Monday, February 4, 2013

Davis reviews Pearson, "The Rights of the Defenseless"

H-SHGAPE has published a review of Susan J. Pearson, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago Press, 2011). We mentioned the book not too long ago because it won the  2012 Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians.

Reviewer Janet M. Davis describes the book as a "superb work of intellectual history," which "charts a clear genealogy for generations of social thought regarding children, animals, property, the family, and state formation." Here's a paragraph of the review that I found fascinating, dealing with Pearson's contribution to our understanding of the modern American state:
Pearson contends that nineteenth-century Americans may have clung to exceptionalist ideals of weak, limited government, but in practice, the Civil War marked a consolidation of federal authority that intensified during the Gilded Age. The activities of state and local governments reveal an even more dynamic landscape of "state interference" during this era, especially with respect to the shared movement to prevent cruelty to animals and children. Although animal and child protection organizations were private institutions, they helped transform the reach of the state through an ideological project that Pearson calls "sentimental liberalism." Vested with the powers of arrest in their state charters of incorporation, private SPCAs, SPCCs, and humane societies (which performed plural child and animal protection activities) fused the classical liberal language of rights with a sentimental conviction that "beasts and babes" had a right to protection because they could feel and suffer. According to Pearson, "Speaking the language of rights while amplifying the powers of the state, humane societies stood at the crossroads of what historians typically think of as two versions of liberalism--the one classical and minimalist, the other modern and interventionist" (p.16).
Read on here. (Hat tip: H-Law)