From Natural Law to Natural Rights

  • R. S. White


Some decades stand out as historical crucibles where ideas are forged, ferociously contested, and emerge over time as a paradigm, an orthodoxy. The struggle for and against such an idea can be observed in all aspects of philosophy, politics and culture. The 1790s in England were such a decade. Natural rights, evolving from natural law and later to become human rights, was just such an idea, and literature was one powerful forge where the idea was tested through the creative imagination and transferred to popular consciousness. Among the results were new and more egalitarian ways of thinking about society, far-reaching political reforms, and the birth of new forms of literature and the movement we call romanticism.


Eighteenth Century French Revolution Slave Trade Creative Imagination Romantic Movement 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    For a useful overview, see Human Rights, eds, J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman (New York and London: New York University Press, 1981), esp. Pennock, ‘Rights, Natural Rights, and Human Rights — A General View’.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 198.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Lloyd L. Weinreb, ‘Natural Law and Rights’, in Natural Law Theory, ed. Robert P. George (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 278–305, 280.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Peter Jones, Rights (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See, for example, Leo Strauss, Natural Rights and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    See, for example, Poisoning the Minds o f the Lower Orders by Don Herzog (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) and John Barrell, Imagining the Kings Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide 1793–1796 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Brendon Bradshaw, ‘Transalpine Humanism’, in J. H. Burns (ed.), The Cambridge History o f Political Thought 1450–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 106. I have silently reversed the order of clauses, to suit my own sequence.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Eighteenth-century untilitarianism meets unexpected agreement with Freudian psychiatry on the issue of a primal human motivation lying in self-interest and envy: see for example, John Forrester, ‘Psychoanalysis and the History of the Passions: The Strange Destiny of Envy’, in John O’Neill (ed.), Freud and the Passions (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 127–50.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Jonathan Bate, Shakespearean Constitutions: Politics, Theatre, Criticism 1730–1830 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 177. Bate’s book shows, however, how criticism and cartoons could politicise plays themselves and appropriate them for radical and populist causes.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Edward Royle and James Walvin in English Radicals and Reformers: 1760–1848 (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Paul O’Flinn, ’ “Beware of reverence”: writing and radicalism in the 1790s’, in Writing and Radicalism, ed. John Lucas (London and New York: Longman, 1996), 84–101.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832, General Editor Iain McCalman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2–3.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    See Gale MacLachlan and Ian Reid, Framing and Interpretation (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1994) for a systematic summary of ‘framing’ theory.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    See R. S. White, Natural Law in English Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    Richard A. McCabe, Incest, Drama and Natures Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    Michael J. Lacey and Knud Haakonssen, A Culture o f Rights: The Bill o f Rights in Philosophy, Politics, and Law — 1791 and 1991 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 28.Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    See Pina Ford, ‘Natural Law Context in Thomas More’s “Utopia” ’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Western Australia, 2001).Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    Quoted by William G. Craven, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1981), 33.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Norberto Bobbio, Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition, transl. Daniela Gobetti (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993; first publ. In Italian, 1989), 70.Google Scholar
  22. 34.
    Page references in the text are to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968).Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    See, for example, R. E. Ewin, Virtues and Rights: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), passim, which provides different interpretations of Hobbes’s version of natural law.Google Scholar
  24. 37.
    See Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 51–7.Google Scholar
  25. 39.
    The phrase is from Gregory Claeys, Thomas Paine: Social and Political Thought (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 11–12.Google Scholar
  26. 42.
    Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). Tuck speaks of a movement from passive rights (to have the right to be given or allowed something by someone else) to active rights (to have the right to do something oneself), but this does not seem very relevant to our period. See also Mclnerny who notes that ‘in the classical sense the right was an external relation to be established between persons on the basis of things’, so that the jus is the object of justice. However, ‘in the modern sense, right has become subjective, it attaches to the individual taken singly as an instantiation of human nature and amounts to a claim that he can make on the state or on others.’ ‘Natural Law and Natural Rights’, in Aquinas on Human Action (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1992), 213–14.Google Scholar
