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The Rights of Dependents and the Wrongs of Cruelty: Animals, Children, and the Sympathetic State

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 40, Number 4, December 2012
pp. 617-622 | 10.1353/rah.2012.0114

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In 1874, when young Mary Ellen Wilson was removed from her home where she had been imprisoned and whipped, her protectors were agents of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Her rescue and the ensuing publicity led to the creation of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in New York. If readers today are surprised that the child protection movement emerged out of one for animals, the cultural linkages between the anticruelty movements made perfect sense to nineteenth-century Americans. Susan Pearson’s Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America insightfully explores the cultural, intellectual, and institutional overlap between the movements to protect children from moral and physical harm and to guard animals from cruelty and neglect. As Pearson notes, over 52 percent of anticruelty organizations in the United States in 1908 were “humane” organizations that protected both children and animals. Despite the practical difficulties of merging the two missions, the overlap made cultural sense to Americans, who saw the two groups as bound together in their suffering and helplessness. While scholars (in full disclosure, I am one of them) have shown a growing interest in the problem of cruelty, including cruelty to animals and cruelty to children, the important cultural and institutional overlap between the two anticruelty crusades has received little attention. (See, for example, James Turner, Reckoning With the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind, 1985; Daniel Baraz, Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, 2003; James Steintrager, Cruel Delight: Enlightenment Culture and the Inhuman, 2004; George Behlmer, Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870–1908, 1982; Diane Beers, For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States, 2006; and Margaret Abruzzo, Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 2011.) By tracing this overlap, Pearson substantially enriches our understanding of the history of cruelty. Just as crucially, Pearson demonstrates that, in the process of claiming protection for animals and children, activists helped transform the meanings of dependence, rights, and liberalism. Pearson’s book forces us to rethink our understanding of the grounding of modern rights, the relationship between sentimentalism and reform, and the rise of the regulatory state.

The pairing of animals and children, Pearson argues, made good cultural sense in nineteenth-century America. They shared a position of dependence and helplessness, but crucially, they also shared the sentimentalized role of “pets” in the family. Whereas previous generations stressed the economic value of children and animals as laborers, their new value in the “affective economy” (p. 22) of the nineteenth-century family lay in the role of pet, a cherished, playful, and innocent member of the family. Romanticism emphasized children’s innocence and closeness to nature, and Americans found children’s similarities to animals charming, not disturbing. (The point is made nicely by the book’s cover, which features a crawling toddler gazing up adoringly into the eyes of a protective dog, while a curious kitten peeps around the corner.) Americans emphasized that pet-keeping trained children in morality, especially by teaching gentleness. The same gentleness in parents and animal trainers would bring out the good tempers of both children and horses; trainers and parents shared techniques.

The concept of cruelty itself also linked animals and human beings. Reformers warned that cruelty, whether to animals or children, undermined both the progress of civilization and the well-being of society. The practice of tormenting animals destroyed morality, setting tormentors on a path that would eventually culminate in the worst crimes against human beings. Pearson does not stress it, but even insects benefited from this logic: children who tormented flies and worms risked losing their footing on a slippery slope toward murder. Inhumanity even toward animals rendered the tormentor almost inhuman and entirely uncivilized. The curious result was that some anticruelty activists proposed using whipping to punish the cruel.

Pearson’s book not only traces the overlapping histories of animal and child protectionism, but it also challenges our narratives about the postbellum professionalization of reform and its relationship to the state. Historians emphasize that, by the late nineteenth...

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