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In objects: humanists and civil liberties

Motivated by a philosophy emphasising human freedom and responsibility, it is no surprise that humanists have often been at the forefront of efforts to achieve and defend civil liberties and human rights. This has ranged from influential expressions of the meaning (and limits) of liberty, to organised campaigning for freedom, and against oppression, throughout the UK and across the world.

Some of these stories can be told using items from the History of Humanism in 100 Objects, highlighting the range of humanist action for civil liberties in the UK.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859

The right to liberty and freedom

On Liberty (1859)

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was a philosophical essay exploring the idea of civil liberty: ‘the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual’. In it, Mill applied the philosophy of utilitarianism (what is right being what produces the greatest good for the greatest number) to the relationship between the individual and the state. It was in On Liberty that Mill expressed a belief central to the humanist approach today, arguing that:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way… The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.

Badge of the National Council of Civil Liberties, 1960s

National Council for Civil Liberties badge (1960s)

The National Council for Civil Liberties was founded in 1934 by Ronald Kidd and Sylvia Scaffardi, both consummate humanists in outlook and deed. Not only does the badge serve as a reminder of the many humanist activists and organisers behind these organisations, but of the physical wearing and enactment of the values they stood for by thousands of people who participated in these efforts – motivated by a commitment to safeguarding human rights and civil liberties.

A previous and short-lived iteration of an organisation of the same name had involved J.A. Hobson, who was also an early President of the Union of Ethical Societies (now Humanists UK). Humanists played leading roles in the formation of the major organisations for civil liberty in England, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland: Ronald Kidd and Sylvia Scaffardi in the NCCL; John D. Stewart in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA); and Owen Sheehy-Skeffington and Kader Asmal in the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

Statue of Aneurin Bevan, Cardiff © Stephen McKay CC BY-SA 2.0

The right to life

Robert Thomas’ Statue of Nye Bevan (1987)

Robert Thomas was a Welsh sculptor, described by obituarist Meic Stephens as ‘staunchly humanist’ and ‘attracted as a sculptor to subjects whom he revered for their humanitarian ideals’. This statue commemorates one of Wales’ most famous humanists and beloved sons: NHS founder Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan. Born in Tredegar in 1897, Bevan left school at 13 and began working in the coal mines. Active in the mineworkers’ union, he was elected MP for Tredegar (later Ebbw Vale) in 1929. As Minister of Health following the ravages of the Second World War, he was a driving force in the creation of the National Health Service and the realisation of the welfare state.

Shootings at Dawn: the army death penalty at work by Ernest Thurtle

The right to freedom from torture and inhuman treatment

Shootings at Dawn (1924)

Humanist and politician Ernest Thurtle was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of the death penalty for cowardice or desertion in the British Army, arguing for change on the basis of rational examination of the facts and the exercise of compassion. Thurtle first introduced a measure for abolition in 1924, which became Labour Party policy in 1925 and was approved by the House of Commons in 1930. Thurtle’s Shootings at Dawn: the army death penalty at work presented a collection of letters depicting the realities of capital punishment within the armed forces, seeking to bring the brutal reality before the general public and galvanise support for abolition.

Thurtle’s ultimately successful campaign in abolishing the army’s death penalty was one part of wider, longstanding efforts by humanists for the abolition of capital punishment. Individuals like Henry S. Salt and Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, and organisations such as the Humanitarian League, actively campaigned for the end of the death penalty. The Ethical Union (now Humanists UK) was affiliated to the Howard League, which adopted abolition of the death penalty as one of its key priorities in 1923, two years after the League’s formation.

In the 1960s, Sydney Silverman, a secularist, Labour MP, and leading campaigner for abolition of the death penalty, was instrumental in bringing about reform. In 1965, he introduced a Private Member’s Bill to suspend the death penalty for murder; a Bill sponsored in the House of Lords by humanist Barbara Wootton. The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 suspended the death penalty for murder in Great Britain (but not in Northern Ireland) for a period of five years, and was made permanent in 1969. In 1998, the UK formally abolished the death penalty for all crimes, as part of the Human Rights Act.

