Inventing Human Rights: A History

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Overview

“A tour de force.”—Gordon S. Wood, New York Times Book Review
How were human rights invented, and how does their tumultuous history influence their perception and our ability to protect them today? From Professor Lynn Hunt comes this extraordinary cultural and intellectual history, which traces the roots of human rights to the rejection of torture as a means for finding the truth. She demonstrates how ideas of human relationships portrayed in novels and art helped spread these new ideals and how human rights continue to be contested today.

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Editorial Reviews

Joanna Bourke - Harper's
“Elegant... intriguing, if not audacious... Hunt is an astute historian.”
The New Yorker
“Fast-paced, provocative, and ultimately optimistic. Declarations, she writes, are not empty words but transformative; they make us want to become the people they claim we are.”
Gary J. Bass - New Republic
“A provocative and engaging history of the political impact of human rights.”
Amartya Sen
“This is a wonderful story of the emergence and development of the powerful idea of human rights, written by one of the leading historians of our time.”
London Review of Books
“Rich, elegant, and persuasive.”
Alan Wolfe - Commonweal
“As Americans begin to hold their leaders accountable for the mistakes made in the war against terror, this book ought to serve as a guide to thinking about one of the most serious mistakes of all, the belief that America can win that war by revoking the Declaration that brought the nation into being.”
Maya Jasanoff
Already by 1776 it had seemed "self-evident," at least to the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, that "all men were created equal." Of course, like all brilliant rhetoric, his claim was both startlingly and deceptively simple: It masked what may have been the most revolutionary (and in practice, controversial) aspect of American independence. For why and when did we ever start to think that human beings were universally equal, let alone obviously so? Lynn Hunt's elegant Inventing Human Rights offers lucid and original answers…Revolutionaries often see themselves as beginning the world anew, but neither the Americans nor the French conjured up their visions of equality and liberty in a void. Hunt skillfully situates their discourse of rights within a series of broader cultural changes that transformed how (Western) human beings related to one another. It is no accident, she argues, that ideas about common humanity emerged at the same time that people began to take an interest in portraiture, to listen to music in contemplative silence and, above all, to read novels. Indeed, Hunt's mastery of the 18th-century European landscape allows the book to double as a fresh interpretation of Enlightenment culture.
—The Washington Post
Gordon S. Wood
According to many people in the West today, human rights trump all other claims and values, including those of custom, community and culture; everyone in the world, including every individual in strange faraway places like Darfur, has certain inalienable rights simply because he or she is a human being. As conventional as this claim has become for us, in the entire sweep of history it is quite extraordinary and of fairly recent origin. How did it come about and what has been its history? These are the questions Lynn Hunt has sought to answer in this remarkable little book. Indeed, because she covers so much ground in so few pages and with such clarity, Inventing Human Rights is a tour de force of compression.
— The New York Times
Library Journal

Considering contemporary reading habits and conducting a close analysis of contemporary texts, Hunt (history, UCLA; Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution) argues that between the 1740s and 1780s Western attitudes changed dramatically: there emerged newfound feeling for others and an appreciation of others as self-directed entities. The reading public developed this sensibility largely as a consequence of the new epistolary novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Richardson, and others. Concurrently, there was a growing abhorrence of torture or public punishment. Thus was laid the foundation for a language stressing the possession of rights by all men, a concept incorporated in America's Declaration of Independence (1776) and France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). Though women were still excluded from political (but not civil) rights, the door was at last open to religious minorities, the Jews, and free blacks. Talk of rights waned with Napoleon; other political languages engaged Europe for the next century and a half. Rights surfaced again in 1948 with passage of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cultural history of a high order; recommended for academic and large public collections.
—David Keymer Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393331998
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 146,214
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynn Hunt is Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA,
former president of the American Historical Association, and author of numerous works, including Inventing Human Rights and Telling the Truth about History. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     11
Introduction: "We hold these truths to be self-evident"     15
"Torrents of Emotion": Reading Novels and Imagining Equality     35
"Bone of Their Bone": Abolishing Torture     70
"They Have Set a Great Example": Declaring Rights     113
"There Will be no End of It": The Consequences of Declaring     146
"The Soft Power of Humanity": Why Human Rights Failed, Only to Succeed in the Long Run     176
Three Declarations: 1776, 1789, 1948     215
Notes     230
Permissions     261
Index     263

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