Inventing Human Rights: A History

Paperback (Print)
Buy Used
Buy Used from
(Save 41%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $1.99
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 87%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (31) from $1.99   
  • New (14) from $9.37   
  • Used (17) from $1.99   


“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.

Read More Show Less

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

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393331998
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 477,388
  • 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.

Read More Show Less

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

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 2 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)