French Views of Slavery



The issue of slavery has been touched upon often in the course

of history. The institution of slavery was addressed by French

intellectuals during the Enlightenment. Later, during the French

Revolution, the National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights

of Man, which declared the equality of all men. Issues were raised

concerning the application of this statement to the French colonies in

the West Indies, which used slaves to work the land. As they had

different interests in mind, the philosophes, slave owners, and

political leaders took opposing views on the interpretation of

universal equality. Many of the philosophes, the leaders of the

Enlightenment, were against slavery. They held that all people had a

natural dignity that should be recognized. Voltaire, an 18th century

philosophe, pointed out that hundreds of thousands of slaves were

sacrificing their lives just so the Europeans could quell their new

taste for sugar, tea and cocoa. A similar view was taken by Rousseau,

who stated that he could not bear to watch his fellow human beings be

changed to beasts for the service of others. Religion entered into the

equation when Diderot, author of the Encyclopedia, brought up the fact

that the Christian religion was fundamentally opposed to Black slavery

but employed it anyway in order to work the plantations that financed

their countries. All in all, those influenced by the ideals of the

Enlightenment, equality, liberty, the right to dignity, tended to

oppose the idea of slavery. Differing from the philosophes, the

political leaders and property owners tended to see slavery as an

element that supported the economy. These people believed that if

slavery and the slave trade were to be abolished, the French would

lose their colonies, commerce would collapse and as a result the

merchant marine, agriculture and the arts would decline. Their worries

were somewhat merited; by 1792 French ships were delivering up to

38,000 slaves and this trade brought in 200 million livres a year.

These people had economic incentives to support slavery, however

others were simply ignorant. One man, Raynal, said that white

people were incapable of working in the hot sun and blacks were much

better suited to toil and labor in the intense heat. Having a similar

view to Raynal, one property owner stated that tearing the blacks from

the only homes they knew was actually humane. Though they had to work

without pay, this man said slave traders were doing the blacks a favor

by placing them in the French colonies where they could live without

fear for tomorrow. All of these people felt that the Declaration of

the Rights of Man did not pertain to black people or their

descendants. All people were not ignorant, however. There was even a

group of people who held surprisingly modern views on slavery; views

some people haven't even accepted today. In his Reflections on Black

People, Olympe de Gouges wondered why blacks were enslaved. He said

that the color of people's skin suggests only a slight difference. The

beauty of nature lies in the fact that all is varied. Another man,

Jacques Necker, told people that one day they would realize the error

of their ways and notice that all people have the same capacity to

think and suffer.

The slavery issue was a topic of debate among the people of

France. The views of the people, based on enlightenment, the welfare

of the country or plain ignorance were tossed around for several more

years until the issue was finally resolved. In the end the

philosophes, with their liberated ideas, won out and slavery was

abolished.