Monday, May 7, 2007

"Inventing Human Rights"

Lynn Hunt, former president of the American Historical Association and the Eugen Weber professor of modern European history at UCLA, is the author of Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution and coauthor of Telling the Truth About History.

She applied the "page 69 test" to her new book, Inventing Human Rights: A History, and reported the following:
My page 69 is very brief because it comes at the end of chapter one, which explains how reading novels in the eighteenth century helped create a feeling of empathy for other people, even those very different in social status, sex, or race. The two sentences on page 69 concern Thomas Jefferson and his own agonized effort to make sense of equality. Jefferson had penned the immortal phrase of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and yet Jefferson owned slaves and never freed them. My last two sentences in the chapter address this paradox:

Although he [Jefferson] recognized the humanity of African-Americans and even the rights of slaves as human beings, he did not envision a polity in which they or women of any color took an active part. But that was the highest imaginable degree of freedom for the vast majority of Americans and Europeans, even twenty-four years later [than a letter he had written in 1802 to Englishman Joseph Priestley extolling the American example] on the day of Jefferson’s death.

My point is not to excuse Jefferson’'s attitude toward African-Americans or women, but rather to put it into the context of his times. What is most surprising about Jefferson is his willingness to embrace the idea of equality, given the hierarchical nature of the society in which he lived, and his eagerness to put it into political practice for ordinary men.

Jefferson is not the main focus of my book, which traces the origins of human rights in both France and the United States, and emphasizes the impact of new cultural practices such as novel reading and portrait painting. Still, Jefferson pops up again and again, not only as a framer of the Declaration and the aspirations of the new American nation, but also as an avid novel reader himself and the subject of one of the first experiments with physionotrace, a technique for mechanically reproducing portraits.
Read more about Inventing Human Rights at the publisher's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue