The “Great Doctrine of Human Rights”: Articulation and Authentication in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. Antislavery and Women’s Rights Movements

Angelina Grimké, the abolitionist and women’s rights reformer from South Carolina, faced a paradox in 1837. Having recently embarked on a successful antislavery speaking tour with her sister Sarah, both women had been derided for addressing audiences of women and men. The sisters’ gradual awakening to the tenets of antislavery—influenced by their earlier experiences on the Grimké family plantation, combined with years of personal anxiety in the face of the restrictive separate spheres ideology—led them to find equivalences between abolitionism and women’s rights. To justify her public oratory on behalf of the enslaved, Angelina sought language to draw these concepts together. “I tell them that this”—women’s rights—”is a part of the great doctrine of Human Rights, and can no more be separated from emancipation than the light from the heat of the sun; the rights of the slave and of woman blend like the colors of the rainbow,” Angelina concluded.1

The concept of human rights is widely acknowledged as a twentieth-century phenomenon. Yet its ideological foundations, however nebulous and indeterminate, can be found significantly earlier. The rhetoric of human rights gained meaning within a nineteenth-century tradition of evangelical humanitarianism and paternalism. In this tradition, “human rights” were not necessarily recognized as inherent; only gradually did they come to be viewed as interdependent. And still, the contested nature of rights among social reformers in the United States during the nineteenth century gradually helped establish some of the core meanings later attributed to human rights.

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