Micheline R. Ishay, The History of Human Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 64-75

If a civilized nation“lacks in its eyes and in the eyes of others, a universal and universally valid embodiment in laws,” observed the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770—1831), “it fails to secure recognition from others.” India, China, Roman Christendom, and the Arab Islamic world met these standards and were recognized as the great civilizations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition to its economic achievements, each showed the capacity for transcending the horizon of local and parochial thinking, and each exhibited a set of encompassing moral criteria that commanded the respect of others. The next three centuries, however, were to witness a revolutionary change in human thought as for the first time a secular and relatively more egalitarian approach to universal morality emerged in Europe and spread throughout the world under the revolutionary banner of the Enlightenment.

The birth of secular universalism took the form of an assault on the intellectual and political edifice of Roman Catholicism. That structure, seemingly impregnable during the Middle Ages, now collapsed under the blows struck by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, opening up room for the emergence of humanist thought. Christian ethics thus shifted from a docile dependence on revealed knowledge toward an embrace of religious freedom and freedom of opinion in general. Simultaneously, feudal authoritarianism grounded on divine inspiration yielded to the modern concept of the nation-state, justified by its protection of natural and individual rights. The monopolistic feudal economy gave way to mercantilism and later to free markets based on the individual’s right to private property. Finally, a religious tradition that had often sanctioned merciless and arbitrary killings was now confronted with laws premised on the individual’s right to life, and with an insistence that even warfare must conform to universal standards of justice.

With these transformations, a secularized version of Judeo-Christian ethics lent itself to the development of a broad liberal discourse on human rights, a discourse that has shaped contemporary thinking. This chapter will illustrate why current human rights debates can be best understood as an extension of Enlightenment arguments that date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Now as then, we find ourselves wondering whether the state is the best mechanism with which to defend basic rights, or a formidable Leviathan against which one’s rights need to be defended. As in the eighteenth century, we are still questioning whether free markets are the best way to promote democratic institutions and global peace, and under which conditions one may justly wage war. This chapter also alerts the reader to the sufferings of those who remained excluded from initial Enlightenment conceptions of (purportedly) universal rights. As subsequent chapters will show, the victims of one era can become either the avenging aggressors or the human rights crusaders of the next age.

Because our modern conceptions of human rights originated in Europe and America, the story of their inception is embedded in the political, economic, and technological changes associated with the rise of the West and the relative decline of rival civilizations. Thus, before turning to the Western origins of particular rights, this chapter begins with a brief overview of the changes that contributed to the rise of the West over other civilizations. Chief among those changes were the development of modern science, the rise of mercantilism (which led to the consolidation of the nation-state), the great voyages of discovery that would bring the world’s wealth within Europe’s grasp, and the emergence of a middle class as a powerful source of revolutionary change. These developments laid the foundations for four great historical events in the Western world: the Reformation and the English, American, and French Revolutions. Much of this chapter will look at how each of these events animated key dimensions of the emerging liberal vision of human rights. That vision today reigns triumphant, though not uncontested, throughout the West, and has passionate, often embattled adherents throughout the rest of the world.

The liberal worldview first emerged out of the struggle for freedom of religion and opinion that began with the Reformation, laying the groundwork for subsequent claims for a universal right to life (including calls for the abolition of torture and the death penalty) and the right to property—along with counterclaims on behalf of an equitable distribution of wealth. As each of these components of the liberal tradition emerged, adherents began the political struggle—still under way—to develop effective means to promote the rights they championed. The final section of this chapter addresses the inconsistencies and limitations that beset early liberal thought (including the exclusion of women, the propertyless, blacks, colonized peoples, homosexuals, Jews, and other nationalities), inconsistencies that helped provoke the development of the nineteenth-century challenge to the liberal human rights agenda. Let us first consider how the West emerged as the leading power, outpacing other civilizations, notably in India, China, and the Islamic world, and attaining the capacity to dominate the world and, consequently, to shape an increasingly global debate over human rights.


