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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 



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