Jellinek and the Religion Foundations for the first Declaration of Human Rights

Anabelle Meier with Professor David Blight, Director of The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition invited visiting doctoral fellow Anabelle Meier to present her thesis and lecture on “George Jellinek and the Religion Foundations for the first Declaration of Human Rights.” Meier, who is a one-month fellow through the Visiting Assistant in Research program of the Yale Graduate School, is from South Bavaria, near Nuremberg, Germany, and is a PhD student at The Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg. Her visit continues the legacy of the GLC bringing in doctoral fellows from Germany every year for the past decade as part of the Bavarian American Academy program.

Meier began her lecture by thanking attendees, and clarifying that her lecture is a “work in progress” and that she appreciates criticism and commentaries. She explained that George Jellinek, the German public lawyer whose essay and other writing is the subject of Meier’s thesis, lived in Heidelberg, Germany among prestigious scholars such as Max Weber and wrote the book, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1895. Her review is based on the central issue of religion. She claims that Jellenik wrote with an apologetic approach, and that he had links to the 1848 revolution. She began by noting that Jellenik traced human rights back to the American Revolution, and that the French Revolution was not the first codification of human rights. Rather, the French declaration was modelled after American state constitutions like the Virginia Bill of Rights, which was seen by Jellenik as the first document to legally enact human rights. Meier clarified that there were originally objections from the French, but this view is now widely accepted in Europe. On the other hand, she said that the view that human rights originated with the American Revolution “remains challenged,” stating that the Virginia Bill of Rights was only the first formal declaration. Some trace the origin to medieval privileges, ancient philosophy and philosophical traditions. After giving this brief history, Meier clarified what her thesis seeks to do.

“In my opinion, they do not refute Jellinek’s thesis, they just refer to a different concept of human rights. So we have to be clear what human rights are in Jellinek’s view, which also reflects the current legal discussion in Germany,” she stated.

Meier emphasized that Jellenik was particularly interested in the legal enactment of values like freedom and equality and not the origins because he saw them as universal. “It is crucial to know the definition of human rights in order to review the thesis,” she continued. “To sum it up “Jellenik’s question is not, ‘Did the American Revolution invent the idea of human rights and the values of freedom and equality,’ but rather why did they legally enact them?”

Meier’s presentation continued with a discussion on habeas corpus’ roots in the Middle Ages, and its role alongside human rights as a safeguard of individuals against government. Religious freedom as well as disestablishment is a victory of Enlightenment over religious forces, and is anti-clerical and anti-religious. She argued that American literature supports Jellinek’s claims around the constitutional period, but that his claim is much broader, claiming the root of religious freedom can be traced by to the colonial period and the idea that  the individual choice matters in religion. Meier’s thesis transitioned to speaking about the individual conscience as a moral institution, and that freedom of conscience is an important factor in legal discourse, with religion rooted in individuals’ beliefs. She suggested that the concept of conscience increases the relevance of individual faith and is also a reference point which allows rights of the individual against government.

“One can certainly state there are religious origins of human rights,” Meier noted toward the end of her lecture.

Meier’s presentation was met with a round of applause, and a number of people had questions and comments. Overall, participants were surprised by the work of Jellenik, who Meier originally noted is not well known in the United States.

Written by Amanda Thomas, Saybrook 2021.