  27. 45.
    Dr Bemetzrieder, A New Code for Gentlemen; in which are Considered God and Man; Mans Natural Rights and Social Duties …; (London: J. Barfield, 1803).Google Scholar
  28. 46.
    Linda Kirk in Richard Cumberland and Natural Law: Secularisation of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). I feel justified in using Kirk’s paraphrases and quotations from Cumberland, since the original was in Latin. In dealing with such background figures as Cumberland, my book concentrates on ideas rather than niceties of translation.Google Scholar
  29. 48.
    John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Centwy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  30. 49.
    Ann Jessie van Sant, Eighteenth-century Sensibility and the Novel o f the Senses in Social Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  31. 51.
    Quoted in Peter Laslett’s edition of Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 109. I acknowledge that my views are broadly based on Laslett’s in his detailed Introduction, and that I use his edition.Google Scholar
  32. 52.
    For a thorough discussion of this contradiction, see Wayne Glausser, Locke and Blake: A Conversation across the Eighteenth Century (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1998), ch. 4, ‘Slavery’, 63–91.Google Scholar
  33. 53.
    Michael Meehan, Liberty and Poetics in Eighteenth Century England (London: Croom Helm, 1986).Google Scholar
  34. 54.
    G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Centwy Britain (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 105–19.Google Scholar
  35. 55.
    For the key documents, see especially Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, ed. David Wootton (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986).Google Scholar
  36. 56.
    Michael Durey, Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 12–13.Google Scholar
  37. 57.
    Ibid., 13.Google Scholar
  38. 58.
    D. D. Raphael, ‘Enlightenment and Revolution’, Enlightenment, Rights and Revolution: Essays in Legal and Social Philosophy (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1989), 11. For the most recent and detailed account of the great changes undergoing England in the Commonwealth period, see David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  39. 59.
    See, for example, G. D. H. Cole and Raymond Postgate, The Common People: 1746–1946 (London: Methuen & Co, fourth edn, 1949), Ch. VII.Google Scholar
  40. 61.
    Quoted in Carl B. Cone, Torchbearer of Freedom: The Influence of Richard Price on Eighteenth Centwy Thought (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1952), 183.Google Scholar
  41. 62.
    A. Goodwin, ‘The political genesis of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on The Revolution in France’ (Manchester: The John Rylands Library, 1968), 355.Google Scholar
  42. 64.
    E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Merlin Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  43. 65.
    Sir William Holdsworth, A History of English Law in 14 vols, ed. A. L. Goodhart and H. G. Hanbury (London: Methuen, 1952), esp. vols XII and XIII.Google Scholar
  44. 67.
    Alan Harding, A Social History o f English Law (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966).Google Scholar
  45. 68.
    For an account of law in the early eighteenth century, which stayed in place at least until the 1790s, see Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty? England 1689–1727 (The New Oxford History of England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), ch. 14.Google Scholar
  46. 71.
    See Edmund Blunden, Keatss Publisher (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936) and Tim Chilcott, A Publisher and His Circle, the Life and Work of John Taylor, Keatss Publisher (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).Google Scholar
  47. 72.
    The most recent book on Johnson is by Helen Braithwaite, Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Before that, the standard biography was by Gerald P. Tyson, Joseph Johnson: A Liberal Publisher (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979). Tyson also published an article on Johnson in the 1975 issue of Studies in Bibliography and the relevant entry in vol.1 of the Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals. Claire Tomalin published a piece in the Times Literary Supplement of 2 December 1994, Leslie Chard published an article in The Library (1977) and there is also a biographical article by Carol Hall in The British Literary Book Trade 1700–1820, vol. 154 of The Dictionary o f National Biography, ed. James K. Bracken and Joel Silver (Detroit, Washington, DC and London: Gale Research Incorporated, 1995), 159–64. See also Carol Hall’s Blake and Fuseli: A Study in the Transmission of ldeas (New York and London: Garland, 1985). I am grateful to Ian Gadd of the New Dictionary of National Biography project, and Carol Hall, for leading me to these references.Google Scholar
  48. 73.
    Leslie Chard, ‘Joseph Johnson: Father of the Book Trade’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 78 (1975), 51–82. For another appreciation of Johnson written by Leslie Chard, see ‘Bookseller to Publisher: Joseph Johnson and the English Book Trade, 1760–1810’, Library, fifth series, 32 (1977), 138–54.Google Scholar
  49. 74.
    Quoted by Claire Tomalin in Mary Wollstonecraft (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 92.Google Scholar
  50. 76.
    Robert N. Essick, ‘William Blake, Thomas Paine, and Biblical Revolution’, Studies in Romanticism, 30 (Summer 1991), 189–212, 201.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© R. S. White 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. S. White

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations