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Inventing human rights
The debate behind the 1619 v. 1776 debate
Philosophers of mathematics have long pondered whether the truths they treat are discovered or invented. The Platonists among this group opt for discovery, contending that mathematics is a window by which humans glimpse a preexisting ideal world of numbers, shapes and collections. The triangles we draw on paper are mere shadows of ideal triangles, and the theorems we prove about them - that the measures of the angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees, for instance - are nothing but restatements of truths that have always existed.
The Aristotelians of the mathematical philosophers take the opposite view. They consider mathematics a human construct. Triangles didn’t exist until the first human drew one. And while mathematicians learned to generalize from this first triangle, the properties of triangles depend not on some eternal verities but on the way the triangles are drawn. The angles of a triangle drawn on a flat surface indeed add up to 180 degrees, but triangles drawn on a curved surface - the surface of the earth, to cite a very practical example - can add up to more or less than 180 degrees.
This question of discovery or invention comes up in other contexts, not least the study of history. We are all students of history - in school but also every time we consider the state of the world and how we got to where we are today. The current debate over whether 1619 or 1776 is the more crucial in understanding modern America is rooted in this question, although the debaters rarely address it so.
The 1619ers take the Platonic side of the argument. They assume a preexisting standard of human rights, and fault those engaged in slavery for denying enslaved Africans and their descendants access to that standard. The campaign for reparations, which is closely connected to the 1619 project, is premised on the gap between the freedom and equality enslaved men and women would have enjoyed in the ideal world of human rights, and the bondage and inequality they actually experienced.
The 1776ers are the Aristotelians in this debate. They hold, in essence, that human rights didn’t exist until people invented them. There was no single “aha!” moment; the struggle for freedom and equality took place over centuries and advanced by increments. The city-states of Greece honored the rights of male citizens, while excluding women and slaves. Various religions preached equality before God among their own believers but called down the harshest inequality upon infidels.
The modern concept of human rights - of rights owed men and women simply for being human - didn’t appear until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. John Locke in England, David Hume in Scotland, Voltaire in France, and other expounders of the Enlightenment invented a way of thinking that extended rights previously enjoyed by the few to the human race as a whole.
The person who put this novel concept most memorably was Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, where he asserted that “all men are created equal” and are endowed with “unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” No one before Jefferson had ever stated the human-rights case more clearly; arguably, no one after Jefferson has ever improved on his formulation.
The concept was revolutionary, as evidenced by the fact that it spawned the American Revolution and triggered subsequent revolutions in France, Latin America and eventually much of the world. Jefferson’s Declaration was cribbed and plagiarized by freedom-fighters in dozens of countries down to the second half of the twentieth century.
Jefferson called the concept “self-evident”; as any high-school debater knows, that’s what you claim when you lack other evidence. In reality, human rights were so non-self-evident that defenders of prerevolutionary regimes in America and elsewhere fought bitterly to deny and defeat them. So too, in practice - as opposed to rhetoric - did American apologists for slavery, patriarchy and other traditions of inequality.
Even today, the concept of human rights is far from universally accepted. The government of the most populous country in the world, China, roundly rejects human rights for its own people and pays scant attention to human rights elsewhere. In the soon-to-be most populous country, India, the rights of non-Hindus are increasingly threatened. Islamist governments circumscribe the rights of women. Ethnic and religious minorities in many countries face discrimination sometimes approaching genocide. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 when that institution was still dominated by Western and colonial powers, has been honored far more in the breach than in the observance.
So, who has the better of the argument in the United States: the Platonist 1619ers or the Aristotelian 1776ers?
The Platonist model is appealing; eternal truths have gravity invented ones lack. Yet though Platonism might work as an explanation of mathematics, it falls short with history. Triangles are different from human rights; the latter require general acceptance to take effect.
In 1619 almost no one believed that humans, as humans, had rights other people ought to feel compelled to observe. This is why the introduction of African slaves to Virginia elicited little contemporary comment. Slavery had existed from time out of mind, and in 1619 no one thought it was going away. Enslaved men and women wished they weren’t slaves; but not in the Americas, Europe, Africa or Asia was there much complaint about slavery as an institution. Slavery seemed like illness, poverty and death: an unfortunate fact of human life on earth.
Not until the eighteenth century did the concept of human rights appear, invented by the likes of Jefferson. These thinkers hardly perfected the concept, in many cases not practicing what they preached. But inventors are rarely perfecters. To criticize Jefferson and his generation for not delivering freedom and equality to all groups at once is akin to complaining that Thomas Edison didn’t invent the iPhone.
To put it another way, 1619 was just another year until 1776 came along.