New Course in European History

History of Human Rights

In 2006 the president of the American Historical Association proclaimed, “We are all historians of human rights.” Exaggerated or not, this remark testifies to the fact that human rights have recently achieved new prominence as a focus of historical inquiry. Yet the boundaries and contents of this field remain remarkably ambiguous. What, exactly, does the history of human rights consist of? The history of an international political movement? Of international law? Of a philosophical tradition? Are human rights a radical twentieth-century invention in response to global war and genocide? Or an ancient idea that gradually developed in Western political thought? These are large questions with which contemporary historians have only recently begun to grapple. As a result, human rights history not only represents a new topic for historical study; it also illuminates the larger field of contemporary historical scholarship.


This seminar is designed to offer students a chance to survey the recent historical literature about the development of international human rights. The goal is to maintain an equal focus on the intellectual genealogy of present-day human rights discourse and the varieties of historical methodology employed in its study. We will proceed roughly chronologically from the eighteenth century to the present. Each week will also concentrate on a thematic case study involving a key subject or historiographical question. For purposes of focus and cohesion, we will center our reading on the growth of human rights as intellectual discourse and political practice in the Euro-American context, with selected references to international events and global history at times. At the same time, we will consistently refer to non-Western religious and culturalist perspectives on the rise of human rights and the question of moral universalisms as contingent projects. Students are encouraged to bring their own research specializations and linguistic skills to bear on the materials, particularly in terms of formulating their own essay topics.


We will special attention to topics such as the debates on the ties between modern ideas of human rights and international law, political revolution, and religious internationalism; the intertwined genealogies of human rights and humanitarianism; the rise of the human rights biography; and the place of the non-governmental organization in the history of human rights.


Two special features attend this course. First, the course will focus much of its work around a major international multidisciplinary conference to be held at the University of Virginia in the spring semester on the future of human rights scholarship. Second, the course is structured as a hybrid 4000-level and 5000-level seminar, with an enrollment divided between advanced history department majors and graduate students. There will be different requirements for these two cohorts as specified below.


The course will be conducted seminar-style, with students expected to come prepared to analyze assigned readings in depth, make classroom presentations of the readings, and prepare a final paper. Graduate students will prepare a 25-page, double-spaced essay. Undergraduate students will prepare a 20-25-page double-spaced essay.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
Department Contacts