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"Humanitarianism" is the term retrospectively applied by historians to the benevolent reform movement that swept through western Europe, England, and North America after 1750. The term itself did not come into use until the middle of the nineteenth century, although by the late medieval period, "humanity" had become a synonym for compassion, the inclination to treat other human beings and even animals with kindness and to relieve their distress.


Both the philosophical bases of humanitarianism and its first applications can be traced to the late seventeenth century. Latitudinarians rejected Calvinist notions of innate depravity and Hobbesian ones of self-interest, instead arguing for an inherent impulse toward benevolence. The third earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) developed the notion of "natural affection." He also developed its negative corollary, writing that "to delight in the torture and pain of other creatures," whether "native or foreigners, of our own or another species, kindred or no kindred," was unnatural. Hence, to feel for the suffering of others defined one as human. The Scottish philosophers Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), David Hume (1711–1776), and Adam Smith (1723–1790) developed these ideas further. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the idea of irresistible compassion was so widely accepted that Smith could begin his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) with the proposition that "how selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others." Humanitarianism presumed that, as the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) put it, "Human nature is the same in all ages and countries." Hence, "all the differences we perceive … may be accounted for from climate, country, degrees of civilization, forms of government, or accidental causes" rather than fundamental depravity or innate differences. Sharing in the Enlightenment's optimism, humanitarians believed that both the environment and human beings were malleable. Indeed, the alleviation of suffering could serve as both cause and effect: a person who was treated kindly would in turn act with kindness. On the other hand, cruelty only begot more cruelty, while torture produced not truth but lies. As Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) argued in 1778 when proposing a new penal code for Virginia, "The experience of all ages and countries hath shewn that cruel and sanguinary laws defeat their own purpose." In the words of Pennsylvania's James Wilson (1742–1798), "A nation broke to cruel punishments becomes dastardly and contemptible."


Such principles easily entered the wider culture through magazines such as the Spectator, in England, and the New-England Courant, where Benjamin Franklin (1702–1790), using the pen name Silence Dogood, observed in 1722 that "from a natural Compassion to my Fellow-Creatures, I have sometimes been betray'd into Tears at the Sight of an Object of Charity." The effect of the new humanitarian sensibility can be seen as early as 1689 in the English Bill of Rights' prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments," although it took several decades more before humanitarian reform movements emerged. After the Revolution, Americans joined together in countless benevolent societies, many of which sought to alleviate suffering. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (1787) worked for penal reform, while the same city's Magdalen Society (1800) attempted to reinte-grate prostitutes into society. The New York Manumission Society, founded in 1785, opened a school for free black children two years later.

Humanitarian reform focused on those institutions or practices where the infliction of pain was particularly obvious: torture, flogging, and other physical punishments and modes of interrogation; capital punishment; and slavery. The humanitarian impulse can also be seen in the efforts to alleviate the suffering of the mentally and physically ill.

Punishment. In response to the new humanitarian ethos, both the Bill of Rights and many state constitutions banned "cruel and unusual punishment." Applying the arguments of Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) and the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), penal reformers argued that punishment must be proportionate to the crime. Post-Revolutionary revisions of state penal codes eliminated numerous physical punishments and reduced the number of capital crimes. Pennsylvania's Act Amending the Penal Laws (1786), for example, eliminated capital and corporal punishments for a host of crimes ranging from robbery to sodomy and horse theft, while reducing the maximum sentences for many noncapital offenses. Eight years later the state divided murder into two degrees, while other states defined as many as eight different degrees of homicide, effectively restricting capital punishment for those murderers who seemed wholly depraved. While some humanitarians, such as Thomas Jefferson, supported the death penalty for murder, others, such as Benjamin Rush, were beginning to advocate its elimination. The move to abolish capital punishment met with some success in the antebellum period. Pennsylvania eliminated public executions in 1834, and Michigan abolished the death penalty entirely in 1847, with Rhode Island following in 1852 and Wisconsin in 1853. Despite concerted efforts in other states, particularly New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio, the reform movement was turned back everywhere else.

Slavery. Reformers also turned their attention to slavery. As early as 1754, the Quaker John Wool-man worried about the effects of slavery on both slaves and their masters, "For while the Life of one is made grievous by the Rigour of another, it entails Misery on both." He argued both for the abolition of slavery and its amelioration where it existed, and these were the two approaches taken by humanitarians in the following decades. Their efforts were instrumental in achieving the abolition of slavery in states such as New York and eliminating some of the most horrific punishments for slave crimes, such as breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, and displaying the dismembered body parts of executed slaves. Historians debate whether slavery itself became milder after the Revolution; southerners liked to think that it did.

results of reform

Historians debate too the efficacy of humanitarian reform. Some argue that it merely hid forms of cruelty that once had been public, replacing public executions, for example, with private hangings and lengthy incarcerations. Others point to unintended and ironic consequences. An intense preoccupation with pain could produce its own kind of pornographic pleasure; it is no accident that the age of benevolence was also the age of the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814). And ameliorating slavery may have made it more tolerable, at least to slaveholders, whose consciences were eased. Finally, as the age of Enlightenment gave way to that of romanticism, some humanitarians may have derived more pleasure from feeling another's pain than actually alleviating it. When one considers, however, the abuses that the humanitarians struggled to correct, it is hard not to appreciate their achievements, imperfect though they may have been.

See alsoAbolition Societies; Antislavery; Capital Punishment; Corporal Punishment; Crime and Punishment; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Quakers; Reform, Social; Slavery: Slavery and the Founding Generation; Welfare and Chrity .


Fiering, Norman S. "Irresistible Compassion: An Aspect of Eighteenth-Century Sympathy and Humanitarianism." Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 195–218.

Halttunen, Karen. "Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture." Journal of American History 100 (1995): 303–334.

Haskell, Thomas L. "Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility." American Historical Review 90 (1985): 339–361, 547–566.

Jan Ellen Lewis

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