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Inventing Human Rights

Human rights is a concept that only came to the forefront during the eighteenth century. When the American Declaration of Independence declared "all men are created equal" and the French proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, they were bringing a new guarantee into the world. Professor Lynn Hunt questions why it happened then and how such a revelation came to pass. In this extraordinary work of cultural and intellectual history, she grounds the creation of human rights in the changes that authors brought to literature, the rejection of torture as a means of finding out truth and the spread of empathy. Hunt traces the amazing rise of rights, their momentous eclipse in the nineteenth century and their culmination as a principle with the United Nations' proclamation in 1948. She finishes this work with a diagnosis of the state of human rights today.


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About 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.


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, Modesto, CA Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

"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." -- Alan Wolfe - Commonweal "Rich, elegant, and persuasive." -- London Review of Books "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." -- Amartya Sen "A provocative and engaging history of the political impact of human rights." -- Gary J. Bass - New Republic "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." -- The New Yorker "Elegant... intriguing, if not audacious... Hunt is an astute historian." -- Joanna Bourke - Harper's

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