In 1877, the American Humane Association (“AHA”) incorporated as one of the first national organizations dedicated to the protection of animals. Nine years later, it amended its constitution to include the protection of children in its chartered mission. By 1908, there were 354 anticruelty organizations in the United States, 185 of which were, like the AHA, humane societies invested in the welfare of both animals and children (pp. 2–3). As primary source documents reveal, Gilded Age humanitarians viewed the joint pursuit of child and animal protection as entirely sensible (p. 5). One of the Illinois Humane Society’s founding directors, for example, professed that the “prevention of cruelty to children and to dumb beasts, are part and parcel of the same work . . . .” By midcentury, however, the logic informing Gilded Age anticruelty reform had been lost, and child welfare professionals began to criticize the mergence of child protection with animal protection as an illogical ordering of welfare priorities (p. 5). “It is a sad commentary,” wrote Dr. Vincent J. Fontana, founder of the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection in New York City, “that it took a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals to protect the first recorded case of a maltreated child.”
In The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America, Professor Susan J. Pearson sets herself the task of recovering the now-forgotten logic of anticruelty reform and the development of humane societies in Gilded Age America. Her resulting history demonstrates that the union of child and animal protection was “neither sad nor strange, but was instead tightly bound to the crosshatched threads of sentimentalism and liberalism” (p. 20). Specifically, Pearson argues that Gilded Age anticruelty reform was a “hybrid” movement—simultaneously derivative and constitutive of the American state. Drawing on anticruelty reform publications, popular literature, and histories of antebellum and postbellum America, she shows how the rhetorical and institutional innovations of anticruelty reform both shaped and were shaped by an ideology of what she terms “sentimental liberalism.” By “[s]peaking a language of sympathy while deploying legal power,” Pearson explains, “anticruelty reformers transformed not only sentimentalism, but also the reach and role of the state” (p. 13).