India, China, and Islamic Civilizations

At the close of the fifteenth century, as Vasco da Gama’s expedition found its way around the Cape of Good Hope to Indian waters, it was far from apparent that the West was on the verge of ascendancy to global predominance. Indeed, three rivals, India, China, and the Islamic world, could not only claim to match or exceed Western accomplishments, but could not then be ruled out as formidable contenders for global power. India, under Muslim Moghul rule, had reached a level of civilization marked by respect for learning and growing religious tolerance whose achievements in architecture and painting surpassed those of medieval Europe. Under the leadership of Akabar (1542—1605), religious minorities were granted legal status. The “Great Moghul” not only condemned Indian practices such as the immolation of widows and enslavement, his tolerance for all religions was exemplary. For half a century, his successors continued his efforts to wed Hindu and Muslim cultures. The mingling of these traditions found sublime expressions in naturalist painting, refined ceramics, textiles, and monumental architecture. An empire built on a regularized tax system supported all these cultural endeavors and also provided the central treasury with funds for rulers to secure the loyalty of military and bureaucratic officers.

Chinese civilization was at least equally impressive, not least in inventiveness, as its production of paper, printing (around 700), gunpowder, the mariner’s compass, the sternpost rudder, and the wheelbarrow all predated their appearance in Europe. China’s silks, ceramics, jades, and bronze castings (accomplished fifteen hundred years before Europeans mastered that metal) found a market in far-flung parts of Asia and Europe. Moreover, the Chinese, under the influence of Confucianism, possessed an advanced ethical and political system presided over by a scholarly bureaucracy, which not only maintained great administrative continuity but made possible the centralized management of a vast state. If rebellions took place, provinces broke away, or rulers changed, the politico-religious system persisted. It was later emulated in Korea and Vietnam. Experimentation with newly available crops made possible the rapid growth of the Chinese population, which had reached perhaps 160 million by 1600. Despite many famines, the food situation in China was typically better than that in Europe in the previous millennium.

The Arab-Islamic Mediterranean and the Middle East region also enjoyed a brilliant civilization that predated the emergence of Italian commercial cities. As Islam spread, Arabia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire surfaced as major centers of religious, intellectual, cultural, artistic, and architectural influence whose reach extended to North Africa, China, and northern and Southeast Asia, threatening Europe as a result of its penetration of southern Spain. The Abbasid civilization (750—1258), second of the two great dynasties of the Muslim empire, had already marked its greatness by undertaking the translation of the Greek classics into Arabic, and the works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Galen were integrated into a flourishing Arab culture. Subsequent translations of Arabic works in the late European Middle Ages testify to the great reputation that Arab thinkers such as Al-Kindi enjoyed in Europe. Persian contributions to medical studies penetrated the Arab world and became the standard texts for Western training. In contrast to China, trade and maritime expeditions were more central to the Islamic world. The prominence of Muslim trade in the early Middle Ages was prompted by flexible commercial instruments and practices adopted as early as the eighth century and picked up only centuries later in Europe. Cultural and commercial traffic with the European world was almost one-way, attesting to the superior quality of Arab civilization.

Given the strength of Indian, Chinese, and Islamic civilizations relative to the West, one may wonder why none of them successfully propagated a universal ethics of rights. Inevitably, the unexpected speed of the West’s ascendance drew the interest and speculation of many historians. Writings on this question have been controversial, as various scholars emphasize different economic, cultural, and institutional variables. Some stress the uniqueness of Western capitalism and scientific development, while others counter that a similar form of capitalism existed in Islam, or that science flourished in China before the modern West. At times, such disagreements have fueled heated academic debates between “Eurocentric” defenders and “anti-Eurocentric” critics. While the fundamental sources of strength and weaknesses of civilizations will remain contentious, we can nevertheless point to particular reasons for the relative decline of India, China, and the Islamic cultures, and corresponding factors that help account for the rise of Europe, as well as for the influence of its human rights legacy.

Indian agriculture, based on the caste system, was less productive than that of other areas of Asia, and small manufacturing (mainly handicraft production) in towns was organized around hereditary guilds. Not only did heavy taxation leave the.peasantry destitute, but the cost of trading also hindered the prospects for artisans who might have wished to become merchants. These obstacles, coupled with Hindu reliance on the caste system, may have frozen occupational mobility to a larger extent than it did in feudal Europe. Moreover, despite the partial unity achieved during the Moghul Empire, limited communications and inadequate military technology made it difficult for rulers to retain loyalty in various critical areas. This fragmentation of loyalty, reminiscent of that in late medieval Europe, was exacerbated by the religious intolerance and relentless wars of the last Moghul leader, Aurungzebe, whose regime was countered by many popular revolts that ultimately led to the decline of the Moghul Empire. That decline coincided with the emergence of European predominance. European traders had acquired only a few coastal stations in India since the Portuguese appropriation of Goa in 1510, but opportunities for trade increased after the decline of the Moghul Empire. Despite rivalries and unlike earlier conquerors, Europeans would stay in India for centuries and would extract substantial economic gains.

Despite the strength of Chinese civilization, the Ming dynasty gradually shifted its energy inward, focusing on agrarianism and away from technology, industry and its earlier naval exploration of Asia and the Indian Ocean, leaving Europeans freer to secure their dominance over the seas and expand their colonial control over the globe. China’s power, its centralized unity, and its isolationism might have ultimately worked against the expansion of its civilization and possibly against the spread of a Confucian sense of universal justice. It was precisely the European states’ fragmentation and competition, Jared Diamond argues, that enabled the Genovese Christopher Columbus to bargain with several monarchs and finally earn the financial support of the Spanish king for his naval expedition. By contrast, in unified China, there was no alternative site with which to challenge the shortsighted decision to forgo maritime exploration. European scientific discoveries, Diamond speculates, might also have benefited from that disunity.

In comparison, Maxime Rodinson has maintained that there seemed to be nothing inherent in Islamic civilizations that would have precluded further economic development, unless we consider the fact that the lands the Muslim Mediterranean world acquired were not as rich as the regions colonized by the Europeans in the Americas. Islamic overseas trade emphasized luxury goods and did not compensate for the general shortage in important sectors such as agriculture. Another potential source of economic weakness was that the population of the Islamic Near East comprised only 28 million people, which was relatively low compared to that of China, India, and Europe in the 1600s. Behind the Ottoman frontiers, a multiracial policy was organized to integrate different religions into the growing empire. Yet the expansion of the empire engendered heavy military expenses, which created great stresses for the state. Further back in Islamic history, in Cordoba, private property had been protected against the caliph, and in general, medieval Islamic governments were not known for seizing commercial property. Later, “[T]he Ottoman empire as heir to all this came to operate an economic system that rested on confiscation, despoilment, and a total, calculated, insecurity of life and property.” Whereas Europeans took advantage of feudal fragmentation to develop a mercantile society, the Ottoman Empire’s structural fragility gradually weakened its economy, contributing to its diminishing cultural, legal, and ethical influence and its final disintegration.

The Rise of the West and the Legacy of the Enlightenment

In contrast to these sources of weakness within India, China, and the Islamic world, an amalgamation of simultaneously favorable circumstances stimulated the rise of the West and its capacity to develop and diffuse a modern discourse of human rights. They included the Reformation, the inception of science, the rise of mercantilism, the consolidation of the nation-state, maritime expeditions, and the emergence of a revolutionary middle dass, developments that served to hone human rights demands throughout such major social upheavals as the English, American, and French Revolutions. A new universal discourse of rights took hold, committed to reason and individual free choice, to scientific planning and the rules of law, to contractual agreement and. economic interdependence. The emerging commercial nation-state was then entrusted to diffuse these ideals worldwide in the spirit of peace and cooperation.

With the advance of the Reformation, from 1546 to theTreaty of Westphalia in 1648, the universalist message of the church had been severely compromised. While the separation of the Greek Orthodox churches from Rome had provoked the first rupture in Christian unity, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contributed decisiveiy to its decline. Erupting in Germany, religious conflict soon spread through Europe to France, Holland, and Spain, and to England. Yet if a series of long-lasting religious wars eroded the initial aspirations of Christendom, the international nature of the wars incited the development of a new vision of world unity based on rational thinking rather than on revealed truth—principles that had shown their divisive nature during the wars of religion. By asserting individual responsibility in matters of salvation and in seeking happiness on earth, the Protestant influence helped advance a new credo relying on individual choice and rights. The belief in the value of individuals and their capacity to reason was further strengthened by a burst of scientific breakthroughs.

Despite the long phase of religious crisis, scientific discoveries abounded. Striving to free themselves from the universities, which remained a stronghold of Catholicism, British, French, Italian, and German scientists joined a growing number of independent societies, such as the Royal Society in London, the Academy of Science in Paris, the Academia della Scienza in Naples, and the Collegium Carolinum in Brunswick, Germany. Their collaboration over distances was facilitated by the invention of the printing press, and common standards of measurement were promoted by the development of such precision instruments as the telescope, the microscope, the barometer, and the pendulum clock. The drive behind the scientific revolution might have been of divine inspiration, but it was Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, rather than God, who were stirring the imaginations of their contemporaries. By painting a picture of the enrichment of human life through new discoveries, each presented an accessible world open to human consciousness and built upon universal and secular laws—laws that would later help shape secular visions of human rights.

As both scientific progress and the wars of the Reformation were undermining the Catholic Church, changes in economic life were also reshaping the social landscape of Europe. While feudalism decayed, mercantilism emerged as an economic system that unified, strengthened, and financially enriched the nation. It did so by means of strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy, usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion, the expansion of a favorable trade balance, and the development of agriculture and manufacturing. Proponents of mercantilist theories maintained that global wealth was relatively fixed. The best way to acquire new resources and to preserve as large a share as possible of this limited wealth, they believed, was through a rationally and scientifically planned state, aspiring to sufficient size and strength to sustain national development. By relying upon the mercantilist and later the commercial state as a way to promote economic interdependence and possibly peaceful conditions, mercantilists would also inspire the vision of many human rights champions of the Enlightenment.

Circumstances, of course, would not equally favor all who aspired to apply the mercantilist approach. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, German and Italian cities—notwithstanding the call of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469—1517), in Il principe, for the unification of his country—lacked the necessary political strength to appropriate resources on a large national scale. In eastern Europe, states such as Austria, Poland, and Russia, although large in size, were overwhelmingly dominated by agrarian production and could not achieve the benefits of a mercantile economy. However, the conditions necessary for the progress of mercantilism were present in the Low Countries (especially in the period from the Treaty of Westphalia until the early 1700s), as well as in England and France.

Critical to the rise of the West over other civilizations was the discovery, colonization, and mercantilist exploitation of the new world. The developing global economy, initiated by the Portuguese and Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, moved during the eighteenth century into the hands of the British, the French, and the Dutch. While India and China still commanded admiration, these Western powers were ascending as the new leaders of the international economy. The conquest of America was particularly valuable for the Europeans because of its vast natural resources, whose exploitation required masses of human labor that were supplied by Africa. Many Europeans regarded the indigenous populations of their colonies as barbarians, justifying the enslavement of Africans, the killing or subjugation of American Indians, and similar abuses of other native peoples.

As overseas empires spread, the expansion of money markets dissolved old social bonds, transformed the guild character of the Middle Ages, and strengthened the town economy, leaving the surrounding countryside subservient to the interests of the town. The shift from the village to the town changed the landscape of social relationships that had been prevalent in feudal societies. With the emergence of towns as the heart of human society, autonomous spheres of social activity proliferated amid the ruins of the Catholic commonwealth. In addition, labor was increasingly divided according to specialization. With the subsequent atomization of society, mercantilism reached new levels of speed and efficiency. This fragmentation into various spheres of specialization undermined the self-sufficient character of feudal society, exacerbating the need for a new form of social interdependence surrounding the exchange of commodities and the necessity of a contractual discourse premised on rights.

This parceling of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century political and economic life created space for the development of a relatively autonomous class, the bourgeoisie, which was concentrated in urban sites. Economically speaking, the bourgeoisie stood between the nobility and the clergy on the one hand and the peasantry on the other hand. Its members earned their living by manufacturing, shopkeeping, banking, trading—in general, by the various activities that had been stimulated by the expansion of commerce. In countries like England and France or regions like Flanders—where governments helped create a national market and an industrious nationwide labor supply for their great merchants—the bourgeoisie became even more prominent, and succeeded in gaining a degree of economic strength independent of the political and religious control of their provinces. Needless to say, a merchant backed by a national monarchy was in a much stronger position than one supported by a city, such as Augsburg or Venice. National governments could endorse local merchants, subsidize exports, and pay bounties for goods whose production they wished to encourage, or erect tariff barriers against imports to protect their own producers from competition. A national tariff system was thus gradually superimposed on the old network of provincial and municipal tariffs.

From the mid—seventeenth century to the eighteenth centum the European bourgeoisie, however, felt trapped within a tale of two economies, that is, between a prosperous international economy and the still backward, traditionalist, and autarkic national market. The nobility still dominated the government, public administration, the church, and most social institutions, It resisted any change in the status quo that might undermine its political privileges. These conflicts of interests were exemplified in Moliere’s play Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which portrayed a ruined nobleman begging for more loans from an enriched bourgeois. Art was imitating life, reproducing the economic wealth and political frustration of the burgeoning middle class. The needs of the bourgeoisie, in the end, collided with monarchical interests, fueling the English, American, and French Revolutions. Facing resistance, the political demands of this new class in formation grew more revolutionary and universalist in orientation; as it gained power, it also revealed its particularist tendency.

