Early-Modern Rights Regimes: A Genealogy of Revolutionary Rights

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Most histories of early-modern rights focus on particular concepts of rights: for instance, notions of subjective vs. objective right, or on the presence/absence of particular rights (e.g., self-preservation). But focusing on specific rights has led scholars to pay less attention to what happens to rights as a whole when individuals enter into a political state, and also to miss the fact that historical actors tended to think about rights within broader conceptual regimes. In this paper, I identify three major early-modern rights regimes: the abridgment regime, which emphasizes the abandonment or alienation of rights (e.g., Hobbes); the transfer regime, in which natural rights are transferred to the state, and can only be retrieved under specific conditions (e.g., Spinoza and Locke); and the preservation regime, which insists that we should be able to enjoy the individual exercise of our natural rights even under government (e.g., Jefferson). After laying out the historical origins and conceptual bases of these regimes, I sketch a brief history of their respective trajectories between the early sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries, focusing in particular on the rather curious and contingent reasons why the preservation regime shot to success after the 1760s.

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