their view of society and of others was transformed; they came to view all human beings as sharing the same intrinsic feelings and therefore the same rights. Unfortunately, Hunt never quite succeeds in fully grappling with the paradoxes that she herself identifies: If rights are universal and timeless, how then did they come to be created in a specific time and place? If rights were declared as universal, why then did some groups remain excluded from the political exercise of those rights until at least the second half of the 20th century?

The appendix of this study includes three central documents: The American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) and the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights (1948). Hunt focuses on the groundbreaking events of 18th-century North America and France; she excels in the study of that period and its changing culture. She offers an illuminating comparison of the two Declarations and the different positions they had in the creation of new states and polities. Both spoke in the new language of universalism and egalitarianism, but the American Declaration was a stand-alone document that enabled the colonists to break from British monarchical authority. The 1787 US Constitution was a particularistic compromise, establishing a new federal state, to which a limited Bill of Rights was amended in 1791. The French Declaration proclaimed the universality of inherent rights and was written as a preamble to the constitution of a state intended to protect those rights. Of course the constitution of 1791 was very short-lived and not all subsequent French constitutions would include the Declaration.

The central question that Hunt poses is how did this 18th-century radical breakthrough occur. Why were men and women in France, North America and England able “to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?” (19) Her answers center on the development of empathy and a new conception of the individual, understood as a distinct, rational, emotional and physical being. Multiple causes created this new empathy and new vision of the individual, but both reading novels and the creation of portraits contributed significantly. Hunt singles out the epistolary novels that were so popular in England and France from the 1740s to the 1790s. As other historians have suggested, a new way of reading emerged with these fictions that felt so real. Discussing three novels, Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, and Rousseau’s Julie, Hunt argues that these stories focused on love, virtue and compassion, creating a new kind of empathy between the reader and the characters. Through fiction readers recognized the personhood, virtue and autonomy of characters whose class and gender were different from their own. The argument is quite persuasive and the wide distribution and large readership of these and similar novels suggest that perhaps new sentiments and beliefs were emerging.

Hunt links the popularity of portraits to new concepts about the self and especially about the body. The self was increasingly viewed as autonomous and independent (at least potentially); the natural state of the self was identified as rational, empathic, and self-enclosed. More and more, individual bodies themselves became sacred and inviolable, the seat of the self. These new conceptions of the self and the desire to have representations of contemporary individuals – portraits – coincided with and reinforced greater stress on decorum and a growing sense of shame about certain bodily functions. This cluster of sentiments, linked to concepts of human rights, supported a European-wide campaign against torture, specifically judicial torture. Cesare Beccaria’s 1764 reforming pamphlet, Essay on Crimes and Punishments, launched an intense debate on European traditions of judicial investigation and penalties. Hunt is clear that the late 18th-century context of the new meanings of the individual, empathy, egalitarianism, and inviolable bodies gave this debate such wide resonance and such success. A year before the Revolution in France, Louis XVI abolished the use of torture to extract information from convicted criminals. The Revolution abolished all judicial torture in its first year, and by 1791 the only forms of punishment were to be incarceration or execution (decapitation by guillotine).

Particularly when examining the extension of political rights during the French Revolution, Hunt underscores and admires the “implacable logic” of the philosophy of natural rights (175). Once the universal rights of man and the citizen were declared, logic required its ever-wider extension. In the French case first Protestant men were included as citizens, then Jewish men, then men without property, then free men of color, and finally in 1794 emancipated slaves. That the revolutionaries did not extend these rights to women Hunt views as the powerful legacy of patriarchal culture, impeding the full logic of rights. Nonetheless, the Revolution did legislate women’s equality in civil laws covering divorce and inheritance. She further points out that the radical French Declaration created a space in which it became possible to seriously debate the rights of women. 19th- and 20th-century nationalism, imperialism, and racist ideologies have posed additional grave challenges to the logic of human rights. Hunt certainly recognizes the seriousness and deadliness of these challenges, which continue into the 21st century. She concludes with a brief examination of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which identified new social conditions to be protected by universal rights, going well beyond the 18th-century declarations. While she admits that problems remain, Hunt asserts that by the end of the 20th century a global consensus existed about the need to defend human rights.

However, Hunt’s insistence on the implacable logic of the philosophy of rights is not entirely convincing. She begins her study with the paradox that rights asserted as natural, inalienable and universal were in fact invented at a very specific moment in European history. Such paradoxes might have been probed more thoroughly. In the case of women in revolutionary France, Hunt suggests that eventually their exclusion would be overcome by the implacable logic of rights. And so it has been in the realm of political rights. It might, however, be useful to consider the French case as an important instance of a universalism which not only accepts exclusion, but perhaps requires it. Hunt herself states that the 18th-century argument for women’s exclusion was based on women’s status within in the family. This easily slips into an exclusion based on the innate qualities of women’s bodies. Hunt says nothing in this work about the masculinism of the French revolutionaries. How much was the new assertion of independent, autonomous self-hood tied to visions of virile men and the assumption of naturally subordinate women? It would have been intriguing to explore this revolutionary masculinity in relation to the somewhat earlier sensibility of the epistolary novels. And what should we make of this new individual who is certainly the hero of this study? Hunt seems to ignore her own insights in The Family Romance of the French Revolution, where she considered the possibility that an extreme version of autonomous individualism could be recognized in the predatory assertions of self of the Marquis de Sade. In the current work she indirectly suggests such possibilities when she notes the ambiguity surrounding empathy. Empathy and reason were the intertwined forces that brought forth human rights. Nonetheless, empathy was easily transformed into sensationalism and titillation.

In his 1979 work on penal reform Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault came to diametrically different conclusions when considering the cultural transformations of the 18th century. Foucault pioneered a much more critical view of the Enlightenment and portrayed 18th-century penal reforms as the basis for a harsher, more internalized repressive regime. It might have been useful had Hunt addressed more directly these sharp differences. In a single footnote she acknowledges that her view of penal reform and of the Enlightenment more generally is a “much rosier” one than Foucault’s (234, n. 16). Her readers would have benefited from a fuller refutation. In the last pages of the book Hunt notes that natural rights has “brought… a whole succession of evil twins” (212). In reaction to universal rights, powerful ideologies of difference emerge; empathy easily slips into sensationalism; penal reforms create new forms of dehumanization. One wishes that the analysis of these paradoxes had been at the center of Hunt’s study. As she implies, a successful defense of human rights must grapple with these contradictions and paradoxes. Despite this limitation, Lynn Hunt should be applauded for underscoring the revolutionary implications of the declaration of human rights in the 18th century and beyond.

Reviewed by Judith F. Stone
Western Michigan University

This entry was posted in 46, Volume 22, No. 1. Bookmark the permalink.