Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

History of Human Rights: From the Early Modern Era to the Present (HI987)

Module Leader: Dr Charles Walton
Seminars: Day Thur 3-5pm; H3.37
Handbook: See this online syllabus


Context of Module

This module, taught in the Spring term, can be taken by students on the MA in History, the MA in Modern History, the MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies, or by any taught Masters students outside the History Department.

Module Aims

In the wake of the French Revolution, Jeremy Bentham famously described the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 as “nonsense upon stilts.” By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, human rights had become a key issue in global politics and international relations. This seminar examines the history of human rights, from their origins in early modern conceptions of ‘natural rights’, Enlightenment preoccupations with religious toleration and nineteenth-century humanitarianism, to their emergence as full-blown universal rights in the post World War II era, especially in the 1970s onward, when they became seen as global standards of justice and good governance.

Whether this evolution should be characterised as a steady, inexorable progression or the result of contingent, unforeseen developments will be addressed, as will the intellectual, cultural, political and legal dimensions of rights. How have human rights been imagined? To whom have they been extended, conceptually and practically (women, slaves and minorities)? What social and political agendas have accompanied the promotion of rights (capitalism, imperialism)? And what have been the unintended consequences of attempts to realise rights (war, violence)? In familiarising themselves with the historical literature on this timely and expanding topic, students will be encouraged to assess the questions and methods of human rights scholarship and to imagine new questions and approaches.

In short, the aims of this seminar are:

  • To trace the historical development of human rights, from their early modern origins in natural right theory and practices of religious toleration through the age of Enlightenment and democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century and finally up to the globalisation of human rights in the late and post Cold War era
  • To examine not only the theoretical evolution of rights but also the political, social and cultural contexts in which they have evolved
  • To foster analytical skills for interpreting the historical significance of human rights
  • To promote an appreciation of the stakes, problems and pitfalls involved in attempts to realize human rights.
Intended Learning Outcomes

By the end of the module the student should be able to:

  • Develop a textured appreciation of how rights have evolved over time, in thought and practice.
  • Gain an appreciation of the stakes, problems and pitfalls involved in attempts to realize rights.
  • Develop analytical skills for interpreting their historical significance, and by extension, a sense of the complexities involved in realizing rights.
Outline Syllabus


Week Seminar Topic
1 What are human rights? Why study their history?
2 Natural Law, Religion and Global Contact
3 Toleration, Sympathy and the Enlightenment
4 Rights and Revolution (18th and 19th centuries)
5 The Decline of Natural Right and Rise of Humanitarianism
6 Reading week
7 Origins of the Universal Declaration of 1948
8 The Politics of Human Rights: Conservative or Progressive?
9 'Second Generation Rights': Economic and Social Rights & Cold War Politics
10 A Long March or a New Utopia?


Illustrative Bibliography
  • Agamben, Giorgio, ‘Beyond Human Rights’ in Virno, Paolo et al., eds., Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
  • Arendt, Hannah, ‘The Perplexities of Human Rights’ in Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951)
  • Chea, Pheng, Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006)
  • Hunt, Lynn, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006)
  • Irvine, William, Between Justice and Politics: the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme, 1898-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007)
  • Kaplan, Benjamin, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 2007)
  • Linton, Marisa, ‘Citizenship and Religious Toleration in France’, in Grell, Ole Peter and Porter, Roy, eds., Toleration in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Marks, Stephen P. ‘From the “Single Confused Page” to the “Decalogue for Six Billion Persons”: The Roots of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the French Revolution’, Human Rights Quarterly 20: 3 (1998)
  • Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2010)
  • Van Kley, Dale, The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of the Rights of 1789 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)
  • Walton, Charles, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Winter, Jay, ‘1948: Human Rights’ in Dreams of Peace and Freedom in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)
  • Witte, John, Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Students are assessed on the basis of one 5000-word essay, due at 12 NOON two weeks after the end of term 2.