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On the Spirit of Rights

By the end of the eighteenth century, politicians in America and France were invoking the natural rights of man to wrest sovereignty away from kings and lay down universal basic entitlements. Exactly how and when did “rights” come to justify such measures?
In On the Spirit of Rights, Dan Edelstein answers this question by examining the complex genealogy of the rights that regimes enshrined in the American and French Revolutions. With a lively attention to detail, he surveys a sprawling series of debates among rulers, jurists, philosophers, political reformers, writers, and others who were all engaged in laying the groundwork for our contemporary systems of constitutional governance. Every seemingly new claim about rights turns out to be a variation on a theme, as late medieval notions were subtly repeated and refined to yield the talk of “rights” we recognize today. From the Wars of Religion to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, On the Spirit of Rights is a sweeping tour through centuries of European intellectual history and an essential guide to our ways of thinking about human rights today.

The complete bibliography for the book is available online. 

336 pages | 1 halftone, 9 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2018

The Life of Ideas

History: European History, General History, History of Ideas

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Political Science: Classic Political Thought


"A superb, erudite piece of intellectual excavation. . . . Edelstein’s skill as an intellectual historian lies especially in his ability to situate ideas in their broadest cultural and political setting."

New York Review of Books

"Provocative and timely."

Times Higher Education

"Edelstein explores how natural rights translated into human rights in his sweeping survey, which canvasses the archaeology of human rights from the Wars of Religion through the Age of Revolution to 1948. [He] provides a helpful new framework for understanding the evolution of human rights in Western society. Highly recommended."


“Rarely has an existing debate been as authoritatively and breathtakingly taken to a new plane as in Edelstein’s sophisticated new story of how ‘rights’ entered European and transatlantic politics in the age of revolution. Clear, erudite, and urbane, Edelstein has shown once again why he is so highly regarded a historian of the eighteenth century’s place in Western intellectual history.”

Samuel Moyn, Yale University

The Spirit of Rights is an erudite, wide-ranging, and powerful reevaluation of the history of human rights in the West. Rather than viewing either (or both) the U.S. Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as constituting a foundational moment of political modernity, Edelstein sees them as marking a moment in a lively and contentious conversation over rights that can be traced back to the sixteenth century and then through to our own day. The consequent expansion of the historical canvas on which rights have been inscribed explodes conventional teleologies. Written with verve and conviction, The Spirit of Rights is a tour de force: compelling, brilliant, and excitingly thought-provoking.”

Colin Jones, Queen Mary University of London

"The author shows tremendous erudition both in relation to the sources and to the relevant literature. The argumentation is impressively clear and the presentation is extremely legible."

Historische Zeitschrift (translated from German)

Table of Contents

I           How to Think about Rights in Early Modern Europe

1. Introduction
2. Tectonic Shifts and Tectonic Plates: Two Models for the Transformation of Culture
3. A Revolution in Natural Law? From Objective to Subjective Right (and Back Again)
4. Rights and Sovereignty: Beyond the State
5. Inalienability vs. the Alienation of Rights
6. Roman Law, the Lex Regia, and the Genealogy of Rights Regimes
7. Writing Intellectual History in a Digital Age

Part I: Early Modern Rights Regimes

II         When Did Rights Become “Rights”? From the Wars of Religion to the Dawn of Enlightenment

1. Monarchomachs and Tyrannicides: Natural Rights in the French Wars of Religion
2. English Liberties and Natural Rights: Leveller Arguments in the English Civil War
3. Abridging Natural Rights: Hobbes and the High Church Divines
4. Entrust, but Verify? The Transfer Regime from Spinoza to Locke5. Into the Enlightenment: “Cato” and Hutcheson

III        From Liberalism to Liberty: Natural Rights in the French Enlightenment

1. Sources for Natural Law Theory in France, 1700–1750
2. Physiocracy and the Dangerous Ignorance of Natural Rights
3. Natural Rights Talk in the Late Enlightenment: The Philosophes Carry the Torch
4. The (Meek) Conservative Reaction
5. Resisting Despotism: National Rights and Constitutionalism

Part II: Social Naturalism in Early Modern France

IV        The Laws of Nature in Neo-Stoicism and Science

1. The Many Receptions of Stoicism
2. Laws of the Natural World: The New Science

V         Roman Law and Order: From Free-Market Ideology to Abolitionism

1. The Jansenist Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Jean Domat, the Natural Order, and the Origins of Free-Market Ideology
2. “All Men Are Originally Born Free”: Slavery, Empathy, and the Extension of Human Rights
3. Conclusion

Part III: Rights and Revolutions

VI        Natural Constitutionalism and American Rights

1. Boston, Locke, and Natural Rights (1715–64)
2. Blackstone and English Common Law
3. Natural Rights and Revolution
4. Declaring Rights: From Natural Law Back to English Common Law

VII      From Nature to Nation: French Revolutionary Rights

1. Whose Rights Are They, Anyway? Rights Talk in the Cahiers de Doléances
2. Debating Rights at the National Assembly
3. The Legal Spirit of the French Declaration of Rights
4. The Revenge of National Rights
5. Conclusion

VIII     Conclusion: A Stand-in for the Universal Declaration: 1789–1948

1. The Catholic Church, Natural Law, and Human Rights
2. From National Constitutions to an International Declaration
3. The Archaeology of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights

Selected Bibliography

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