Warrant for the arrest of pioneering humanist George Jacob Holyoake on charges of blasphemy, for suggesting the deity should be put on half-pay, 1842

Freedom of speech and peaceful protest

G.J. Holyoake’s arrest warrant (1842)

The arrest of George Jacob Holyoake on charges of blasphemy in 1842 was a defining moment in his own life, and in that of a movement. It was to be one of the catalytic events for Holyoake’s wholehearted embrace of atheism, which in turn led to his coining of ‘secularism’ as a positive philosophy synonymous with humanism today. The words of the warrant, held today at the Bishopsgate Institute, evidence the acute horror with which statements deemed blasphemous were met by authorities, and the outrage that reports of these statements were designed to evince.

This particular warrant also serves as a reminder of the many others like it issued by authorities against humanists throughout history – decried as heretics or charged as blasphemers for daring to question the truth of religion or the tenets of the Church. Many, including Richard Carlile, Robert Wedderburn, Matilda Roalfe, and Susannah Wright (below) published their courtroom defences, standing firmly for the freedom of both speech and belief.

Knitted sampler (1820s)

This ‘sampler’, held today by the People’s History Museum, commemorates the massacre at St Peter’s Field’s, Manchester, which came to be known as Peterloo. On 16 August 1819, during a large meeting of radical reformers who had gathered to hear calls for parliamentary reform, soldiers charged in to arrest the speaker, Henry Hunt. In the chaos that ensued, at least eleven people were killed and over 400 more wounded – many of them women. It was a pivotal moment for reformers throughout the country, particularly those of the working class, galvanising many in their efforts for greater equality and enfranchisement. Among them were many whose challenge to those in power also included a scepticism of religion. Radical publisher Richard Carlile, for example, was accelerated in his activism by the events at Peterloo. He had been present and set to speak, and in the aftermath immediately set about publishing his account, which authorities attempted to suppress.

Samplers, traditionally embroidered fabric panels, generally featured a religious quote or message. For this reason, this example is particularly unusual. It speaks to the wide and catalysing impact of Peterloo on men and women across the country – including those who fought for church and state separation – and its long legacy for reformers in the decades following 1819.

An analogy for truth, used by Susannah Wright at her trial for blasphemy. Truth, she argued, had ‘all the properties of a diamond’: ‘The more you examine it, the more brilliant it appears’.

Freedom of religion or belief

Susannah Wright’s diamond (1822)

In her self-penned defence against charges of blasphemy, Nottingham born lace worker and freethinker Susannah Wright used a diamond as a metaphor for truth, and the irrationality of attempting to conceal or destroy it. In a powerful statement of the right to freely question and discuss, during a period of intense suppression by government, Wright firmly defends the principles of freedom of speech and belief. Of her right to question the Christian religion she said:

If it be founded in truth I wish to get at it, to know it, and to have a firm faith and belief in it, to have it exposed to all the attacks and scrutinies of free discussion that there may be no longer doubt remaining about it… but whilst I see those who are well paid for it, interested only in supporting it by the strong arm of power and brute force, I am reluctantly compelled to doubt its truth, I am an infidel to it from a disagreeable necessity which I wish to see removed.

PEN Certificate of Membership, Dora Winifred Russell Papers, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

The right to freedom of expression

PEN Membership Certificate (1972)

PEN (originally an acronym for ‘Poets, Essayists, Novelists’) was formed in London in 1921 in the wake of the First World War. Its founder, Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott, sought to bring writers together for discussion and fellowship, and its first President, novelist John Galsworthy, described its potential as a ‘League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters’. Over the following years, PEN quickly became an international movement – with groups established throughout the world. It was to become closely associated with the championing of press freedom. Its members campaigned against Nazi book-burnings, and intervened in cases of authors imprisoned for their works. In 1967, PEN (under the Presidency of Arthur Miller) successfully appealed to Nigeria on behalf of Wole Soyinka, who was slated for execution by the country’s leader. Soyinka went on to become a Nobel Prize winning writer of international renown, and is today a Patron of Humanists UK.

Over the years, a huge number of humanists have been involved with PEN, demonstrative of the humanist commitment to freedom of expression and of belief. These have included a number of PEN Presidents, notably Storm Jameson (PEN’s first female President), and E.M. Forster. The membership certificate of Dora Russell, a tireless humanist activist for human rights the world over, is shown here. The special collections at UCL also hold the PEN membership cards of humanist thinker George Orwell, for the years 1949-1950, during which period Orwell wrote – in ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ – one of his most unequivocally humanist sentiments: ‘Man is the measure of all things, and… our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.’

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