Discovering the History of Human Rights

By Lael Weinberger

History and Law

I always enjoy hearing how scholars find their subjects, whether they are graduate students working on their dissertation or are well-established professors working on a second or third book. I’m in the former category - a grad student - and I don’t have to look too far into the past for the story of how I started writing in the field of human rights.


I had started an MA program in history at Northern Illinois University without any plan of writing about human rights issues. My original thought was that I would write something about the history of the legal profession in America. But in the first semester of graduate school, I took a seminar on the history of human rights and humanitarianism on a whim. Taught by Heide Fehrenbach, the seminar was not something that I imagined as particularly important for my future research. But I thought that it might be valuable for me to know a little something about human rights just to help ensure that I was a well-rounded legal historian, so I signed up for the course.


The seminar provided a wide-ranging introduction to the rapidly-developing literature. For me, as for many other graduate students, the book that most inspired--or provoked--me to write was Samuel Moyn’s Last Utopia. I was taking the seminar in the fall of 2011, as the reviews were still coming out in response to the book. Last Utopia, as many readers of this blog will already know, argued that much of the historiography of human rights was wrong, that it over-emphasized continuity narratives and a progressive, teleological account of human rights. In his first chapter, Moyn criticized historians of the early modern era for engaging in this kind of Whig history. The rest of the book challenged the accepted wisdom about the twentieth century who had done it too. Most historians had treated the 1940s as the starting point for modern human rights history; Moyn argued that the real starting point was to be found in the 1970s.


Moyn’s book launched a productive debate among historians of human rights that has informed much of the scholarship written since then. Some scholars took up Moyn’s thesis and ran with it, fleshing out a much richer picture of the recent history of human rights, particularly the crucial 1970s moment. Others undertook to rebut Moyn’s thesis, arguing that he overstated the disjunctures and failed to appreciate the continuities in the history of human rights. In my first semester of graduate school, I was in the latter group - I certainly thought Moyn was wrong, and I wrote a seminar paper in rebuttal mode. I’m more comfortable with Moyn’s points now than I was in the enthusiasm of that first seminar - I like to think that it has something to do with maturing as a writer. But in any case, part of the initial excitement of writing on the 1940s was the sense that I was finding material that mattered to a current and live debate among historians. The material I was researching in and writing about was rich enough to provide material for many more seminar papers, and before long I was focusing my MA research on the subject of American lawyers’ engagement with human rights in the 1940s.


My initial encounter with the history of human rights in that seminar in 2011 started me on a line of research that I’m continuing now, as I’m working on a dissertation at the University of Chicago. My engagement with the subject has of course changed--among other things, the scope of my research has expanded, and the motivating question is no longer whether the 1940s were more or less important than the 1970s in recent human rights history. But the 1940s remain a crucial period for my research, and American lawyers’ engagement with human rights in that period is still an essential part of the story that my dissertation will tell. (More on that another time.)

In some ways, I think my own experience has paralleled the development of the broader historical field of human rights. The literature has developed rapidly in the few years since I first started reading it. The debates about whether the 1940s or the 1970s should receive priority as the “more important” origin-point have receded into the background (a point Mark Bradley has noted in a historiographical article and a recent book), even as human rights as a category has become a staple of the historiography of the twentieth century. As for where it goes from here - well, that’s what this blog will attempt to cover.