In 1877, the American Humane Society was formed as the national organization for animal and child protection. Thirty years later, there were 354 anticruelty organizations chartered in the United States, nearly 200 of which were similarly invested in the welfare of both humans and animals. In The Rights of the Defenseless, Susan J. Pearson seeks to understand the institutional, cultural, legal, and political significance of the perceived bond between these two kinds of helpless creatures, and the attempts made to protect them.
Unlike many of today’s humane organizations, those Pearson follows were delegated police powers to make arrests and bring cases of cruelty to animals and children before local magistrates. Those whom they prosecuted were subject to fines, jail time, and the removal of either animal or child from their possession. Pearson explores the limits of and motivation behind this power and argues that while these reformers claimed nothing more than sympathy with the helpless and a desire to protect their rights, they turned “cruelty” into a social problem, stretched government resources, and expanded the state through private associations. The first book to explore these dual organizations and their storied history, The Rights of the Defenseless will appeal broadly to reform-minded historians and social theorists alike.
“Deftly weaving together analysis and example, The Rights of the Defenseless is an insightful study that will make a significant contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century reform, the relationship between politics and literature, and the changing meaning of rights in American political discourse. This is a persuasive and compelling work of scholarship.”
“Rights of the Defenseless is an original and insightful work that richly explores rights talk, sentimental culture, and law enforcement in postbellum America. Susan Pearson considers these crucial themes through a most novel topic: how humane societies linked the suffering of animals and children in order to claim the mantle of antislavery reform. Extensive research grounds the vivid elucidation of the relationship between public power and private reform. Rights of the Defenseless is a powerful intervention into scholarly analysis of rights beliefs.”
“The Rights of the Defenseless is much more than an examination of the development of specific policies by humane societies, more than a case study of the emergence of Progressive era reform as it applied to the protection of children and animals. Rather, Susan Pearson uses the very specific concern with these two forms of dependency to explore the definition of rights in liberal discourse; the boundary between person and animal in modern thought and practice; the symbolic configuration of self and society in nineteenth-century political culture; the emergence of a modern mode of linking feeling to reason to action. I do not think it is too much to say that this book will redefine the understanding of the humanitarian sensibility and its place in modern American culture. This is history as an act of the moral imagination in the very best sense.”
“This insightful examination of private charities being endowed with public power brings a new dimension to the relationship between agencies and governmental protections. . . . This work provides a unique perspective of animal rescue and child saving by linking them to the larger ideas of pet keeping, childhood sacredness, and domestic ideology.”