Slavery, Humanitarianism, and the Enlightenment’s Political Animals

Lecture by Lynn Festa (Rutgers University).

The event is open to the public and part of a fall 2018 lecture series organized by Interventions. Research Network on Humanitarian Politics and Culture. Visit us on web  & Facebook.


Modern theories of humanitarianism and human rights typically take humanity for granted.  Humanitarianism responds to the enjoinder to alleviate suffering based on “the conviction that all people have equal dignity by virtue of their membership in humanity,” while human rights are said to issue “from the simple fact that man is man,” just by “virtue of being human.” Yet it was not always self-evident who would count as human in the eighteenth century— or even what humanity was.  Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in eighteenth-century discussions of Atlantic slavery.  This paper focuses on the complex invocation of the slave’s humanity in the 1772 Mansfield decision, celebrated (erroneously) as the case that freed all slaves in Britain and frequently heralded as a landmark in the history of human— and, more recently, animal— rights. I analyze how the ambivalent status of humanity both as a category and as the basis of rights compels anti-slavery advocates to seek footing on humanitarian rather than legal grounds.  What happens, I ask, when humanitarian sensibility spills beyond the threshold of the human, and what work does humanitarianism perform in consolidating— or undermining—claims to human rights in Enlightenment discussions of Atlantic slavery?

Lynn Festa

Lynn Festa is a specialist in eighteenth century British and French literature. She is the author of Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France (2006), in which she traces two developments central to modern life, which appear to have little to do with each other: colonialism and imperialism, and the culture of humanitarian sensibility. She is also the co-editor of The Postcolonial Enlightenment: Eighteenth-century Colonialism and Postcolonial Theory (2009). Her forthcoming book, Fiction Without Humanity: Person, Animal, Thing in Early Enlightenment Literature and Culture, will be out with the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2019. Drawing on an array of literary, scientific, artistic, and philosophical devices— the riddle, the fable, the microscope, the novel, and trompe l’oeil and still life painting— Fiction Without Humanity focuses on experiments with the perspectives of nonhuman creatures and inanimate thing to offer a literary history of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century efforts to define the human.