Web Letters | The Nation

Human rights was an important frame for nineteenth-century abolitionists and feminists

I'm not a historian of the concept of human rights, but I've been startled, when reading nineteenth-century abolitionists and feminists, including William Lloyd Garrison, the Grimke sisters, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, just how often they use the phrase "human rights" in a thoroughly modern way.

In Garrison's famous first editorial for The Liberator in 1831, dedicating himself to building a movement for the immediate abolition of slavery and for equal rights in all spheres, he wrote, "In defending the great cause of human rights, I wish to derive the assistance of all religions and of all parties." And Garrison's vision of human rights was not confined to the United States but was truly global. The Liberator's motto was, "Our country is the world. Our countrymen [sic] are mankind."

When women within the abolitionist movement and Garrison spoke up for the crucial role of women as anti-slavery speakers, but were then urged to stay silent about women's rights (because of the risk of dividing the anti-slavery movement), Garrison and the Grimke sisters met, and, according to Henry Mayer's wonderful biography of Garrison, All on Fire, (p. 237) they strengthened each others resolve to speak out for human rights as a seamless whole. As Angelina put it, issues of human rights, "blend with each other like the colors of the rainbow."

Nine years later, in the Declaration of Sentiments that emerged from the Seneca Women's Rights Convention, the attendees proclaimed,

That the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities.

Resolved, therefore, That, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities, and the same consciousness of responsibility for their exercise, it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause, by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held; and this being a self-evident truth, growing out of the divinely implanted principles of human nature, any custom or authority adverse to it, whether modern or wearing the hoary sanction of antiquity, is to be regarded as self-evident falsehood, and at war with the interests of mankind."

For nineteenth-century abolitionists and feminists, as I believe it should be for us, the importance of the human rights frame was not how it might be used or abused by presidents but how it can be employed as an ethical vision to critique oppression and to inspire social movements seeking to globalize the liberation of all.

Sam Diener

Arlington, MA

Sep 15 2010 - 2:27pm

Don't forget Eleanor!

I am rather amazed that there was no mention in this article of the work of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was she rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt who led in the establishing the ideal of human rights in the world. She was the one who led the effort at the UN and secured the votes necessary for passage of the declaration. It was her efforts that brought her the widely used name of "First Lady of the World." Since then, the United States has had a terrible record of not cooperating with nations throughout the world to bring about these ideals. Civil rights and human rights are closely connected. Women in America did not even have the vote until 1920! I believe that it is women who are leading the way toward human rights. How about equal time?

Sherry Blair

Hayward, CA

Sep 7 2010 - 5:16pm

East Timor

I have read Carter's words before concerning human rights. I remember his sales pitch as Jimmy Carter the human rights champion. How sad that advertising rarely holds water against reality. I have one question for our dear "Human Rights" president. What about Indonesia and East Timor? Why support that particular genocide? I know that politics at the level of the president of the United States can be overwhelming, but there can be no excuse, no defense, no abrogation in this case. Shame on you, Jimmy Carter, for either selling out your heart, or lying about where it was from.

Daniel Brown

Cincinnati, OH

Aug 16 2010 - 3:06pm