Human Rights in the History Survey

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.1

I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier,2 this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was “Politics and Human Rights.”

If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century.

I took my cue from a nice little collection of primary sources that Lynn Hunt edited and translated: The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996). Of course, people did not use the term “human rights” in the eighteenth century, but they did reimagine and rework the relationship between the individual and the state in a fundamental way. The rights that eighteenth-century thinkers and politicians posited and then fought for formed the basis of what we now consider fundamental human rights: freedom of religion and expression, the protection of one’s property, and the right to pursue an occupation and earn rewards according to one’s talents, not birth. Government existed to protect these and other rights, not according to the whims of a monarch above the law.

The English gained such rights based on the accumulation of precedents over time. Milestones included the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689). Rights grew more expansive, but they adhered to Englishmen as Englishmen. Enlightenment thought, on the other hand, was characterized by its universality. Men had rights by virtue of their common humanity. Thomas Jefferson reflected both traditions in the Declaration of Independence (1776), which enumerated English offenses against the colonists’ rights, on one hand, but contained language whose bold universality conveyed a message far beyond its original purpose:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

As we know from American history, this famous declaration left many questions unanswered and long went unrealized in society. Who was to be included in this equality? At first it was only all free men. Black slaves were property. There was also the question of property qualifications for voting rights. Could the poor and uneducated be trusted to make the right decisions in a democracy? And what about women? Much of American history can be told as the history of making Jefferson’s words become a reality.

These questions also held great urgency during the French Revolution, which offers unparalleled opportunities for students to read about, reflect on, and discuss the major issues thrown up by the advent of citizenship and individual rights. For instead of struggling with the major issues over a period of some two centuries, the revolutionaries in France tried to do it all in a period of only five years, from the onset of the Revolution in 1789 to the end of the Terror in 1794.

The most enduring document from that time was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), but students can also consider Olympes de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791). Besides these and some other famous documents, Hunt’s book contains a host of compelling material otherwise unavailable in English. The main point of the exercise is to help students think about where our notions of such rights come from and to understand better their contingent and contested nature in the past.

Discussing Hunt’s book covered one seventy-five minute unit. Two more units entailed a lecture that walked students through these issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along the way exploring the issues of nationalism, feminism, socialism, and totalitarianism. I am still not satisfied with the result, but the topic of human rights lent Europe’s confusing political history more narrative coherence than I had been able to muster in the past. It also permitted me to push the issue into the second half of the twentieth century and include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), decolonization, the Helsinki Accords (1975), the collapse of Europe’s communist regimes, and the human rights abuses that followed Yugoslavia’s breakup.

My mind was dizzy after such a trip, especially since I use slides but no prepared text. I’m sure some students had trouble with the shifting geography and rapidly advancing timeline. Nonetheless, they were able to follow one theme over the course of two hundred years and see how it touches on nearly every major aspect of history in this time. How many other topics link politics, the economy, gender, race, religion, ideology, party politics, war, and international relations in such clearly important ways? In future I will surely make changes in how I cover the topic, but I will continue to give it an important place in my survey courses.


  1. But I had to remove dead links.—November 24, 2014 
  2. This link was broken during the move to Stoneman’s Corner. If possible, I’ll restore it later.—November 24, 2014