- The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America by Susan J. Pearson
In 1874, the New York chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals secured a writ authorizing them to remove a little girl, Mary Ellen Wilson, from her home on grounds of abuse. Charity worker Etta Wheeler had learned about the child’s plight, sought assistance from the police and local charities, and then turned to the ASPCA because they had legal authority to intervene directly—authority that the charities and even the police lacked. ASPCA agents removed the girl from her home, the courts convicted her guardian, and Mary Ellen was adopted and went on to lead a normal life. In the wake of Mary Ellen’s highly publicized rescue, anti-cruelty organizations proliferated, many of them humane or dual societies for both animals and children. The case became a pivotal event in the history of protection and social welfare, identified as the starting point of enlightened policies in contrast to a shocking past in which animals had more protection than children.
Susan J. Pearson’s fine book, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America, uses the Mary Ellen Wilson case as a starting point but argues that the case, however notorious, was not singular but representative of the emerging anti-cruelty movement in the Gilded Age. Pearson moves in and out of the Mary Ellen narrative, plumbing its complex institutional, cultural, legal, and political implications. The result is an intellectual and cultural history of the origins of the humane movement that embeds it in the emergence of the liberal state of the twentieth century. Classic liberalism associated rights with independent status and emphasized the need to protect the individual’s rights and freedom by restricting state power. Humane organizations believed that even though children and animals were dependent, they had the right to be protected from suffering and cruelty, and this right warranted state intervention on their behalf. Pearson argues that by separating the questions of rights from the question of status and reconciling protection with freedom and progress, the humane [End Page 534] movement played a critical role in the transition between classic liberalism and modern liberalism.
Pearson begins by tracing how the connection between animal and child protection was forged during the nineteenth century. Dual protection was often unwieldy in operation because the problems of animals and children were actually quite different. Cases involving animals tended to involve physical cruelty, whereas children’s cases typically involved problems of poverty rather than physical cruelty alone: neglect, abuse, abandonment, destitution, and exposure to immorality. “Far from being simply expedient, the institutional fusion of animals with children was dictated as much by a cultural as a practical logic” (p. 21). Reformers saw animals and children as both helpless and innocent, a rhetoric that drew on romantic, sentimental domesticity; new images of children as innately good; childrearing practices focused on inculcating kindness; and the growing importance of pet-keeping as a way of encouraging moral development. Both children and pets became “objects of sentimental, not economic value” within loving, moral families (p. 30). Cruelty towards either not only undercut family life but threatened society. Anti-cruelty rested on a theory of violence that posited a slippery slope leading from animal abuse to child abuse to social disorder to holding back American liberal progress.
Thus, anti-cruelty was about more than sympathy for the suffering; it was part of the unfolding of natural rights. Whereas traditional rights theory posited that rights began where dependence ended, “anti-cruelty reformers,” Pearson writes, “sought to reconcile dependence with rights” (p. 109). Adopting the rhetoric and symbols of abolitionism, they argued that rights were rooted in sentience and that sentience was the ability to experience pain and suffering and the capacity for affection. In this, she argues, reformers “relied on changing definitions of humanity that emphasized emotion rather than reason as the source of commonality...