A Novel Sensibility

Inventing Human Rights
A History
Lynn Hunt
W. W. Norton, $25.95, 320 pp.

We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the most famous document in American history. But, asks Lynn Hunt, if these truths are so self-evident, why did they require a declaration? In fact, the ideas that inspired Americans to rebellion-especially the idea that all people are endowed by the Creator with unalienable rights-have never been treated as all that obvious. To take the most obvious example, the current government of the country that claims to live by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence has been routinely violating the rights of prisoners it hopes will yield information about terrorism.

Hunt wants to understand why a concern with human rights emerged in late eighteenth-century Europe and North America. This was not the most propitious time to talk about ideals such as human dignity and the fundamental equality of all people. Slavery still existed. Women were denied a public voice. Suffrage was anything but universal. And yet political philosophers-even, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, those who owned slaves-not only articulated a beautiful idea but spoke as if its realization was inevitable. It is surely worth trying to understand how this came about.

Hunt’s most inventive answer to the question involves a brief excursion into the history of the novel. Three novels, and all written by men about women, constitute her focus: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, and Pamela and Clarissa...

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About the Author

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and the author of Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf).