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What Are The Human Rights? - A Historical Introduction

Updated on December 8, 2013
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson | Source

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson who had a strong interest in political philosophy and who was influenced by the Enlightenment felt it was necessary to justify the revolutionary events - which had begun with the rise of the colonies - by the use of natural law. Such a thing was already being done within the constitutions of single colonies (especially Virginia), in the introductions of which declarations of rights concerned with natural law were presented (Bills of Rights). These referred to thoughts that originated from Locke or Montesquieu, but arguments were also taken from the English Constitution.

A committee under the leadership of Jefferson was assigned to create the Declaration of Independence, which was approved by the Congress in Philadelphia 4. 7. 1779 in a version which was practically only formulated by Jefferson and which in its introduction brings an explanation to and a defense of the revolution. The way of thinking was almost entirely like Locke, but Jefferson had changed a few details; the argumentation regarding the ‘unalienable rights’ is rationalistic as well as religious because it mentions the Creation and the Creator and not the inherent rights.

When the U.S. Constitution was prepared, any reference to the human rights was avoided – but the constitution reveals significant influence from Montesquieu’s separation of powers. The example of drawing eternally valid borders for the state, by creating doctrines that complied with natural law was followed by France a few months after the outbreak of the revolution.

La Fayette on a US postage stamp
La Fayette on a US postage stamp | Source

The French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen"

The initiative was made by La Fayette, who had been part of the War of Independence. Malouet asked: “Why lead people to the top of a mountain where they would be shown limitless perspective hiding from their view the numerous obstacles they would encounter when descending”. But The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen) was happily approved in 1789. It is certainly more detailed than the American model and is no replica of the content; it consists of no less than 17 paragraphs, for instance the right to “resistance to oppression”, which was undeniably a risky formulation.

Several unclear words and sentences cover the disagreements of the discussion and even contradictions are to be found. The most significant example is in §6: “All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.” Here the idea of equality is preached, which was really the best and longest lasting gift from the revolution to the future.

The idea was La Fayettes, the prototype was the American declarations of rights during the colonies. The content was taken from the natural law, from the theories of Montesquieu (§ 16), from the requirement of economic freedom of the physiocrats and from Rousseaus’ “The Social Contract” – even though Rousseau does never speak of ‘inherent’ in relation with the inalienable rights of the state, because the general willingness had no limitation, and because the individual had given all its rights to it. It was something new too, that the introduction explicitly mentions the “supreme being”.

The content of the declaration was highly determined by painful experiences from the abuse of the autocracy and the wish to bury the past, but first and foremost it was caused by an urge to proclaim general principles, which was typical of the optimism and trust of reason of the Enlightenment. The declaration is the highlight of secession from the view of life of the Middle Ages, which saw human as a master of itself, and wanted to understand itself from itself.

Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in Spanish)
Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in Spanish) | Source

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After the Second World War, the conception of human rights gained a significant actuality. The ignorance towards human rights from the totalitarian regimes made a huge impression, and it suddenly became very important and necessary to formulate international human rights once again in a modernized and renewed form, and attempt to make it recognized. In the formation of United Nations, 1945, it was made clear in the introduction, that the people of the United Nations are determined “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small” and in Chapter 1: “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

Lead by Eleanor Roosevelt, a special commission created suggestions regarding the international conventions. The United Nations General Assembly approved the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which consisted of 30 chapters that contained a big social and cultural program, and its very complicated content was included in the human rights. Among other things, the right to live, right to freedom and personal security is mentioned, right to education, freedom of religion, informational freedom etc. Special and perhaps slightly odd were the ones such as the right to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits – not to mention the right “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” The declaration also mentions that humans are “endowed with reason and conscience”. In 1959 the General Assembly approved a declaration on the rights of children which consisted of 10 articles.

In a lot of aspects, especially legal-wise, serious objections have been made against strictly obeying natural laws. Warning has been made against diluting the term “rights” by using it so generally that it does not make sense in the single constitutional provisions, which are much more valuable in practice. Vaguely defined rights are worth nothing, when they cannot be enforced. And attention has been made towards the danger of volatizing the concept of freedom and forgetting its actual value in society, which consists of giving space for personal responsible growth.


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    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      5 years ago

      Beautifully done, well researched. You make a good point about how 'rights' shouldn't be diluted; it's so important for us to consider, define and agree on what's a right and what's a privilege. I think a lot of hot political issues right now revolve around disagreement on that.

    • Martin VK profile imageAUTHOR

      Martin VK 

      5 years ago from Copenhagen, Denmark

      Thanks, you two.

    • PositronWildhawk profile image


      5 years ago from London

      Nelson Mandela - "To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity."

      Great hub! Voted up.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      5 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you for pointing out the genius of Jefferson. I think the single most important line in the declaration is the right to the "pursuit of happiness." It declares that human beings are not just mindless automatons whose sole purpose is to work, but that they also have a right to pursue activities for the simple pleasure they bring. I think the leisure time we enjoy in our modern societies can be directly related to this . Great hub!

    • Martin VK profile imageAUTHOR

      Martin VK 

      5 years ago from Copenhagen, Denmark

      You are right, RonElFran. It is wrong to say that they are worthless, I will admit that. But I am specifically talking about the ones which have ambiguous meanings or somehow are vaguely defined. They are indeed worth something as general 'maxims' and, as you say, standards of thinking - but not worth much as a right in the strict sense of the word. The right to live can, for instance, not possibly be misunderstood.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Informative and thought-provoking discussion. You mention that "rights" are worthless if they cannot be enforced. But I wonder if human rights, in and of themselves, are ever enforceable. It seems to me that the concept serves more to set a standard in people's minds, which they then codify into laws that are enforceable. But as yet, humanity simply has no mechanism for the direct enforcement of human rights.


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