Racial Equality and the Abolition of Slavery in France

Racial Equality and the Abolition of Slavery in France

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Racial Equality and the Abolition of Slavery in France


When Abbé Sièyes wondered, "What is the Third Estate [or are slaves]? Nothing. What has it [have they] been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it [do they] want? To be become something…" (65), he could have just as easily spoken of slave's misery rather than the Third Estate's plight. While, his scope was limited, his pains were not. Following their first revolution, the French National Assembly helped to change the world. Enlightened, they saw, they defined, they tried to ease all of mankind's suffering. Finally, the term man began to transcend color. If man has rights, they must apply to all men. And thus, the concept of racial equality is born. I will argue in order to achieve this end, and to prove the necessity of racial equality, Enlightened thinkers exposed flaws in current social philosophy, demonstrated the logical conclusions of their progress, and finally addressed the implications of abolition.


Marquis de Condorcet was an outspoken advocate for all forms of human rights-religious, gender, political and especially racial. In his "Dedicatory Epistle to the Negro Slaves" he writes:

My Friends,
Although I am not the same color as you, I have always regarded you as my brothers. Nature formed us with the same spirit, the same reason, the same virtues as whites…Your tyrants will reproach me…indeed, nothing is more common than the maxims of humanity and justice… Reducing a man to slavery…[takes] from the slave not only all forms of property but also the ability to acquire it… (56).

Condorcet employs the technique of de/humanizing his subjects to display the arbitrary nature of slavery. Moderates, slaves, and whites-anyone could achieve slave status under these random means. Society needs to prevent subordination. The white Condorcet speaks almost in apostrophe; the style of his introduction greatly resembles an ode. Addressing the slaves in this manner gives even more deference to the lowly slaves. Similarly, the slaves have been elevated to "My Friends," further humanizing their cause. Although Condorcet was a well-respected member of the National Assembly, he relates to the slaves how "he is not one of the them." The ordered diction again serves to equate a white man to a slave. This segment's tone lacks both condescension and sarcasm. He nearly supplicates to the slaves for their quintessence. His friends-the blacks-are his brethren. If he shares spirit, virtues, and reasons with slaves, what is to distinguish them?

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Condorcet has simultaneously made himself equal to a slave and visa versa. Therefore, if he is to enjoy rights, his colored counterpart should as well. Condorcet is a man. Luckily for pro-abolitionists, according to The Declaration of Man and Citizen all "Men are born and remain free and equal" (78). This logic was far from irrefutable, and Enlightened thinkers realized their argument was flawed, for what is a man? To clarify any confusion, Abbé Raynal posits the principles of abolition more generally. To him "Liberty is the property of one's self" (52). One need not be a man, nor a citizen to enjoy liberty if he owns his life. This argument too is limited. By Raynal's words, liberty becomes a form of wealth, greatly dependant upon ownership. He who owns more possessions is richer, therefore one who controls more lives if more free. The ambiguity of man, life, and freedom are formidable opponents for the eighteenth century French populous.

The Declaration of Man And Citizen also holds "Property [is] an inviolable and sacred right"(79). If a man is owned, he is property. The right of property shall not be violated. Legally, how could they change the status of slaves? Why change the status of slaves, because "Social distinctions may be based…on common utility"(78)? French legislators curtailed their declaration of rights from nearly forty articles to seventeen. Despite the intense scrutiny these articles were under the phrase "may be based upon" seems to have slipped through. Who may decide about social distinctions? May they also not be? The question of supremacy between property and liberty is truly a double-edged sword. Swing either way, and all rights may be sliced. Abbé Sièyes argues for change, but laws must serve a "public good" (68). Therefore, abolition must aide society. If society has more men, more citizens will it be better? Previous thought held that more good men were better; more bad men are worse. This logic was soon shattered. Chained, bad men are of no good to society. Vincent Ogé the Younger manifests the immediate legal and social need for abolition. As a mulatto, he expresses the profound anger of his people. If action is not taken "quickly…we will see [our] blood flowing, our lands invaded, our wives, our children with their throats cut and bodies mutilated" for the slaves "will raise the standard of revolt" (104). Ogé plays the emotion card very well. With revolution's blood fresh on their hands and fresh in their minds, Frenchmen would never wish a similar fate upon themselves. The brutish slaves will go so far as to one up the French, disemboweling innocent women and children. They have the strength of men, if not their rights. In short, the French were liable to "lose everything" (104). How could any Enlightened person or property owner oppose such reasoning? One need not accept social equality, simply physical. Why enslave blacks in our fields if they were not strong? Clearly, they have the means to our end. While death may have hung in the balance for colonists, the same fate was true of the nascent French constitution. Article sixteen clearly states, "Any society in which the guarantee of rights is not assured…has no constitution" (79). Denying liberty to any would thus deny liberty to all. This overwhelming ramification grouped all citizens, or potential citizens in the pro-abolition school of thought.

The white community now has logical, collective abolitionist motives behind which they can unite. But what would come of slave-less life? Abbé Gregoire asks, "Will they [the freed slaves] be assimilated in every way to the whites? Will they have representatives" (105)? What will become of the beloved and profitable sugar colonies? Many Philosophes struggled with the pragmatic logistics of freeing legitimate capitol ventures. They were charged with predicting all future actions of an entirely unknown race. Some refuted logic and quickly sided with ethics. Abbé Raynal holds that society should "discard [of] a commerce which is founded on injustice" (54), regardless of its implications. To the Caribbean sugar farmer this would certainly not suffice. A heart truly needs a brain. The most effective arguments given by the pro-abolition Enlightened thinkers relate to deeply societal issues. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad writes, "He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither their love nor fear, nor even their respect" (Conrad, 98). Such is the slave-master relationship of the eighteenth century. Why toil for he who causes pain? Other philosophers held that Enlightened individuals, regardless to race, would better society. Rather than cavil over the status of freed blacks, the societal objective should be to teach them, and in turn they will give back. Brissot summarized these views by writing in order "to enlighten men…we should not limit…them to book or academics; we should untie their hands" (59). Ignorance breeds bad citizens.

Overall, French persons saw the perils of slavery. Something was rotten in the state of France, slavery. Remedying this wrong was the duty of all citizens, for they must protect the rights of every man, lest they have none themselves. No argument was off limits: fear, logic, even depravation. Their all-encompassing assault on slavery was without precedent historically, as was their success. In a time of high emotions, abolitionists upped the ante. They took from the rich and gave to the slaves. In the words of Chaumette: "today the alarm of eternal justice has sounded, the sacramental words have been pronounced by the organ of a powerful and good people: slavery is abolished" (118). Social arguments lack these qualities nowadays. We have no clear moral path to follow. Emotions do not boil at the same temperature. Regardless of social evolution, the ultimate conclusion remains the same: racial equality is necessary.



Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Signet Classics, 1997.

Hunt, Lynn, comp. The French Revolution and Human Rights. New York: Bedford Books, 1996.*

*Unless otherwise indicated all citations come from this text.
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