This article surveys the wave of new historical and political-science literature exploring humanitarianism and the ‘pre-history’ of human rights in the long nineteenth century, noting the presentist assumptions underpinning much of this literature. On the one hand, histories of humanitarianism have focused on the origins of present-day humanitarian concerns, paying particular attention to the anti-slavery movement. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of this literature has explored Anglo-American (and usually Protestant) humanitarianism to the exclusion of the humanitarian campaigns and ideologies of other nations and faith traditions. A more properly historical approach is required, which would pay greater attention to the fusion of religious and secular traditions of activism, to the particular role of women in constituting these traditions, and to the different national contexts in which they bore fruit. Such an approach would also expand our understanding of ‘humanitarian’ activity to incorporate causes with less obvious present-day relevance, such as the temperance movement and Josephine Butler's campaign against the state regulation of prostitution. It would certainly prompt deeper reflection on the contingency of humanitarianism as a topic of historical inquiry, at least as currently constructed.
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