Samuel Moyn in The Nation:
A mere thirty-three years ago, on January 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter inaugurated his presidency by proclaiming from the Capitol steps, “Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere…. Our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” Most people had never heard of “human rights.” Except for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a couple of passing references, no president had really mentioned the concept, and it never had gained much traction around the world either. Carter's words sparked an intense debate at every level of government and society, and in political capitals across the Atlantic Ocean, about what it would entail to shape a foreign policy based on the principle of human rights.
The concept of rights, including natural rights, stretches back centuries, and “the rights of man” were a centerpiece of the age of democratic revolution. But those droits de l'homme et du citoyen meant something different from today's “human rights.” For most of modern history, rights have been part and parcel of battles over the meanings and entitlements of citizenship, and therefore have been dependent on national borders for their pursuit, achievement and protection. In the beginning, they were typically invoked by a people to found a nation-state of their own, not to police someone else's. They were a justification for state sovereignty, not a source of appeal to some authority—like international law—outside and above it.
In the United States, rights were also invoked to defend property, not simply to defend women, blacks and workers against discrimination and second-class citizenship. The New Deal assault on laissez-faire required an unstinting re-examination of the idea of natural rights, which had been closely associated with freedom of contract since the nineteenth century and routinely defended by the Supreme Court. By the 1970s, rights as a slogan for democratic revolution seemed less pressing, and few remembered the natural rights of property and contract that the New Deal had once been forced to challenge. Carter was free to invoke the concept of rights for purposes it had never before served. (Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called on future historians to “trace the internal discussions…that culminated in the striking words of the inaugural address.” No one, however, yet knows exactly how they got there.)