During the English Puritan revolution (1641—1648), universal claims of rights were first advanced against Charles I’s effort to restore his centralized power at the expense of Parliament. Seeking funds to crush a Scottish rebellion in 1637, the king convoked the English Parliament for the first time in eleven years. Neither that Short Parliament (1640) nor the subsequent Long Parliament (1640—1660) supported that goal. Instead, new members of the Long Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599—1658), John Hampden (1594—1643), and John Pym (ca. 1583—1643), challenged royal authority, culminating in the execution of Charles land the establishment of the republic. After using the support of radicals like the Levellers (whose influence had spread among the rank and file of the army fighting the king) to press popular demands, such as the rights to life, property, and religious freedom, Cromwell turned against those democratic supporters and purged them from the army.

Despite these dramatic turns of events, the revolution ultimately empowered the propertied class by granting sovereignty to Parliament and dissolving prerogative courts. It overlooked the demands of starving peasants, led by the communist Diggers, who tried but failed to radicalize the revolution by calling for broader political representation and a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth. With the monarchical restoration, human rights hopes that had been unleashed by the English Revolution were thwarted. Yet the revolutionary spirit remained alive amidst peasants’ grief and despair. It was to reemerge in a brief explosion during the 1688 Glorious Revolution, as the bourgeois fought for parliamentary and civil rights—later embraced by the English Bill of Rights.

In the late eighteenth century, England became overburdened by the cost of its colonial possessions and resorted to imposing inequitable taxes on the American colonies. The colonists rebelled. The English revolution of the 1640s provided a worthwhile example of resistance for them to emulate. Fighting for independence from England, they recalled the British Levellers' struggle for the rights to life, to property, to manhood suffrage, and the rights to rebel against tyrannical authorities and to establish republican institutions. With the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, they were soon able to celebrate their new human rights achievements.

As in the English Revolution, the new American republic was initially divided. Competing economic interests separated merchants, farmers, and plantation owners. There were also differences between the new and old states of the confederation, and already some tensions between Southern slave-owning states and Northern states. While these tensions would ultimately result in a civil war (186o—1865), in the 1770s, supporters of independence in both North and South were drawn together in opposition to the British crown and its American loyalists. After their fight for independence from England, Americans inscribed in the 1788 constitution rights that favored wealthy property owners. However restricted the human rights claimed by the American republic, the success of the revolution drew international admiration.

French soldiers who had fought on the side of the American revolutionaries returned to France to extol the accomplishments of the American revolutionaries. With the country on the verge of national bankruptcy and confronting a nobility unwilling to share its power, many of these returning soldiers would follow the horde of hungry peasants and angry bourgeois from the streets of Paris to the Tennis Court, where the Third Estate General rallied and affirmed that it now constituted the National Assembly. The mixture of solemnity and optimism of that first revolutionary moment was admirably captured by the neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David (1748—1825) in his Oath of the Tennis Court (1791). A month later, on July 14,1789, the movement took the streets as a crowd stormed the Bastille. Soon after, the revolutionary leaders drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the most important human rights documents of the eighteenth century, affirming the principles of the new state based on the rule of universal law, equal individual citizenship, and collective sovereignty of the people. With it, Jacobins and defenders of the French patrie proclaimed a new world in which “liberty, equality, and fraternity” would become, they hoped, universal norms.

Yet social divisions in France, initially eclipsed by the Third Estate in its fight against the ancien régime, now reemerged as voting rights were restricted to owners of property, along the lines of the British and American example. Struggling to repel invading armies, the Third Estate was further divided by domestic social tensions. If the influence of property owners during the early phase of the revolutionary wars soon yielded to the ascent of a popular force, the sansculottes (1792—1794), the execution of their leader, Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-94), marked the end of the revolutionary process and the empowerment of a new regime of notables whose ranks were drawn from monarchists and moderate republicans. As in England and America, the revolutionary universalism of the French middle class gave way to an era of conservatism. Those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century struggles represented, however, the first important affirmations of liberal ideas, and they were crucial for establishing the secular foundation of hmnan rights. These important events also serve as a guide to the first part of our journey, which begins with the historical struggle for freedom of religion and opinion and leads to assertions of rights to life and to property.

Return to Vinnie's Home Page