Summary of Inventing Human Rights

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Most Westerners take for granted the notion that all men and women are created equal, that political liberties and religious freedom are basic rights endowed by birth, not by class, color or creed. But 250 years ago, even advanced civilizations had no notion of individual rights, according to this intriguing study by Lynn Hunt. The historian vividly describes a time when torture and public execution were commonplace – in the annals of cruel and unusual punishment, the guillotine marked a major improvement – and voting was a rare privilege. Hunt lauds the revolutionaries of France and the American colonies for creating a new framework for equality. Alas, she reports, it took decades before the rights they championed were extended to black and Jewish men or to women of any race or religion. Though narrowly focused on the United States and Western Europe, Hunt’s readable and well-organized book offers a lucid and insightful account of the slow evolution of human rights.

About the Author

Lynn Hunt is a distinguished research professor at UCLA, former president of the American Historical Association and author of Telling the Truth About History



Revolutions in the United States and France

At the end of the 18th century, revolutionaries in the United States and France sought to define the inalienable privileges assigned to every person on the planet. Chafing under heavy-handed monarchies, advocates for human rights sought to break the old chains that linked freedoms to social class and position in the political pecking order. The result of those efforts was the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. The framers of these declarations weren’t especially interested in equal rights for religious minorities, or for non-white people, or for women; nevertheless, the two documents set off a decades-long shift toward greater equality for greater numbers of people.

Human rights rest on three fundamental principles. First, they’re “natural,” meaning human rights are an inextricable part of human existence. Second, they’re equal, meaning they accrue to everyone in the same amounts. And third, they’re universal, meaning they apply everywhere. The first principle is, generally, accepted without ...

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