Inventing Human Rights | Lynn Hunt

Summary of: Inventing Human Rights: A History
By: Lynn Hunt


In ‘Inventing Human Rights: A History’, Lynn Hunt delves into the world-changing events and ideas that brought to life the powerful concept of human rights. From the roots of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789, to thematic shifts in society, literature, and legal reform, this summary will explore the foundations of equal rights for all humankind. Readers can expect to discover insights on the emotions and reason behind human rights, and how they have evolved throughout history, shaping laws, society, and our collective understanding of equality.

Human Rights: A Historical Perspective

The American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen marked the beginning of a movement towards greater equality. However, defining and implementing human rights have proven to be complex issues. Human rights rest on three fundamental principles: they are natural, equal, and universal. While the first principle has generally been accepted, the other two remain controversial. For example, determining who should have the right to vote and whether immigrants should enjoy the same rights as citizens. It is important to note that the framers of these declarations were not concerned about equal rights for religious minorities, non-whites, or women. In post-revolutionary France, Jews did not gain equal rights until 1791, while men without property were not granted equal rights until 1792. Defining and enforcing human rights continues to be an ongoing challenge, as their definition depends as much on emotions as on reason.

Empathy and Autonomy through Novels

In the 18th century, novels played a pivotal role in shaping empathy and autonomy ideologies. Rousseau’s 1761 bestseller Julie, or the New Heloise, allowed readers to empathize with characters of different nationalities and classes, setting the stage for a belief in human rights for all. The protagonist was a young woman who defied her father’s rule and died tragically, inspiring readers to relate to and admire charming and flawed heroines. Novels enabled empathy for those of different classes and perspectives, and with it came a new expectation of autonomy. Young adults began to expect the right to choose their marriage partners, and Jefferson wrote about how a woman’s right to leave an unhappy marriage was part of the natural right of equality. However, the belief in equality for women, especially in voting rights, was slow to spread, and equal political rights were not won until the 20th century. Novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings, showcasing in particular the desire for autonomy.

The Birth of Human Rights

The concept of human rights took root in the 18th century, thanks to Enlightenment thinkers who challenged the use of torture and cruel punishment in the justice system. Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance was inspired by a murder case that demonstrated the faith-based bias in the police and judges. Torture and cruel punishments were gradually phased out in Sweden, Austria, Bohemia, and France. The French revolutionaries introduced the guillotine as an efficient and painless form of execution, which signaled a shift towards individual rights and away from public spectacles of violence. This new thinking recognized the dignity and autonomy of every person, irrespective of their status, gender, or religion. It sought to rehabilitate criminals rather than mutilate them and to respect their humanity even in the face of heinous crimes. The birth of human rights was a long and painful journey, but it paved the way for a more just and civilized society.

The Evolution of Human Rights

The book explores the shift in the American and French colonists’ perception of human rights from a particularistic view to a universalist approach. The text highlights the challenges that came with advocating for equal rights for all men, such as the inclusion of non-Catholics and women. While the United States granted suffrage to only men who owned property, France made quicker strides towards equal rights for all men, including former slaves. However, women were not granted the right to vote in either country. Despite inconsistencies in interpretations of human rights, the notion of universal rights opened up new political vistas that continue to shape societies today.

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